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Child Support Payment System Bugs Linger
But welfare officials say the statewide operation has reduced late disbursements and is 98 percent accurate.
By MARIO F. CATTABIANI Call Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania's new system for handling child support payments continues to have problems despite steps by welfare officials to correct them, a legislative audit released Wednesday showed.
The centralized system put in place statewide last fall still keeps thousands of parents waiting for checks and does a poor job answering their simple questions, the report released by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee said.
"We found that significant problems remain," Maryann Nardone, the audit's project manager, told the committee during a public hearing Wednesday.
As of the end of May, about 5,600 support payments totaling $633,000 were received by the new system but had not been sent to the proper parent, the audit said.
While acknowledging the statistic, welfare officials said those numbers don't reflect the progress that has been made to correct many of the earlier problems. In November, there were nearly three times as many undelivered payments totaling more than $2.5 million, said Sherri Heller, a deputy welfare secretary.
Last year, Pennsylvania overhauled the way it collects and distributes child support payments, shifting control from individual counties to a single automated system administered by the state Welfare Department. The Statewide Collection and Disbursement Unit, or SCDU, is based near Harrisburg. Run by Lockheed Martin under a $59 million contract with the state, it became fully operational in October.
Employers that garnish wages are now required to send a single check to the unit for all employees for a pay period. They also must send supporting documentation detailing how that money is broken down by each employee. The system then forwards the money to the rightful parent.
Most of the problems with the system occurred early on because employers didn't send all the information. State officials have written and met with many employers throughout the state, instructing them of the need for exact reporting. Most companies have corrected earlier mistakes, Heller said.
The audit acknowledged the effort welfare officials have made and the results they've produced so far.
Virtually all payments handled by the system were processed within two business days, as required by law, if they contained all the required information. But if details were missing, some recipients have had to wait weeks or even months before receiving their checks, the audit found.
To alleviate the problems, the audit suggested, among other things, state welfare officials should establish a fund to pay families who have not received support payments through no fault of their own. What's more, custodial parents should receive the interest accrued on those payments held more than 30 days, the audit also suggested.
Heller said she was researching whether such recommendations were possible.
She told the committee that she's concerned the ideas could cause even more problems. For example, some parents would be less inclined to make payments on time if they knew the state would issue the child support checks anyway, she reasoned.
Perhaps the most significant problem continues to be customer service, the report found. Child support recipients often would call the new state system seeking answers to basic questions, such as why they haven't receive their checks, many times getting the runaround.
The disbursement unit's customer service representatives don't have the experience to answer the questions and in most cases were told to refer callers to their county domestic relations office. Counties weren't prepared to handle the questions either.
"For these and other reasons, parents and employers have found themselves in the frustrating position of being referred back and forth," Nardone said.
The state should do a better job informing the public about details of the new system, she added. "To date, the information families and employers have received has been quite limited."
Although problems exist, Heller told the panel, the system works properly in more than 98 percent of the cases.
That statistic drew pointed questions from the committee chairman, Sen. Clarence Bell, R-Delaware: What if, he said, two out of every 100 state employees didn't receive their paychecks on time?
"And what if you were one of them?" Bell said, pointing at Heller. "How would you feel about it? You wouldn't like it."
The Budget and Finance Committee initiated the audit at the request of legislators who had received complaints about foul-ups in the system.
Lawmakers, Bell said, are "on the frontline" of criticism.
"When a family doesn't get their money and kids go hungry and bills aren't paid, colleagues in the Legislature catch it right in the neck," he said.
However, Rep. Ronald Raymond, R-Delaware, agreed with Heller that there has been a noticeable improvement in the system. Over the past six months his office has received far fewer frustrated calls from constituents.
"It has gotten a lot better," said Raymond, who sits on the joint House/Senate committee. "I don't get nearly as many complaints."
-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), June 29, 2000