Child-support collectors win praise for improving system

Company assumed city caseload in November

June 01, 2000|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A Virginia-based company that collects child-support payments in Baltimore is winning plaudits for beginning to turn around the chronically troubled program.

State administrators, legislators and parents involved with the child-support system say it is running far more smoothly since Maximus Inc. took over the operation in November from Lockheed Martin IMS.

"Every week, without fail, I get a check. And that wasn't the case before," said Catherine T. Crook, a secretary and mother of two. "This new company has actually done a whole lot better, at least 80 percent better. It was just a mess before."

No one says the system is perfect, but others agree that there have been marked improvements.

"I'm very pleased with their performance," said Teresa L. Kaiser, director of child-support enforcement for Maryland's Department of Human Resources. "The clients are much happier. We are seeing a decrease in complaints, which is a very welcome thing."

There have been no formal studies of the company's performance, but state officials, parents and others say Maximus has made significant improvements in customer service. The waiting time to see caseworkers has been cut sharply, they say, and client phone calls are returned.

The company collected slightly less money during its first six months than Lockheed did in a comparable period a year ago, but state officials say they are confident that Maximus will meet its first-year collection goal of $63.5 million.

Maximus stands to make as much as $42 million under its three-year contract.

Maryland turned to the private sector in 1996 to handle child-support enforcement in Baltimore and much smaller Queen Anne's County. Lockheed had the contract for three years but decided not to bid again when the agreement expired Nov. 1.

Lockheed blamed many of its problems on a lack of cooperation from state human resources officials, who had previously run the program, and on computer problems during the state's transition to a new system.

Dwayne C. Brown, project manager for Maximus in Maryland, said his company is determined to get the program on track, beginning with basic customer service.

"It needed to be more of a people-oriented process," Brown said. "When we came in, we heard horror stories of two- or three-hour wait times for service. We have our wait time down to an average of 20 minutes."

He said people are not kept on hold for long periods when they call, and if their questions require research, they get a call back with the answers. "We try to make sure any promises made are kept," he said.

Brown acknowledged that not everyone goes away happy.

"This is a domestic situation, and it gets highly emotionally charged," he said. "There is often a chance one party won't be satisfied with the factual outcome. They don't think the amount [set by the courts] is fair or don't like the genetic testing requirements. Often, we get clients who are angry."

Though credited with doing a better job of managing cases and handling complaints, Maximus has lagged slightly in collections. State figures show that it collected $31.7 million from November through April, compared with $32.1 million for Lockheed during the same period a year ago.

Brown said that's partly because the company has concentrated on correcting data in case files, such as Social Security numbers, and on basics such as establishing paternities and court orders.

Those efforts will increase child-support payments over the long run, he said.

The emphasis of Maximus' contract is different from that of Lockheed Martin's, which focused primarily on increasing collections.

The terms were substantially rewritten when the contract was rebid last year, with a greater focus on customer service, establishing paternities and child-support orders and helping fathers find work so that they can pay.

"We've learned a lot from what went wrong with Lockheed," said Kaiser. "We've really rethought, `What does it mean to be successful in a child support program?' and have built that into the contract."

Some legislators say the system appears to be working better.

"It's running at least smoothly enough that people aren't complaining," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat.

Another Baltimore Democrat, Sen. George W. Della Jr., said his office is getting fewer complaints. "It must have improved, because the number of people coming at us are fewer than what was the case under the Lockheed regime," he said.

Some are reserving judgment.

Marian M. Foreman, who gets her child support through Maximus, said she didn't like the way it dealt with an overpayment to her account.

"People have really good things to say about this company because they are spitting out payments at regular intervals, where Lockheed didn't do that," Foreman said. "They are doing the job they are supposed to do, that's all. If they're still doing a decent job a year from now, then I'll be willing to give them credit."

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