Welfare computer woes grow

March 12, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Troubles with a new state computer system that pays child-support checks and determines welfare eligibility will cost taxpayers millions of dollars over the next few years -- with no quick fix in sight.

During nine years of development, Maryland's federally required Client Information System (CIS) has become a money pit, critics say. The Department of Human Resources (DHR) -- which terminated the computer developer's contract amid a stream of problems -- has committed more than $100 million through 1999 to build and operate a system originally expected to cost about $60 million.

Some children whose fathers have paid support promptly for years don't receive their checks on time. Prosecutors complain that referrals of some support cases have been delayed; others have been hurt by inaccurate accounting. Some families have received full welfare and child-support checks by mistake.

Jane Lynn's February child-support check arrived in her maiden name -- for half the normal amount and 20 days after her child's payment had been received.

"It used to take two days for me to get that check," said Ms. Lynn, who lives in Germantown. "You count on this money. It's hard even if you're making decent money -- it doesn't stretch but so far."

Glitches and delays were so bad in Montgomery County, the first large county to go on-line Feb. 6, that workers had to go back to the county's old system last week. Now, social services workers fear, the problems will spread to Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, all scheduled to join the system by October.

Maryland officials say the problems will be fixed, and note that other states have had similar troubles. They blame much of the rising cost on state welfare reform, problems with the original contractor and the unwillingness of some county workers to embrace new technology. And, they say, the system's features have been upgraded -- from a "Chevette . . . to a Taurus wagon with an air bag" in the words of DHR spokeswoman Helen C. Szablya.

Others are less forgiving.

"This thing has been screwed up from the word go," said state Sen. John A. Cade, an Anne Arundel County Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee that reviews DHR's budget. "It seems like we've invested tens of millions in system design . . . only to fail. It's time to sit down and decide what's realistic."

Information sharing

The problem-plagued computer has two main systems that, while separate, are supposed to share information. One database holds information about clients on public assistance and other benefit programs; a child-support arm generates support checks, keeps track of what parents owe and helps find those who don't pay.

Sharing information is important because collecting child support is one of the best hopes for cutting welfare rolls across the nation. Now, the state collects only about a third of the support owed Maryland children in its more than 300,000 cases. Many single mothers whose former partners don't pay are forced onto welfare to care for their children.

But in Ms. Lynn's case, the system apparently pulled her maiden name out of CIS's public-assistance database, from an old case she had, and transposed it to her child-support case, said Norris E. Sheppard, the Montgomery County child-support director. That had happened in several other instances, he added.

Geneva Coleman of Silver Spring also has had problems. Missing two "bonus checks" -- the amount of support she gets after the state is reimbursed for her public assistance -- meant that spring suits she wanted to buy for her 19-month-old son stayed on layaway longer.

"I don't understand how they can switch over like this without something else to fall back on," she said.

Mr. Sheppard agreed: "They are pushing an inferior, substandard system on us."

Because of computer problems, he said, only half the usual number of checks were sent out in February. One of every four child-support dollars in the county had been falling into one of several escrow accounts that workers combed for the money while families waited.

In response to complaints, state officials said last week that they would pay checks on a backup system until glitches are fixed.

Those officials maintain that Montgomery County's problems stem largely from child-support data that was not well-maintained by the county. Mr. Sheppard countered by pointing to a plaque recognizing the department for having the best rate of collection per dollar spent.

Tests of the conversion process in Baltimore County -- scheduled to join next, in April -- also turned up inaccuracies, though state officials again blame them on the way the county keeps its data.

Other counties have had problems, too. In St. Mary's County, notices to nonpaying parents are taking six times as long to go out, because the system requires workers to put in more information about cases and do more follow-up, said Betsy Fritz, a legal assistant in the child-support unit of the prosecutor's office.

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