First came the woes of a new
computer system. Now the agency is
moving. Clients fear 'chaos
on top of chaos'
Day One: A System Gone Haywire
Below: Agency says it needs more peopleBy Craig Gima
ust as the Child Support Enforcement Agency says it is getting problems with a new computer system under control, the agency is preparing for another transition that could create more problems.
The agency is scheduled to move to new offices in Kapolei in mid-January. The move is expected to cost $277,000 in state and federal funds but will eventually save money, said a spokeswoman for Attorney General Margery Bronster. The child-support agency is part of the attorney general's office.
Cynthia Quinn, special assistant to Bronster, said the move is part of an effort to move state offices from leased space into its own office space and to help development in Oahu's second city. The state will eventually own its own building in Kapolei.
"It just made fiscal sense," she said. "It's like buying a house rather than renting one."
But the move also comes at a time when the child-support agency is still dealing with delays and missing checks from transition to its new Keiki computer system.
"I think by moving it, they're going to cause chaos on top of chaos," said Kristin Paulo, who depends on child-support payments to help take care of her three children.
Can agency minimize problems?Administrator Michael Meaney said the agency is trying to minimize problems like check delays.
"The check processing is our highest priority, and we're going to try and protect that from another delay again," he said.
"If we plan well -- we have two months to do it -- we should be able to minimize effects on checks," he said.
Meaney said the main computers will probably not have to be shut down during the move, so check processing can still continue.
But Quinn said it is likely there will be some delays, and parents should be patient.
She said eventually the computer system and the move to new office space will result in better service.
Paulo and other parents who make and receive child-support payments are skeptical.
"I think they shouldn't move anything until they have an organized way of managing the money coming in," Paulo said.
She said she thinks moving the office will result in more confusion, misplaced files and disorganization.
"I don't think they should move until they can at least take care of the backlog," she said.
Another delay would hurt stateQuinn noted that the move has already been delayed once. She said the move was originally scheduled for August, just after the Keiki system went online, but was put off so that the transition to Keiki wouldn't interfere with the move.
If the move continues to be delayed, the state will eventually lose any savings to be gained by transferring the office to Kapolei, she said.
Most of the preparation for the move is being handled by administrators, and caseworkers are being left to do their jobs, Meaney said.
But at some point, the Oahu offices will have to be shut down so workers can pack and unpack.
"We're going to do everything we can to lessen impact on the public, with exception of the two days or so that we're actually moving -- you will not be able to get personal service for Oahu. There should be no effect on Kauai, Maui and the Big Island," he said.
Meaney said some problems with lost or misplaced files and the general confusion of a move are probably unavoidable.
Already, complaints about the moveRandy Perreira, a Hawaii Government Employees Association official, said workers unhappy with the move have told him that clients are complaining about the distance they will have to travel and the lack of adequate bus service to Kapolei.
Paulo complained that it is impossible to get through on the agency's automated phone system and that the move to Kapolei means she will have to drive farther to talk to a person.
"We've always had alternatives available so no one would have to be physically present to receive any of our services," Quinn said.
Meaney believes that the new Keiki system will eventually be more efficient at handling child-support cases.
"We're hoping that as Keiki stabilizes and gets better, people will need to come into our office less and less frequently," Meaney said.
There is more work
than we can do
The agency says its caseworkers areBy Craig Gima
overwhelmed, each handling nearly 1,000 cases.
Without more help, officials say, the problems
may not get solved
roblems with the Child Support Enforcement Agency may not be solved unless the agency can hire more people, says Michael Meaney, agency administrator.
"Look at our caseload size. Look at our staff allocation," he said. "There's an average of about 1,000 cases per person and that's ludicrous. It's ridiculous."
The agency is authorized to hire 146 state workers and another 80 county workers assist the agency with paternity issues through cooperative agreements with county governments.
But only about 100 people are caseworkers, Meaney said, and they handle 99,000 cases.
"The whole thing boils down to one word -- volume," he said. "Quite honestly there is more work than we can do. That's why we're studying, planning strike forces what have you to figure out how we can best get a hold of the current backlog and then go forward."
