Tuesday, December 8, 1998

A system
gone haywire

The first of two parts

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Lee Iramina, with daughter Deisha, 3, said she did not
get any child-support checks in July. “When it (child
support) comes months late, it’s terrible. I have
bills to pay,” she said.

Late checks. Missing payments. Children
in need. These are the issues for many who
depend on child-support payments, who say the
state's computer system has disrupted their lives

By Craig Gima


The handwritten sign on the door reads, "System is down."

After entering, a visitor to the state Child Support Enforcement Agency walked through a metal detector that was not plugged in. On this day, an armed guard sat in a corner across from the receptionist and listened to the complaints of two women who are having problems getting child-

support payments.

"You should have been here two hours ago," the guard said. "It was standing room only."

Melanie Iwaishi took a day off work to try and resolve her problem. She had been waiting for more than two hours to talk to someone about why her checks are late and about missing payments.

"To top it off, they lost the paper when I signed in, so people who were here after me were seen ahead of me," she said. "I can't afford to take another day off. If I could just have someone to connect with, a name or number that I could call, that would be better."

A caseworker could only offer Iwaishi another phone number to call and an explantion on how to get past a new automated phone system to talk to a person.

"My daughter wanted to go to a concert tonight," she said. "I don't even have $20 in my pocket to go."

The guard listened. He commented that he is a custodial parent, too. When the state switched to a new computer system in July, he said, his child-support checks were sent to his old address rather than his current one.

Iwaishi is one of many parents who say the state's new, $35.7 million Keiki computer system has disrupted their lives because they can no longer depend on their child-support checks.

The new system is designed to make it easier for the agency to keep track of and locate people who are delinquent in child-support payments. It is also supposed to make child-support management more efficient and make it easier for parents to find out the status of their payments.

But problems with the switch from the old system to the new system overwhelmed the agency's staff and phone system. The agency has even reduced some enforcement because investigators have been pulled from the field to work on complaints.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
A recent day at the offices of the Child Support
Enforcement Agency found frustrated people
hoping for some answers.

Since the state went to the new system in July, parents have complained that:

Bullet Payments are late or missing. The state says some problems are to be expected during a major computer transition, but those problems are being worked out.

Bullet They can't get through to talk to someone who can correct the problems because of a new automated phone unit. The state says it didn't anticipate the number of complaints flooding the lines, but the problem has subsided somewhat, and people should now be able to get through.

Michael Meaney, agency administrator, said the new computer is working for the vast majority of the 196,000 parents who are part of the system.

He explained, however, there were three major groups of people who did not get checks or whose checks were delayed when the system first went online:

Bullet About 12,000 people had checks delayed because the system had to be shut down for a few days during the transition. Most of those people should be getting regular checks now, Meaney said.

Bullet About 6,000 to 8,000 people did not get checks because the system was missing information needed to process the checks. Many of those cases involved court-ordered child support and are easily solved, Meaney said.

Bullet About 5,000 people with several children who may be living with different custodial parents are proving to be troublesome for the agency.

"The system was unable to handle some of those cases," Meaney said. "This has been a large problem for us because it is a very complicated fix."

"The thing that is sad about all of this is, it affects everybody's life in an immediate way and, in many cases, a very devastating way if they don't get the money," said Francis O'Brien, a lawyer suing the agency.

But Meaney said getting checks out is a priority for his agency.

"The agency is working like dogs to get caught up and to solve people's problems," he added.

Meaney has hired 11 people on an emergency basis to help deal with the transition to the new Keiki system. The agency has also increased its overtime spending and pulled people off of other duties to work on complaints.

Meaney said the agency is also evaluating whether to expand the phone system to handle more calls after the automated voice response unit was overwhelmed by the volume of complaints after the switch.

"People couldn't get through to discuss their problem," Meaney said. "We just got caught in a humongous Catch-22: The more they called, the less they could get through. We've just been chasing our tails for the last four months."

The automated voice response unit phone system has 32 lines. If more than 32 people call at any one time, no one else can get through.

In July the system averaged 2,500 calls a day. That number includes those who did not have complaints and who called after hours to the automated system. Now, the system is averaging 1,500 calls a day, said Allen Kanno, agency assistant administrator.

"A lot of the complaints are just not valid anymore -- you can get through now," Meaney said. "In July and August, people could not get through; now you can. You can get through. We also have our walk-in services available. It's no longer overloaded. It's no longer long waits."

That's not what people in the agency's waiting room believe.

"I called every day. You're not able to get through to a caseworker." said Darrelgene Eliana. "Even to write, you're not able to get a response. It's very frustrating."

Eliana clutched an expandable file with her paperwork as she waited to speak to a caseworker. She found out the computer system erroneously listed her child-support judgment at $184 a month when she is supposed to get $560 a month.

"I've been here every month," said Christine Laulu, who is trying to find out what happened to a missing check. "They said it was a shortage of staff."

"These are not welfare people," O'Brien said. "These are people who are saying, 'Please give me what the courts say I'm supposed to get,' yet they get treated like they are on the dole or some kind of leeches on society."

The waiting room is decorated with wanted posters of deadbeat parents from other states and Hawaii's most wanted fugitives. Above the three windows where caseworkers listen to complaints is another poster that lets people know the state can take away your drivers license if you fail to make child-support payments.

