December 28, 1998
JEFFREY KAYE: Rebecca Foreman may be forced to go on welfare. She works as a teacher's assistant in San Diego but she's barely making ends meet because she says she's had high medical bills for her son and his father hasn't paid child support for a year.
REBECCA FOREMAN: We struggle. We were evicted out of one apartment because of this. So when the support first stopped, we were evicted, and it's just been downhill. We had to go back home and then we moved back out and the support stopped again. We're not making it enough and I don't want to go on welfare.
JEFFREY KAYE: Keeping mothers off welfare by going after deadbeat dads has been a cornerstone of welfare reform.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: One of the main reasons single mothers go on welfare is that fathers have failed to meet their responsibilities to the children.
JEFFREY KAYE: At a June bill signing President Clinton touted a record of accomplishment.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We have waged an unprecedented campaign to make deadbeat parents live up to their obligations. Tanks to tougher laws, more sophisticated tracking, powerful new collection tools, we've increased child support collections by 68 percent in the last five years.
JEFFREY KAYE: But those powerful collection tools meant to aid the crackdown on deadbeats don't always do the job.
SPOKESPERSON: Do you have a case with us, ma'am?
JEFFREY KAYE: Caseworkers, who try to ensure child support payments get made, are often hampered by faulty computer equipment.
CASEWORKER: Okay. Did you get your full amount for May, because - I'm having a hard time here understanding what's on my system?
JEFFREY KAYE: Sharon Velasquez in Ventura County 60 miles north of Los Angeles says she is constantly frustrated.
SHARON VELASQUEZ, Ventura County District Attorney's Office: Actually, if you wouldn't mind holding, I can place you on hold and I will give the employer a call.
JEFFREY KAYE: She recently tried to trace a payment.
SHARON VELASQUEZ: Hi. I need to speak to somebody in payroll, please. Do you know when she'll be in?
JEFFREY KAYE: She ended up calling the employer of the delinquent parent because she says the computer system is so unreliable.
SHARON VELASQUEZ: I've had so many bizarre things happen - money being sent to the wrong people - money being sent to different counties in error - no way to really track it - checks being sent out for the wrong amounts - balances just disappearing into thin air and no explanation, and nobody knows why.
SPOKESMAN: It's had just a devastating impact on morale.
JEFFREY KAYE: Velasquez's boss is Ventura County Chief Asst. District Attorney Kevin McGee.
JEFFREY KAYE: How much has this cost you?
KEVIN MC GEE: In terms of lost collections we're talking probably $12 million. It cost the consumers, the customers, the families that are entitled to child support.
JEFFREY KAYE: McGee says work that should be computerized is done by hand. Congress has required states to better automate their tracking and collection systems but 10 states have failed to comply with the federal automation requirements and will pay penalties as a result. California's fine - nearly $11 million the first year - is the largest. California contracted with Lockheed Martin to build a $300 million statewide network, but after six years, the system never worked properly and hooked together only 17 of California's 58 counties. Last year, the state and the company scrapped the contract and sued each other. John Monahan is the number two person at the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, which certifies the state computer systems.
JOHN MONAHAN: Automation is an essential element of effective child support enforcement. I mean, our experience over the last decade or more has been that effective automation and effective business process improvement on the part of states will help get collections - identify parents who are - who owe child support, get their questions, and get that money to kids and their families.
JEFFREY KAYE: The failure to automate the child support enforcement process can have serious consequences for people in the system. In California, if a parent receiving child support moves across a count line, which right here could literally mean moving from a house in Ventura County next door to a house in LA County, the case won't automatically be transferred because the computer systems in the two counties don't speak to each other. That's exactly what happened in the case of Sheila Richardson. She moved with her daughter, Ashley, and her son from Sacramento to Los Angeles County in 1992. Her ex-husband was supposed to pay $200 a month child support but he didn't, and she couldn't get LA authorities to help her out.
SHEILA RICHARDSON: I applied for child support through LA County's district attorney office, and each time I would call to find out how - the status of my case, they would say, oh, we need you to complete this form again, or these forms again, because we don't have them, or your file got lost.
JEFFREY KAYE: So the file was never transferred.
SHEILA RICHARDSON: No. It wasn't transferred.
JEFFREY KAYE: After a job accident in 1996 with workers comp as her only source of income, and with two children to support, Richardson said she temporarily received public assistance.
SHEILA RICHARDSON: I got food stamps, which was embarrassing to go to the store, and have to use food stamps.
JEFFREY KAYE: But for families not receiving child support, long-term welfare is no longer an option. That's because the law now places time limits on welfare payments. Widespread frustration with the child support enforcement system has launched a movement among parents owed child support, parents such as Rebecca Foreman.
REBECCA FOREMAN: I said, well, what are you going to do, are you going to find him? Oh, you don't know where he's at? No, I don't know where he's at. Isn't that your job?
SPOKESPERSON: It is, and they're supposed to look quarterly -
JEFFREY KAYE: Nora O'Brien is California coordinator of ACES, the Association of Children for Enforcement of Support. She says nationally only 20 percent of families in the child support enforcement system receive payments, largely because of lack of coordination among the states.
NORA O'BRIEN: 36 percent of the cases involve more than one state, that's very difficult in that - the difference with state's rights is California cannot make Texas honor a wage assignment or can't make them serve a summons or, you know, and that Texas can't make New York do the same thing, and so when you have interstate cases that really slows the collection process down.
JEFFREY KAYE: O'Brien's organization is supporting congressional legislation to federalize the child support system and take the collection responsibility away from the states.
NORA O'BRIEN: What would happen is that the states would determine the amount of child support to be paid and so whatever that amount is, we create a national case order registering and they would do child support collections with payroll deduction and disperse it through Social Security Administration, and it's much more efficient than each state implementing a state-based system, it's - it's a system that it will come eventually because we're going to have to say that - we're going to - we've spent billions of dollars federally and so many states so still wouldn't even have their systems in place.
JEFFREY KAYE: But Florida Congressman Clay Shaw, chairman of the House subcommittee that overseas child support opposes federalization. He says the best system would be run by the states and coordinated by the federal government.
REP. CLAY SHAW: What we need to do and what I would like to see done is that we bring the present system into compliance -- if we can work for a better system later somewhere down the line - we will - but it's been very expensive to the states in order to come into compliance. But the federal government has funded the expense of bringing these states into compliance, so that this isn't an unfunded federal mandate. We're working together; we're getting great cooperation from the states, and I'm sure this whole thing will be worked out with only a few states not complying this year, and in the next couple of years I would say virtually all the states will be in compliance.
JEFFREY KAYE: California officials have complained about federal requirements but are now promising an automated system within three years. And Congress has enacted legislation to provide more federal funding for states that move families of welfare if they do a better job collecting child support.