He added the agency will be asking the lawmakers for money for more positions when the Legislature convenes in January.
Robert Norton, public information officer for the agency, said the budget for this fiscal year is about $16.2 million. Most of the money, up to $14.7 million, comes from federal matching funds and incentive payments. The state's general fund share is about $1.5 million. About $5 million is being spent this year to get the Keiki computer system working, said Alton Kagawa, Oahu administrator for the agency.
Norton said he surveyed other child-support agencies and found Hawaii lags behind most other states when it comes to staffing.
Maine for example has 240 staff members to handle 60,369 cases. In Montana there are 436 staff members to handle 40,171 cases. But different states also have different requirements and laws governing child support.
People who work at the child-support agency here say there's no question more staff is needed.
"There is no way you can help everybody. There's just too many cases, not even everybody here can work the caseload that we have," said Ann Nakaura, who has worked at the agency for the past six years.
"It's never ending. The volume will always be the same no matter how much you may have accomplished in one day it will never go away," said Larry Holu, a legal assistant with the agency since 1988.
"When I first started we were told there were 77,000 active cases," he noted. "Now, we may have over 100,000 active cases. I don't see the number of employees having increased that much."
Norton said working at the agency can be frustrating, but most workers understand the basic goal is to help children.
"About half the people here use the agency themselves," he said.
"Some of these letters to editors have been quite disturbing in that they imply agency doesn't care about people," Meaney said. "They equate the actions of the agency to child abuse. That's simply so unfair to staff."
"I think everybody just thinks we get the money and we just give the money out," Nakaura said. "They don't realize there are more legal matters involved and federal requirements and all of that."
Every worker takes a turn at what is called walk-in or phone duty -- taking complaints from the public.
"It's not fun, Nakaura said. "Some of them are really nice. I think some of them want to take their frustration out on you and some of them expect you to do everything."
"This is a tough business to begin with because our business deals primarily with failed relationships, people who are angry," Meaney said. "It deals with money. Money is always a tricky issue and it deals with children."
Holu said that since the new computer system came online there are more questions about payment and about some of the letters generated by the computer, but the basic problems are the same.
He added that the job sometimes doesn't end when the day ends. People will ask him about child-support questions at the supermarket. "Even at my house, people have come to my house," he said.
Holu has also had to change his phone number so he can spend weekends with his family.
"People have concerns sometimes that they cannot wait for the weekend to be over."
Federal mandate resultedBy Craig Gima
in new computer system
The state went online with its Keiki computer system in July because the federal government required states to automate child-support systems or face a loss of federal money.
Federal funds paid for 90 percent of the cost of Keiki. When Congress passed a law in 1988 requiring the computer system, it gave states until October 1995 to get the systems running. Only one state met the requirement. It then gave states extensions until this year, when penalties kicked in for states that did not have certified child-support computer systems. Hawaii was one of 35 states to meet the deadline.
The state and federal government got into the collection and distribution of child support after Congress passed a law in 1975.
The state Legislature created the Child Support Enforcement Agency, which is attached to the attorney general's office, in 1986. Before that, child-support functions were split among the courts, counties and the Department of Human Services.
"The program originally began as a way to get control of welfare payments," said agency Administrator Michael Meaney. "The more child-support payments could be collected, the less people would need to rely on welfare," he said.
Last year, the program collected $11.6 million in child support and back child support to repay the state and federal governments for welfare payments.
Over the years, Congress has expanded the program to handle all child-support payments, including agreements ordered by courts in divorce and other custody settlements.
Now, Meaney said, only about 20 percent of the child-support payments handled by his agency involve welfare cases.
New laws have also made it possible for the government to be more aggressive in collecting child support. The state can now withhold money from paychecks and income tax returns. People who do not pay required child support can have licenses revoked or even be put in prison. The federal government has also set up a national new-hire directory and a delinquent-parent database to help track parents who owe child support across state lines.
The federal child-support agency estimated $10 billion of $17 billion owed was collected by states in fiscal year 1997. But only $3.4 billion has been collected of the estimated $48 billion that is owed in back child support.
The national average for collection of current child support due is 22.5 percent. Hawaii collects about 24 percent of child support due.