- Report Published -
|Final Report: Child Support Enforcement|
|Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission|
|HJR 553 (Regular Session, 1999)|
|The child support enforcement program is a federal and State partnership to collect child support. The program works to ensure that children are supported financially by both parents. Child support is defined as the financial resources contributed by noncustodial parents to their children to provide the necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, and medical support). State child support enforcement programs locate noncustodial parents (the parent that owes support), establish paternity, establish and enforce child support payment orders, and collect and disburse child support payments.|
Chapter 13 of the Code of Virginia, titled "Support of Dependent Children and Their Caretakers," provides for a child support enforcement program in Virginia. The Code states in § 63.1-249 an intent: "to promote the efficient and accurate collection, accounting and receipt of support for financially dependent children and their custodians, and to further the effective and timely enforcement of such support while ensuring that all functions in the Department of Social Services, [the State agency administering the program] are appropriate or necessary to comply with applicable federal law."
The Division of Child Support Enforcement (DCSE) in the Department of Social Services (DSS) is responsible for administering Virginia's child support enforcement program. DCSE is the largest division in DSS in terms of budget and staff. As of June 2000, DCSE had 394,669 cases in its caseload. DCSE's mission is to promote strong, self-reliant families by delivering child support enforcement services, as provided by law. This mission is carried out primarily by 22 district offices throughout the State, four of which are operated by two private companies.
Child support is a crucial part of many families' financial viability. Currently, about 25 percent of children in Virginia receive child support enforcement services from the State. Child support has become an essential part of the State's human services system, particularly with the implementation of welfare reform and its focus on making families self-sufficient. Non-payment of child support, or payment in an untimely fashion, can cause hardships not only on the custodial parent, but also the children. When payments are not received, families must often turn to public assistance programs.
Based on the increased importance of the program, concerns about potential staffing shortages at DCSE, and an interest in ideas to improve the program, HJR 553 requested JLARC to review the activities of the Division of Child Support Enforcement, including the district offices. HJR 553 required that ''the study should, among other things deemed relevant, examine the caseload, management, employment levels, and workload of the State and local DCSE [district DCSE] offices and make recommendations as to how the program can be improved to better meet the needs of our children."
To address these broad issues, the study was conducted in two phases. An interim Phase I report was presented to the Commission in December 1999. The first phase included a review of the child support enforcement caseload and funding. There were two major findings from the Phase I study. First, DCSE's reported caseload size, while substantial, appeared to be somewhat overstated because some cases could be closed or could be excluded from the caseload figure due to minimal work activity. In response to this, DCSE initiated a case closure project, which resulted in the closure of more than 69,000 cases. Second, the study found that the dramatic decline in the welfare caseload and several federal changes were causing DCSE, for the first time, to experience a budget deficit and increased budget instability. The federal government continues to examine the funding of the child support enforcement program; consequently, DCSE's budget deficits are projected through the next biennium.
Phase II of the review examines the child support enforcement program in more detail, and addresses such issues as the local implementation of the program, adequacy and appropriateness of staffing levels, office technology, and management of the program, as directed by the mandate.
The conclusions of the second phase of the study are:
• Virginia's child support enforcement program has enjoyed a good national reputation and has been a leader in a number of areas over the years. However, federal performance expectations for funding purposes are becoming more demanding and DCSE's performance results have been mixed under new State and federal performance evaluations.
• Performance levels and staffing levels across district offices vary substantially. This is a concern, because the ability of custodial parents and children to receive the support that is due them should not depend on the district in which they live and whether that office has been more or less successful in securing proper resource levels.
• Staffing concerns have recently been exacerbated by the loss of most of the district offices' federally funded contract staff (74 staff of 94 contract positions are being eliminated, of which 62 positions have already been phased out). Staffing needs to be provided to each office to ensure that cases can be worked effectively, and to ensure that an appropriate mix of staff (such as caseworkers and support staff) is in place.
• DCSE should consider implementing technology improvements and a series of other strategies for managing and improving services, some of which require improvements in processes, but do not cost additional money.
• Several recent and proposed federal changes are causing DCSE to experience budget deficits and increased budget instability. Options are presented in the report to address DCSE's funding needs.
DCSE Has Enjoyed a Good National Reputation, But Faces Heightened Federal Expectations
Virginia's child support enforcement program has been considered one of the better child support enforcement programs by the federal government. Several of the reforms and enforcement tools first implemented by DCSE have been viewed as models by the federal government, which has required other states to implement similar reforms.
Although Virginia's program overall has been viewed positively in the past, more recent evaluation results, which have been based on heightened federal expectations, have yielded somewhat mixed results. The federal government is beginning to hold states to a higher standard and increased accountability. Specifically, the federal government has revised the way it evaluates states' performance for incentive funding purposes. The federal government is changing from a single measure for evaluating program performance to multiple measures for incentive funding purposes. It is also planning to place a cap on the overall amount that is awarded to the states.
Also, DCSE recently conducted a self-assessment, as required by federal legislation, through which case records were reviewed to assess whether all required actions were taken within required timeframes and whether actions were taken in accordance with federal requirements. DCSE found that the program's performance on most measures (six of eight) was below federal efficiency rate benchmarks.
The Caliber of Child Support Enforcement Services Varies Among Districts
The ability of custodial parents and children to receive the support that is due them should not depend on the district in which they live and whether that office has been more or less successful in securing proper resource levels. However, as shown in the table below; there is a substantial range in performance among the district offices.
These performance problems are more acute in some district offices than others, as shown in the "report card" on page IV (discussed in Chapter II). The data show that these differences are associated with differences in staffing-related factors (such as caseload size per caseworker, caseload size per total staff, and the percentage of time caseworkers spend on clerical activities), and external factors over which DCSE has little control (such as population density, the percentage of welfare cases in the caseload, and median household income).
