Collections of child aid questioned

Lockheed IMS defends performance in state's program

Contact extension sought

Lower-paid staff part of problem, ex-employees say

January 10, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

When a private company took over the state's child support enforcement program in Baltimore in November 1996, it promised a sharp rise in collections and better service for everybody who deals with the system.

Now, Lockheed Martin IMS faces a $407,845 penalty, for failing to meet its collection goals, along with complaints that problems with child support enforcement are worse than ever.

The problems come as Lockheed Martin IMS is trying to persuade Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the state legislature to grant a one-year extension of its three-year contract.

Its parent company, Bethesda-based defense contractor Lockheed Martin, is among the corporate sponsors of Glendening's Jan. 20 inaugural ball, paying $10,000 for a table.

Lockheed Martin IMS Vice President Audrey Rowe said the state, not Lockheed, is to blame for many of the problems.

"I think we have done a good job of making the Baltimore City operation a better operation in spite of all the hurdles that have been thrown at us from day one," said Rowe.

The Teaneck, N.J., company is getting more money to more children more efficiently than the state did, she said.

But dozens of parents who depend on child support, those who pay it and current and former Lockheed workers say the system is far from efficient.

Among the problems they point to:

Staff cuts by Lockheed have strained operations. Of 330 state workers who transferred to Lockheed, 170 remain as part of a staff that numbers 220. Current and former staffers say longtime staff members often are replaced with lower-paid "welfare-to-work" employees who are poorly trained and have no experience dealing with difficult problems that arise in child support cases.

Parents who depend on child support say Lockheed is often slow in getting checks to them.

"It's a constant problem," said Catherine T. Crook, a hospital secretary who relies on child support to pay household bills. "To me, it's like a paycheck. Imagine if your paycheck wasn't there every week."

Clients with complaints frequently get busy signals when they call, are put on hold for long periods and, if they do speak with someone, often find that the person is unable to solve their problem.

"Lockheed is very, very frustrating to a lot of people," said Rachmiel Tobesman, state president of Fathers United, an advocacy group for noncustodial parents. "You can never get hold of anyone to deal with issues."

The company, paid about 20 cents for each dollar it collects, focuses on getting more money in. Cases requiring attention "drop into a black hole" unless the people affected by them get a political official to intervene, said Cecilia White Matthews, a former supervisor with the state who resigned from Lockheed in October.

"Most people don't know to take it to the next level," she said. "They get frustrated and give up. The quiet customers stay at the bottom of the pile."

Rowe, the Lockheed vice president, said those problems are exaggerated by opponents of privatization and disgruntled former public employees who could not adjust to the private company's higher performance expectations.

"What gets me frustrated is, we're doing a damn good job in this city," Rowe said. "Those out to destroy public-private partnerships throw up a small number of cases and try to say we're not doing it right."

She said many problems stem from a conversion in March to a new state computer system. With 126,807 accounts to transfer -- Baltimore has about 40 percent of child support cases in Maryland -- the conversion was a huge task, disrupting operations and sometimes preventing timely payments.

By late April, $3.1 million remained undistributed. Rowe said the backlog has been whittled to less than $725,000. (The company earns no interest on the money.)

State officials say state-run offices have had similar problems with the computer conversion. Clifford P. Layman, who heads the state Department of Human Resources' child support enforcement division, said the state-run enforcement offices are not having as much trouble as Lockheed is.

"The problems are in their system right now, as far as I'm concerned," Layman said, attributing most problems to the network linking Lockheed's offices and the state's mainframe computer.

Crook, the hospital secretary, said that as Thanksgiving approached, she needed money, not excuses. Unable to give Crook her check, Lockheed gave her a $25 gift certificate for a local supermarket.

Other mothers have related similar problems. "It's never been a smooth ride, but the problems really escalated when Lockheed Martin took over collections," said Kathleen Kunziman. She said the company mishandled her case and cost her $1,800.

Some fathers paying child support are also frustrated.

`A no-win situation'

Dominic J. Bonomo got a call in May from an attorney telling him that his child's mother had received no payments since his monthly support was increased by the courts Feb. 1.

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