CHILD SUPPORT ENFORCEMENT AGENCY
10,000 owed interest
from late payments
In defense of a class-action
lawsuit, the state says it's
within the law
Phoning in much like gamblingBy Lori Tighe
Show parents the money, says attorney Francis O'Brien.
O'Brien has filed a class-action suit against the state's Child Support Enforcement Agency on behalf of an estimated 10,000 people who received late payments in the past.
The point of contention is the interest earned while the funds were held.
"The state takes the position, we can do all this stuff to you, screw up your life, ruin your credit, take food from your table -- but you can't do anything to us," O'Brien said.
"This isn't state money, this is children's money. When they don't do their job, kids don't eat."
O'Brien argued that the state essentially has taken out a no-interest loan on the backs of Hawaii's children with each late payment. He says the state owes the interest on any child support payment that was more than two business days late.
"The state law says beyond two business days is late. There's no 'or what.' We're the 'or what,' " he said.
But the state said it doesn't owe back interest on late payments, no matter how late.
"The statute provides (that) any interest be used to support the account and not to support people who get payments," said Deputy Attorney General Laurence Lau, who is representing the state in the case.
Hawaii's law pertaining to late child support payments states:
"The interest shall be used for related costs of maintenance and operation of the account and the balance shall be deposited into the state treasury to the credit of the general fund."
But O'Brien said he suspects the state uses the interest from late payments to pay for garnishing the federal and state income tax returns of delinquent payers.
"If true, the state isn't authorized by statute," O'Brien said.
The state agency and Lau declined to confirm or deny his suspicion.
During the discovery phase of the lawsuit, O'Brien said he plans to find out where that money is going.
"Think if someone cut $500 or $1,000 out of your paycheck without warning," he said. "It's crazy. It's a huge problem."
Phoning in much like gambling
With 1,500 calls daily, reaching anBy Lori Tighe
agency operator requires luck
About 500 telephone callers a day remain locked out from the state Child Support Enforcement Agency.
And if their random opportunity doesn't come up, they can be locked out for weeks, even months.
To reach a live person on the line remains a game of chance, shutting out the unlucky.
Last fall, the agency averaged about 2,500 callers daily. Now they receive about 1,500 calls a day.
"Fifteen hundred is still more than we can handle," said Allen Kanno, the agency's assistant administrator.
"About 800 ask to speak with a person. We can handle 150. With six new operators, we'll double the number of people we can help on the phone," Kanno said.
That still leaves 500 people a day who can't talk to a person.
The federal government mandated that all state child support agencies adopt an automated phone system, Kanno said.
Hawaii switched its phone system at the same time the agency went online with its new computer system, dealing a double whammy to clients.
The first day the computer system was turned on, in July 1998, it generated 70 boxes of paper in letters sent to parents, Kanno said.
The computer gave parents a personal identification number to check on their account. The check had to be made by phone.
"Hundreds of thousands of callers tried it," Kanno said, smiling wryly. "At the same time. This tied up phone lines even worse."
Another problem: The phone system couldn't queue up waiting callers.
In mid-July, GTE will add that feature and give callers an estimate of the time they must wait before reaching an operator, Kanno said.
Kanno recommended that people who have not been able to reach a person by telephone should go to the agency's Kapolei office.
They may wait several hours, but the staff appears to be seeing everyone by the close of the business day at 3 p.m., he said.