This means that an office's performance may be enhanced or hindered by the office's particular internal and external characteristics.
Recommendation. DCSE should develop district office level performance goals that are tied to the five federal performance goals and the additional TANF performance measure. In the short term, DCSE should set individual performance goals for each district office based on the prevailing or typical performance achieved by other offices with similar characteristics. In the long term, if staffing issues are addressed, DCSE should determine an appropriate percentage increase in performance for each group of offices with similar external characteristics.
DCSE's Elimination of Most of the Federally-Funded Contract Staff Increases the Staffing Challenges
Sixteen of the 22 district managers interviewed for the study thought that their office had too high a workload to effectively manage, and about three-quarters of caseworkers and over 40 percent of other staff thought that their workload levels were too high. District managers and staff indicated that high workload levels limit the ability of the office to work all the cases that deserve attention, to ensure quality on the cases they do work, and to provide responsive customer services.
Caseload and staffing data from June 2000 showed that district offices managed an average of 444 cases per staff person, including contract staff. One of the consequences of this is that most caseworkers report that a third of their time is spent on clerical duties in lieu of proactively working cases. Some sources indicate a range of 350 to 400 cases per total staff is an appropriate standard for effective management of cases.
These staffing concerns have recently been exacerbated by the loss of most of the district offices' federally funded contract staff (74 staff of 94 contract positions are being eliminated, of which 62 positions have already been phased out). This reduction of contract staff is being made because DSS will not allow DCSE to increase its budget over FY 2000 levels, and DCSE management gave other expenditures (such as the interactive voice response system, computer operations, and privatized offices) a higher priority. The frozen budget and the contract staff cuts are being made in spite of the fact that, at the present time, approximately 98 percent of DCSE's administrative budget is paid with federal funds (in the future, given recent federal legislation, between 66 percent and 98 percent of the administrative budget will be paid with federal dollars). The loss of contract staff will be felt the hardest in the western region of DCSE, where about 16 percent of the total staff are contract staff.
To address the staffing issues and the loss of contract staff, JLARC staff developed an estimate of the total number of staff and the number of support staff that each district office needs in order to be more equally staffed, and to either maintain or improve their overall performance. Staffing recommendations include reducing the caseload per total staff in all district offices to 400, which would improve collections, and developing a support staffing standard to improve the ratio of support staff to caseworkers.
The additional staff are expected to translate to more dollars being collected for child support payments, although the magnitude cannot be predicted with certainty. A national study has shown that collection rates are tied to funding and staffing. States with higher cost and staffing ratios tend to have higher collection rates. In Virginia, DCSE found in a staffing demonstration project that a district office increased collections by $3.00 per dollar spent (from $6.50 to $9.50) following the addition of staff, and about $1.80 of this increase was attributed to the additional staffing.
Recommendation. DSS, in conjunction with DCSE, should request the appropriate level of funding for increasing its Maximum Employment Level (MEL) by 105 positions. These positions will replace 74 lost contract positions and improve the staffing levels of the district offices. DCSE should develop a staffing plan to ensure that these positions are targeted to the district offices to meet caseload and support staffing standards.
Actions to Use New Strategies to Enhance Performance Are Recommended
This report provides numerous recommendations to improve DCSE's performance and addresses the mandate to "make recommendations as to how the program can be improved to better meet the needs of our children." If implemented, these recommendations could result in increased federal funding for Virginia's child support enforcement program and better services being provided to the customers who rely on these services. Many of the strategies require improvements in processes, but do not cost additional money.
Technological improvements include:
• develop a plan to re-engineer the Automated Program to Enforce Child Support (APECS);
• make other office technologies available to all offices; and
• improve customer access to child support enforcement services by developing an interactive Internet site and reevaluating the current voice response system.
Other potential improvements would include:
• improve communication and oversight of the program;
• improve the availability and coordination of training programs;
• provide more uniform customer services with better trained and compensated staff;
• develop a better mechanism for monitoring the services provided by private contractors; and
• share some of the best practices of district offices and suggested staff improvements for the program.
State Options for Addressing Funding and Resource Needs
Most of the funding for Virginia's child support enforcement program comes from federal funds (less than two percent came from State general funds in FY 2000). However, several recent federal changes are causing DCSE to experience budget deficits and increased budget instability. The projected budget deficit for FY 2001 and FY 2002 is $6 million each year. During the 2000 General Assembly session, funds were included to address most of the projected deficits ($4.8 million for FY 2001 and $4.6 million for FY 2002), but additional general funds may be needed. The projected annual deficits could increase an estimated $9.0 million per year if pending federal legislation passes.
State options for addressing the continued projected funding shortfalls and the advantages and disadvantages of each are provided. The larger policy question, however, is whether the State desires to improve the child support enforcement program and whether there is a willingness to provide the resources that might be required. The timetable for making this determination is almost immediate, due to changes that are proceeding at the federal level. Four options, the advantages and disadvantages of which are discussed in Chapter V, include:
• Option One. Give DCSE a larger general fund appropriation to replace lost federal funding. The needed funding is $1.5 additional general funds each year through 2002 and could be an additional $9.0 million per year.
• Option Two. Give DCSE a general fund appropriation that is above and beyond the lost federal funding to address the recommendations in this report (the State share of these additional costs ranges from between two and 32 percent).
• Option Three. Eliminate the $50 income disregard that is given to welfare clients, which will reduce the deficit by approximately $3.0 million annually.
• Option Four. Charge fees to clients for child support enforcement services.