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Center to field social service calls

February 19, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS -A call center in Beltsville, Md., soon will begin fielding all child support questions from Washington County parents.

Washington County Department of Social Services Director David Engle told state lawmakers Wednesday that the switchover will happen sometime before the end of March.

About 5,000 affected families in the county will be notified of the details by mail before the change.

"We have a real special relationship with our customers and our customers are going to miss that and we're going to miss that," Engle said.

Right now, three social services employees answer calls from parents, which come in at the rate of 3,600 a month. After the switch, those three employees will be reassigned to child support enforcement, he said.

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With the extra effort, the department hopes to increase its collection rate, which at 75 percent is already the highest in the state, he said.

Under the new system, parents no longer will be able to call their child support case manager with questions. All calls will be routed to Spherix Inc. of Beltsville, a private contractor hired by the state.

Spherix has been handling child support calls for 14 other counties in Maryland for the last two years.

Although there were what Engle termed some "bugs" at first, the system seems to be working smoothly now, he said.

Washington County and eight other jurisdictions are being added to the call center this year.

Most child support calls are from custodial parents who haven't received the amount of money they were expecting or their payment was late, Engle said. Call center employees will be able to answer those kinds of questions by accessing the county's computer records, he said.

Questions that are of an emergency nature or are too difficult for the call center to handle will be transferred to a hot line in the social service office in Hagerstown.

The call center has been able to handle about 80 percent of the calls it receives.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said the state should keep tabs on how the call center system affects the child support collection rate and re-evaluate the program accordingly.

The call center concept stems from the state's effort to privatize some of its services, Engle said. Instead of privatizing entire county operations, which was piloted a few years ago, the state is trying to privatize select services, he said.

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