Despite '96 law, collecting child support can be tough

Staying Ahead

June 15, 1998|By Jane Bryant Quinn | Jane Bryant Quinn,Washington Post Writers Group

COLLECTING child support from an unwilling parent is like trying to catch a fly barehanded. The welfare reform law of 1996 included some tough new provisions. But it can take a long time for the states to put them into action.

Exhibit A is what happened when Congress ordered the states to install better computer systems to keep track of child-support cases and help nail missing parents.

That was in 1988. The federal government was covering most of the cost.

Today -- 10 years and nearly $3 billion later -- what's the result? Only 28 states have systems certified by the U.S. government as complying with the law. Another seven say they're ready for certification.

The remaining 15 states missed the deadline, even though Congress extended it from 1995 to 1997.

About half the custodial parents who are due child support are getting full payment, according to census data. The state offices of child support work with people who aren't getting what they should. Of these state-assisted cases, only 19 percent receive anything at all.

Of the states without good computer systems, five (plus Washington, D.C.) collect below-average amounts of child support.

Alaska collects money on behalf of just 18 percent of the children on its rolls; California, 17 percent; Michigan, 16 percent; Illinois and Indiana, a dismal 12 percent; and Washington, D.C., a pathetic 10 percent, according to preliminary data for 1996 from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE).

The other states whose enhanced computer systems aren't yet fully online: Hawaii, Kansas, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. They're collecting more than the national average but could be doing more.

In some of these states, the computer systems are close to operational. In others, they're still years away.

Under current law, the 15 states that missed the deadline can lose federal welfare funds and funds for running their child-support operations. That punishment is so harsh, however, that the Clinton administration hasn't wanted to invoke it.

Bills passed by both the House and Senate would lower the penalty to something more likely to be imposed.

Some of these laggard states blame the federal government for their woes. For one thing, OCSE didn't publish the final regulations until 1993.

"Few people understand the complexity of this," complains Dean Schott, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Public Aid.

That may be true. But other states -- including big ones like New York and Texas -- got their computer systems going. Illinois expects to be operational this summer.

California, by contrast, may be years away from complying with the law. It bought a $50 million system from Lockheed Martin IMS, which proved to be inaccurate and unreliable, says Gerri Magers, head of California Child Support Automation in Sacramento. The parties are headed for court. California now wants to build something different.

Thanks in part to automation, average state collection levels in the 1990s have been higher than in the 1980s, according to OCSE reports. In Virginia, for example, the computers can now check driver's licenses for the names of missing parents, as well as a state list of people who have been newly hired.

Still, the national level of collections isn't impressive. The self-employed parent is a tough nut to crack. So is the out-of-state parent.

To help with out-of-staters, the 1996 welfare reform law mandated a national directory of new hires.

Employers are supposed to send the names of all newly hired employees to the state child-support enforcement agencies, which forward them to a national center. By the end of the year, state agencies should be notified automatically if one of their missing parents turns up.

If you're not getting child support, call your state's Office of Child Support Enforcement, in the state capital. It's supposed to help you collect on court orders for support. If you have no court order, the state can try to get you one, although that process is often slow.

The state can also seek an order for medical support from a parent who has employee health insurance that could cover his or her kids.

For more information, here are two handbooks that can help: "How to Collect Child Support," $9.39 from the nonprofit Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, 2260 Upton Ave., Toledo, Ohio 43606.

"Handbook on Child Support Enforcement," free from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, 370 L'Enfant Promenade SW, Washington, D.C. 20447.

Pub Date: 6/15/98

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