Handling of phone inquiries criticized

Call center that answers child-support questions is under fire in Howard

May 28, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Complaints are growing in Howard County about a company under state contract that takes calls on child-support issues from people in 11 Maryland counties.

Howard officials are so frustrated by what they say is poor service that they are thinking about doing without.

Spherix Inc., a Beltsville company that sells everything from a new sugar substitute to a maggot pesticide, operates the call center, which handles inquiries about a variety of government functions.

To handle child-support inquiries, Spherix uses 30 operators to field about 30,000 calls a year, said Louis Curry III, deputy director of the state's Child Support Enforcement Administration. The state paid $2.74 million for the first 14 months of service.

FOR THE RECORD - In Tuesday's editions, the volume of telephone calls was stated incorrectly in an article documenting complaints about a call center that handles phone inquiries about child support for 11 Maryland counties. The privately operated center handles 30,000 calls per month. The Sun regrets the error.

The contract runs out in October of next year, but any county can pull out if it wants to.

"It's a big issue. Frustration is at such a level ... that it comes up instantly" in child-support court hearings, Elaine Patrick, the Ellicott City child support court master, told Howard County's social services board recently.

"It's horrible. I was treated so poorly the one time I called there," said Melody Higgins, vice chairwoman of the Howard board. Child support is an emotional issue, she said, and should be treated carefully.

Patricia Owens, president of the Maryland Association of Social Services Boards, said the people taking the calls are low-paid workers who have "a very rough job" and often are bombarded with calls from people who are upset, but she, too, was critical.

Owens, who is active in Grandparents as Parents, said she has received similar treatment when she has called.

"It's just an extra step people have to go through, and they still don't come away with what they want. It's a tool for DHR [the Department of Human Resources], but it's totally ineffective. There definitely is a problem," Owens said.

Directors of social services departments in several counties that use the service say complaints are few and that the call center is a lifesaver for their short-handed staffs.

"It has allowed our staff to use that time for more difficult situations," said Jane R. Conlin, director of social services in Caroline County.

Without the call center, staffers "would be tied up on the phone all day long," said Carol Ann Mumma, director in Wicomico County, where 5,500 child-support cases produce about 1,400 calls a month. More than 80 percent of those queries are satisfied by the call center, and her workers answer 17 percent of the questions, which are referred to them in e-mails from the center operators.

"I've never received a complaint on the call center," said Gary Anderson, director of social services in Calvert County.

Mike Helms, director of Baltimore County's child-support administration - which handles 24,000 cases - agreed.

Curry said state officials have not heard widespread complaints about the call center despite state monitoring, but he said he will investigate.

"Usually, when we've had complaints from the call center, we've been able to resolve them. They have dismissed people," he said.

Terry Nelson, a spokesman for Spherix, declined to comment.

Higgins said her call about a missing check was answered by a woman who did not know how the payment system worked, was not helpful and refused to get a supervisor.

After 10 minutes on hold and several attempts to get answers, Higgins said, she was told "`I'm all you need to speak to. You just have to wait.'"

"She had no interest in helping me," Higgins said.

Higgins' problem was not an emergency, but people receiving child support could face eviction or other serious repercussions if checks don't arrive on time and they can't find out why.

"These are people beaten down by the system" who are then made to feel worse by a call taker with an attitude, she said.

Howard board member Helen Ickes Thomas said she has heard enough.

"I think the call center is a waste of time. To me, it's just another roadblock. I'd say drop out of the call center. It's just another person, another buffer," she said.

In addition to Howard, counties using the center include Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Caroline, Dorchester, Harford, Montgomery, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester.

Sam Marshall, the Howard social services director, suggested setting up a committee composed of board, staff and call center representatives to examine whether Howard County should withdraw from the service and resume taking the calls directly. The center receives an average of nearly 1,600 calls a month from Howard County.

He worries that people being treated poorly might not realize whom they are talking to.

"You don't know you're not talking to the Department of Social Services," Marshall said.

Anne Wright, Howard's child-support director, said the problem with withdrawing is that with a state hiring freeze and several vacancies, workers might be inundated. "By this summer, I'll have one clerical person for 26 workers," she said.

She called the lack of complaints from other counties mystifying.

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