CHILD SUPPORT ENFORCEMENT AGENCY
or same old story?
The state office says its newBy Lori Tighe
computer system has improved
payment rates and collections;
some residents aren't so sure
Seventeen years ago, Pearl Haili heard a familiar line -- your child support check "is in the mail."
Editor's note: The Honolulu Star-Bulletin wrote about thousands of parents owed money for child support by the state in the December series, "A system gone haywire." The state's new computer and phone system stymied many from reaching a real person to untangle their problems, some years old and worth thousands of dollars. Six months later, here's how the situation stands.
A system gone haywire | Chaos, part II? | Woes catch lawmakers' ears
The Big Island resident recently received the $350 payment, much to her disbelief. The check was meant for her grandson, who has long been out of diapers. He's now 19 years old.
"At first I thought it was a computer mix-up," she said. "But when I called, they told me no, I was owed that money. The computer caught it. I guess when it went online it brought everything up to speed."
Haili represents one of the good stories of the state's Child Support Enforcement Agency, which says it has seen considerable improvement since the new computer system went online a year ago July 1.
Since then, the agency says it has bettered its rate of prompt payment from 75 percent last year to 92 percent this year. It says total support payment collection increased by 11 percent. And in the meantime, the state Legislature approved 20 additional employees, mostly paid for by the federal government, to bulk up the agency's staff.
Despite the claims of improved service, though, a number of people say nothing has changed.
One of them, Lynn Ranta of the Big Island, said she still hasn't seen a cent of the $6,000 the state owes her. Although she married the father of her child in 1996, the state kept collecting about $600 a month out of his paycheck, but none of it has been sent to their child.
The state finally recognized their marriage in April and stopped garnishing her husband's wages.
"It's still a big mess-up," said Ranta, who is suing the state. "They're not organized."
Melanie Iwaishi, who has a 12-year-old child, seconded Ranta's skepticism of the agency, which comes under the attorney general's office. She has been owed a single back payment of $300 for six years.
"I've gotten zippo, no results," said Iwaishi, who also has endured late and missing child-support checks. She took a day off six months ago to visit the agency but to no avail.
"I just spent three hours on the line trying to get through. I never reached a person," she said. "I'm going to have to take more time off from work again to visit the new office in Kapolei."
At Kapolei, the sign directing visitors to the agency's offices is up; no sign was there when the agency opened its doors in January, after moving from Dole Cannery. And unlike the former site, no boxes clutter the floors of the orderly records room, and the waiting room does not have periods of standing-room-only.
The operation seems smoother, but again, people still shake their heads and grimace.
"There's bad karma here," said Chad de Costa, 26, father of a 5-year-old child. "I see no improvements."
De Costa said he was forced to take a lesser-paying job, yet continues to have the same amount of his wages taken for child support, when the amount should have fallen with his wages. He received a letter saying the problem would be cleared up in January, but six months later it remains.
"My caseworker said, 'I can't give you any dates, any promises, any guarantees,' " he said. "I've seen ladies here crying in front of their children with problems going back six years. So I don't consider my problems too great."
The agency is "nowhere near where we want to be," acknowledged Allen Kanno, assistant administrator under Michael Meaney, who is out on military leave for two weeks. "The bottom line is staffing. Twenty new people just make a dent in our problems."
The agency says it needs 130 more employees to match the nation's average of 350 cases per worker. Caseworkers in Hawaii now handle 900 cases each, and the extra 20 people will bring individual loads down to 875.
"Are we getting better? The answer is a definite yes," Kanno said. "People who haven't heard from us in years are starting to hear from us."
Elaine Goodrich-Gandy, the mother of a 19-year-old daughter, has seen the agency's effort to change -- although it required some urging on her part.
"I haven't had any problem since I sent out 11 letters to governors, senators and the agency," said Goodrich-Gandy, who was born and raised in Hawaii and now lives in Seagoville, Texas.
She couldn't reach anyone in the child support agency for six months. Her daughter's support should have continued when she entered college, but was cut. Although her ex-husband's wages were still being garnished, neither he nor his daughter received the money. The state had it.
"Once I got an agency investigator on the phone he told me I got stuck in the loop because I didn't have a caseworker," she said. "I faxed the stuff and they cut me a check the next day."
Lee Muller of Honolulu said the state also resolved his problem. The state kept garnishing his income tax returns for his son, even though his son lived with him.
"I had to go down there and wait for three hours," Muller said. "They told me I owed money for my youngest, who has now graduated high school. The workers were really nice. They seem to have taken care of it."
SINCE the federal government bulked up its child support funding and laws, states have had more power to go after parents who don't pay. Deadbeat parents account for about 80 percent of all child support cases nationally, Kanno said. The state's rate is slightly lower than that, about 70 percent in 1995, the most recent figure given by the agency.
Hawaii soon will be able to tap into the bank accounts of deadbeat parents. The state already has the power to take away drivers licenses and professional licenses -- for doctors, lawyers and contractors -- from people who don't pay child support.
The reality is the agency will never collect from all parents who owe, Kanno said.
"There are two kinds of parents: those who can pay and those who can't. We are trying to go after those who can pay but don't," he said.
In addition to collecting more money from parents who owe, the state wants to make sure parents who need the support get payments on time. The law defines on time as two business days.
The agency is aiming for a 99 percent timely payment rate by the end of the year, said agency spokesman Bob Norton.
"If one or two people don't get their check on time, they howl and they should because it's their children," he said. "But it's not the whole system."