Michael Kim, a sales manager, said he has been in the waiting room eight times in the past year.

"I'm the one who's trying to pay," he said, motioning a reporter over to talk to him.

He said the state had problems processing the papers to get money deducted from his paycheck. He finally wrote checks directly to his ex-wife to help support his two children. His wife had to write a certified letter to the agency so it wouldn't deduct money from his paycheck for the amount he'd already paid while the paperwork was processed.

Clutching an envelope full of paycheck stubs and bank statements, Kim took off work again to find out why he got a letter saying he owes $422.

"Don't be wasting our time so we can work and earn the money to pay child support," he said.

The complaints about missing money bother O'Brien.

"I think they are having a tremendous problem as far as tracking the money," he said.

But Alton Kagawa, Oahu branch administrator for the Child Support Enforcement Agency, said he has never come across a case where the agency cannot account for the money.

Meaney said going back and reviewing past records can be a long, drawn-out process.

"If the system is showing a balance that is apparently accurate, generally we're not going to give priority for an accounting statement just because they want one," he said.

"It takes a long time to do. We'll provide it in a normal course of business."

Right now, Meaney said, the agency's priority is to get current checks out.

System gets
federal certification

The new Keiki child support computer system received conditional certification late last month from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement.

Certification means that the system meets or surpasses requirements mandated by Congress and federal regulations, and assures continued federal funds for the state agency's operation.

"It's been a real challenge to bring this agency up to par," said Attorney General Margery Bronster. "Obtaining federal certification is a significant milestone in the state's ongoing efforts to improve the delivery of child support enforcement services."

Bronster added that the implementation of Keiki uncovered problems with outdated or incomplete data and delayed payments. "We appreciate the patience of our customers as we continue to work diligently on resolving errors," she said.

She noted that once the system is completely updated, the state expects collections and customer service to "significantly improve."

Lawsuit seeks to
speed up payments

By Craig Gima


Two local lawyers who have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Child Support Enforcement Agency say they have received about 200 calls from people who want to participate in the suit.

The lawsuit, filed in August, alleges the state is illegally keeping the interest on the money it collects. According to the lawsuit, the state is required to distribute child-support payments within two days of receipt, but the state is sometimes weeks or even months behind.

"It's nowhere coming close to that two days," said Christopher Ferrara, one of the attorneys who filed the suit.

The suit seeks distribution of the excess interest collected since 1986, damages and attorney fees.

The child-support agency denies the allegations in the lawsuit.

"We are not a profit-making agency for the state," said Michael Meaney, agency administrator.

Meaney said the interest earned on the money offsets the fees the banks charge to process the checks.

Because of the pending lawsuit, Meaney said he's not sure if he can say how much money the state collects in interest from child-support payments.

The agency processed $87.7 million in child-support checks in the fiscal year that ended when the agency switched to the Keiki system.

Francis O'Brien, another attorney involved in the lawsuit, said he hopes the lawsuit will force the agency to be more responsive to the parents and children it serves.

"I figure that if we can get a court to order the CSEA to do what it's supposed to do, which is to pay the money in two days, a lot of the other problems that exist right now will get cured along the way," he said.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Kathleen Keeler with daughters Kelly Sakata, left,
and Erin Keeler. The family is owed $100,000 by
Keeler’s ex-husband, she says.

A litany of complaints

Here is a sampling of complaints the Star-Bulletin has received about the Child Support Enforcement Agency in recent weeks. Because of privacy laws, the agency cannot comment on individual cases.

Bullet Lee Iramina said she did not get any checks in July when the system went online, and checks have been coming inconsistently. The system was erroneously deducting money from her checks because it thought she was on welfare when she was not. She is wondering what happened to the July checks and if the welfare mistake was corrected. "Before, I used to depend on it (child support)," she said. "When it comes months late, it's terrible. I have bills to pay."

Bullet Lynn Ranta married the father of one of her children in September 1996. The agency continued to deduct child support from his checks even though the child lived with them. She said it took two years to prove to the agency that they were married and that he doesn't have to make those child support payments. She said now the agency should be deducting only $35 a month from her husband's paychecks for child support from his previous marriage, and money to pay back the welfare system for the period that Ranta was on welfare. She said $150 to $170 per paycheck is being deducted, but she doesn't know why so much is being taken out and can't find out why from the agency.

Bullet Kristin Paulo said checks have come infrequently for her three children since the Keiki system went online. She said she did not receive any checks through October through late November. Her ex-husband's employer has canceled checks to show the child support agency received the money, but she said when she calls the agency, she cannot get an explanation of where her money is. "I count on that money," she said. "I'm $680 a month short. It means bills don't get paid." One of Paulo's daughters is handicapped. "I have to buy the medications that child support is supposed to pay," she said.

Bullet Kathleen Keeler said her ex-husband owes more than $100,000 in back child support. In June of last year, she said, the court ordered him to find a job and pay $100 a month toward what he owes plus his current child support payments. Keeler said he has paid either nothing or $50 a month. "No one's making him do it," she said. The Child Support Enforcement Agency told her it doesn't have the manpower to follow up on her complaint. She said one of her daughters was attending the University of Hawaii but had to drop out because her ex-husband refused to claim her as a dependent and, as a result, is being told to pay out-of-state tuition.


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