County is the best at collecting child support

February 09, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

County is the best at collecting child support

Efforts by the Washington County Department of Social Services to increase the amount of child support it collects have resulted in the agency registering the highest performance level in the state.

During the last three months of 1997, the county agency collected just under $2 million of the $2.6 million in child support owed.

That worked out to a 77 percent collection rate, according to the agency.

That was the best collection performance in the state, where an average of 57 percent of child support was collected, according to the state Department of Human Resources.


"We are trying to be a model office for the country," said Social Services Director David A. Engle.

Social Services estimates that by the end of the budget year on June 30, its collections will exceed $8 million, a 15 percent increase over last year.

Lockheed Martin IMS, which operates privatized child support programs in two areas of the state, has estimated it increased collections by 10 percent.

"Washington County's performance shows that when given latitude and the appropriate tools, the public sector can get the job done," said Clifford Layman, executive director of the state Child Support Enforcement Administration.

It was not known how Washington County's child support collections compare withnational figures, but the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that only 50 percent of child support cases are paid in full. Some money is paid in 25 percent of the cases, and another 25 percent receive no money, according to the federal agency.

"I think we're pushing the national envelope, really," Engle said.

The county program was authorized two years ago in response to complaints from state employee union officials, who said their workers were hampered by rules that would not apply to a private contractor.

Several changes that were made included setting up a separate lobby for child support cases, streamlining the hiring process, focusing more on customer service and allowing enforcement agents to concentrate on collecting money.

Most of the ideas came in consultation with employees, Engle said.

"The line worker knows what needs to be done for them to be more effective and work more efficiently," he said.

Employees also receive bonuses, as much as 5 percent of their salary if they meet five child support performance goals. But Social Services officials said it was pride more than dollars that inspired the workers.

"I think they take pride in what they do and they take pride in doing it well. And this proves they are doing it well," said R. Christine Hart, assistant director for child support for the county agency.

Child support collections have grown steadily since the program started in November 1996. In December, collections topped the 87 percent mark, something that exceeded even Engle's most optimistic hopes.

"I was astounded," he said.

Better child support benefits taxpayers, who pay less in welfare expenses, as well as the children receiving the support, he said. It also helps the parents who owe the support, he said.

"It helps them have some relationship with their children. It starts out financial, but it turns into a personal relationship with their kids," Engle said.

Lockheed Martin IMS, a subsidiary of the defense contractor, was hired to conduct pilot programs 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.

Lockheed has fallen short of its own collection goals. On Friday the company and the county agency are expected to give status updates to a General Assembly committee.

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