The paper chase
Despite changes, state child support system still requires patience
Monday, February 21, 2005
For more than a decade, Illinois has hovered near the bottom of the pack when it comes to collecting child support. Currently, Illinois is ranked 50th out of 54 states and territories in the United States. The state’s system is rife with problems, says Debbie Kline, executive director of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support.
But since taking office in 2003, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has made changing that record a priority, says Barnaby Dinges, an Illinois Department of Public Aid spokesperson.
Dinges is right—Illinois is making progress.
In 2004, Illinois collected nearly half (49.2 percent) of the child support that was due. That’s up from 36.5 percent in 2000. Illinois is no longer on the federal government’s compliance watch list, says Pam Compton, acting administrator of the Department of Public Aid’s Division of Child Support. And the state collected a record $950 million in child support last year, a more than 10 percent jump from the $860 million collected in 2003. This year, the state expects to collect $1 billion, Compton adds. A new electronic database and automated call center also speed things up.
But problems remain. For example, the system has failed to collect $2.6 billion in back child support payments owed to Illinois families. And, despite a 1996 federal law requiring employers to report new employees to the state—designed to prevent people from switching jobs frequently to avoid paying child support—as many as one-third of Illinois employers aren’t complying, probably because they don’t understand the rule.
In his 2005 State of the State address, Blagojevich announced plans to encourage employers to report new employees to the state. That should help the state catch up with people who owe child support, Dinges says. The state sent 287,000 informational booklets to all employers in the state last November to notify them of their obligation and plans to offer free educational workshops in the future.
Getting the runaround Marva Brewer knows the Illinois child support collection system well—under both past and present administrations. She has been trying to collect support for her four children since 1986. And it hasn’t been easy.
Brewer, 49, was supposed to receive $101 each month from the father of her children, but from 1987 to 1992, she received about $50 a month. She does not know what happened to the rest of the money.
The payments continued sporadically until Aug. 14, 2001. From then until January 2004, she received one payment—$149 of the $1,790 income tax refund the Illinois Department of Public Aid intercepted from the father.
Brewer, of Chicago’s West Side Austin neighborhood, says she often called the department about her case.
“They were giving me the runaround,” she says. “They couldn’t answer my questions.”
So she hired Margaret Stapleton, an attorney at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.
Last April, Stapleton wrote to the department and asked for a review of Brewer’s case. The department’s lawyers, she says, are currently looking into it. As of press time, the situation remains unchanged.
More work to do Stapleton acknowledges the state’s Department of Public Aid recently improved its child support enforcement system, including a complete overhaul of the database that holds information about every child support case. But there are still a number of things that need attention, she says.
Kline agrees. While she applauds Illinois for pushing more employers to report their new employees, she thinks the state should have started doing that when the federal government reformed its welfare laws in 1996.
Kline’s answer to the state’s dismal rank on child support enforcement? “Start enforcing the laws,” she says. “Illinois should have done this a long time ago. ... It’s unfortunate that they waited so long.”
Since at least 1996, when the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and the Chicago Council of Lawyers began to study child support, the state’s system has been disjointed and confusing, adds Malcolm Rich, executive director of both organizations.
That’s because child support collection involves many federal and state agencies, he says, explaining that the Department of Public Aid contracts out various pieces of the process.
The state itself handles the initial intake, plus some administrative functions. Then the county gets involved. State’s attorneys’ offices oversee legal actions, such as obtaining court orders and medical insurance. The clerk of the Circuit Court helps establish paternity. In Cook County, the sheriff’s office delivers court summonses. And a separate state disbursement unit issues support checks.
To make the system more seamless, Rich’s organizations recommended a unified services approach, which became part of legislation signed by former Gov. George Ryan in 2003. Essentially, it would have made one public official, the state’s attorney, responsible for as much of the child support system as possible, from intake to enforcement to collection.
But while both the Cook County and DuPage County state’s attorneys submitted proposals to consolidate child support enforcement, those plans were rejected.
“We submitted a plan [to unify the process] that was not accepted by the Department [of Public Aid],” says Deputy Supervisor Durman Jackson from Cook County. DuPage County First Assistant State’s Attorney Nancy Wolfe says its plan was rejected because of budget issues.
Compton says both county plans failed to meet the state’s requirements.
Revamp brings some changes Instead of implementing that unified approach, says Mike Claffey, another Department of Public Aid spokesman, “we are working within the system” to change it, in large part because of the priority placed on improvement by Blagojevich, who took office in 2003.
Dinges adds that criticism of the state’s record before 2003 is misdirected. Blagojevich’s administration inherited the current situation, he explains, and it’s only under Blagojevich that the state finally has the infrastructure to make substantial improvements.
“We can only be held to the progress we have made in the last two years under the new administration,” Dinges writes in an e-mail. “The time is right now for a high-profile push to get Illinois businesses to provide us with the necessary information. It is the logical next step to improving our program.”
Though the governor has put no formal benchmarks in place, the federal office of child support enforcement has. Last November, Illinois’ public aid department was awarded $7.1 million in federal incentive funds for recording a 5 percent gain in the number of child support orders established—the first step toward allowing the state to begin collections procedures.
Another key benchmark was reached when the department’s new database, which is accessible to caseworkers and state’s attorneys, was federally certified last April.
That means that the database is “accurate and reliable,” Claffey explains. The department can “crack down on people only if we have accurate data.”
Technology helps Phased in during the summer of 2004 was a centralized call center with an automated voice-response system for the most frequently asked questions and two levels of human operators—one for basic information and the other for more difficult questions.
Before the unified call center, eight regional offices handled child support calls. Three recent attempts to speak with a human operator at the centralized call center, however, proved difficult—each time, a high volume of calls clogged the system, requiring people to call back. Compton says the Department of Public Aid plans to install a new phone system and improved software by fall of 2005.
In the fall of 2004, the department also introduced an online service to provide basic information about cases.
Another change came in July of 2003 when child support collection was turned over to a private contractor, ACS State and Local Solutions.
Now, almost all of the 500,000 monthly child support checks are issued to parents within two business days, Compton says, and nearly half of all wage withholding is done electronically, saving more time. Many child-support checks are also deposited electronically, she adds.
Additional changes occurred with a crackdown on deadbeat parents, including the launch of a Web site in November of 2003 that runs pictures of delinquent parents who owe more than $5,000 and have made no payments in 90 days. The state reports it collected $160,000 in the program’s first year. Illinois also initiated the Passport Denial Program, which bars parents who owe more than $5,000 from obtaining a passport, and started imposing liens on real estate and personal property.
“In the last two years under Blagojevich, [the department] has been steadily improving,” Claffey says, pointing to a more than 10 percent increase in total collections, from $860 million in 2003 to $950 million in 2004.
And each improvement brings the Illinois Department of Public Aid closer to its goal, which Compton says “is for custodial parents to have stable, regular child support income.”
Still, Claffey says the department is “far from done” with its improvements.
Stapleton agrees. Women who seek help in collecting child support still must have “a lot of patience.”
Lorien Menhennett is Chicago Parent associate editor. Cheryl Winkelman is a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.