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Social workers outperform private firm

December 04, 1997

Social workers outperform private firm

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

State employees at the Washington County Department of Social Services, freed from some bureaucratic restrictions, are outperforming a private contractor in efforts to collect back child support.

The county agency expects to increase collections by 13 percent this year, while a pilot program started elsewhere in the state last year by Lockheed Martin IMS will see a 10 percent increase, officials said.

"I'm not surprised. We've worked very hard, we've changed a lot of things, and we hope we're working smarter," Chris Hart, assistant director for child support for the county agency, said Wednesday.

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Last year, the agency collected about $8 million in back support, Hart said. The most recent estimates for this year are for collections to go above $9 million.

The county program was authorized last year in response to complaints from state employee unions, which said their workers were handicapped by rules that would not apply to a private contractor.

Hart said a "dream team" of employees has been developing new processes to make child support collection easier, more efficient and better. One change has made hiring procedures for child support personnel more flexible, she said.

The state also has provided pay bonuses for the child support unit when it meets certain goals, Hart said.

"It's an incentive, but I think historically Washington County has put a lot of effort into child support," she said.

Lockheed Martin IMS, a subsidiary of the defense contractor, was hired to conduct a pilot program in Baltimore city and Queen Anne's County to see if the state should get out of the business of trying to collect unpaid child support and turn the job over to private industry. The private effort began in November 1996.

The company had promised to collect $80 million in back child support in Baltimore this year, but now says collections will be only a little over $61 million.

Diane L. King, spokeswoman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said she was not "surprised at all that Lockheed Martin is not living up to their pie-in-the-sky promises."

"Nobody does the job better than front-line public employees who have been performing a job every day for years on end. Privatization does not guarantee better or cheaper social services, and this just proves it," she said.

Lockheed Martin has improved since a shakedown period when it began work a year ago, said Cliff Layman, director of the state Child Support Enforcement Administration.

"There is a lot of good news here. There are a lot of positives," he told members of the Joint Committee on Welfare Reform on Tuesday. "We can't say if privatization will succeed. It's simply too early."

Layman said it appears there will be no significant difference in the performance of the private contractor and state employees.

John Bayne, director of child support services for Lockheed Martin, predicted the company will meet all other goals in the contract, such as establishing paternity and getting court orders directing fathers to make payments.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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