Computer delays put child-support money at risk Maryland system is five years behind schedule, still not ready

October 19, 1997|By Sunny Kaplan | Sunny Kaplan,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- A statewide computer system to track Maryland child-support payments - ordered by the federal government a decade ago to help find dead-beat parents - is five years behind schedule and still not ready.

And now Maryland is one of a handful of states to miss an Oct. 1 federal deadline, which could mean losing up to $229 million in federal funds next year, government officials said.

Maryland officials predict the system will be finished by March after Baltimore goes online, but it is unclear whether the state will lose federal funding before then.

The long delay is attributable largely to problems with the original contractor, state officials said.

SHL Systemhouse, a Canadian company with offices in Columbia, was hired by the Maryland Human Resources Department in 1988 to install the computer system by September 1992.

But in July 1992, Systemhouse pushed the completion date back nearly two years.

In 1994, the company was fired after a state legislative audit that criticized Systemhouse for failing to meet the original deadline and the Human Resources Department for failure to properly oversee the project.

Systemhouse later sued the state over the firing and wound up receiving most of the original $35 million called for in the contract.

Systemhouse is now part of MCI. MCI Systemhouse spokesman Tim Grace declined to comment, saying current company officials are unaware of the contract's history.

Andersen Consulting, based in Washington, and Syscom Inc. in Baltimore are the current contractors. The state has paid Andersen $1.5 million and Syscom $9.6 million to date.

Over the past 18 months, tracking systems have been set up in Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

"For the first time in a significant period of time, we have been able to achieve milestones with a good deal of success," said project director Jack Pepper of the Human Resources Department.

Problems with contractors was reported by states to be the most common obstacle in setting up the new systems, according to a survey by the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support. The advocacy group found that 23 states had to use more than one contractor.

"In most states, contractors underestimated the complexity of the development and overestimated their own capabilities," said Robert Williams, president of Policy Studies, a technology and consulting firm specializing in child support enforcement.

State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, said another part of the problem is that when awarding a state contract to the lowest bidder, "we have not been able to always hire the right people."

Baltimore City is the last Maryland jurisdiction to join the system. Training is still required for 2,800 employees, and 20 more work sites need to be equipped and online, said Keith Snipes, spokesman for the Human Resources Department.

"We are talking about an awesome task," he said.

Baltimore City, which has half of the state's caseload, ranks lowest of all 24 jurisdictions in Maryland on child-support payment.

Baltimore children received payments in only 16.2 percent of the 120,034 court-ordered child support cases last year, according to the state Child Support Enforcement Administration.

Prince George's County has the second most child-support cases, but receives at least partial payment on more than half of them.

Snipes said Maryland has increased its child-support collections from $297 million in fiscal 1996 to $317 million in fiscal 1997, the highest amount ever.

"The child-support program in Maryland is making tremendous strides," said Clifford Layman, executive director of the state Child Support Enforcement Administration. "We have increased collections over the past two years by 19 percent," he said. "We are consistently ranked in the top 10, and we perform on average better than the rest of the states."

Jann Jackson, executive director for Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore, agreed that Maryland does "a lot better" than many other states, but noted that two-thirds of child-support cases still receive no money.

"As a child advocate, I say two-thirds not paying is terrible," Jackson said.

It remains unclear whether Maryland will lose federal funds because of the missed deadline.

Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes signed a letter with 16 Senate colleagues last week urging President Clinton and legislative leaders to support a six-month delay on penalties for states that will miss the deadline.

But Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Florida Republican who is chairman of the House subcommittee that handles child support, urged the president not to extend the deadline.

He proposes that Health and Human Resources Secretary Donna E. Shalala be given the flexibility to impose fines of up to 20 percent of the states' child-support money, depending on the severity of the failure.

Child-support cases

The following chart details by county the court-ordered child-support cases in Maryland last year.

Jurisdiction -- Baltimore City

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