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County, firm out to see which does job better

July 06, 1997

By KAREN MASTERSON

Staff Writer

Washington County and the corporate giant Lockheed Martin IMS have been competing for best performance in child support enforcement services for almost a year.

As of July 1, both programs will be able to locate deadbeat parents more easily through a "new hire registry" - which requires employers to report names, address and earnings of the people they hire.

This registry along with the two state demonstration projects - Lockheed's and Washington County's - are part of federal welfare reform laws and state-imposed programs designed to save the state money and get people off public assistance.

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"Child support is the cornerstone of welfare reform. A strong child support program keeps down welfare rolls," said David Engle, director of the Washington County Department of Social Services.

If dads have jobs, they can pay child support and help cash-strapped moms get off public assistance, according to Clifford Layman, executive director of the Maryland Child-Support Enforcement Administration.

"You have to treat child support just like it's a tax. It's an obligation," he said.

He also believes that even though Maryland consistently ranks among the top 10 states in child support collections, the new welfare laws mean more needs to be done.

So the state hired Lockheed, best known for building missiles and satellites, to see if a private, for-profit corporation could do a better job than the government.

With a three-year contract valued at $50 million, the company last fall took over child support enforcement services in Baltimore city and Queen Anne's County.

The IMS division of Lockheed, which manages information systems, has immense resources. It runs many state programs, from toll booths to parking enforcement.

It is running the "new hire registry" under a separate $3.2 million contract with the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

Timothy S. Gordon, the state's attorney handling Washington County's child support cases, is skeptical of for-profit corporations getting into the business of social services.

"Collecting is more of an art than a science," and requires finessing people and considering human needs, he said.

He believes the Washington County Department of Social Services' exemplary record should be held up as a model for the state.

It consistently collects 70 to 75 percent of court-ordered child support, according to state records.

"We're trying to show that government can be as lean and mean as private enterprise. But we don't lose sight of the fact that we're a human service agency," he said.

Engle thinks the two programs will produce mixed results.

"What Lockheed has over us is technology," like automated systems for processing, issuing and mailing checks without the need for human hands, he said.

"We'll provide better customer services. ... We know how to take care of people, and we're not profit motivated."

But Bob Landolt, Lockheed's director of this project, thinks that such concerns are unfounded. He said the company's first priority is to collect money, which in many cases includes finding people jobs. Profits are only a by-product of success, he said.

The state pays Lockheed 23 cents for every dollar it collects in Baltimore city. The company has successfully collected only about a third of court ordered child support.

Layman said Lockheed's program is too new to be judged.

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