Support payments for hundreds of Virginia children have become ensnarled in a new state program that was supposed to expedite the payments but instead has delayed some payments for weeks or months, state officials said.
"Up until this point, I've been trying to resolve the problem on a case-by-case basis, but it's reached crisis proportions," said Cherry Harman, a lawyer at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group for the poor in Richmond.
Lawyers with the poverty agency said they have encountered stories of parents, mostly mothers, who have gone so long without payments that they have been threatened with eviction, have had their insurance canceled and are borrowing from friends to pay their bills, she said.
Officials in the Division of Child Support Enforcement conceded this week that there were widespread problems with the program that was suppose to centralize all child support payments, almost all from fathers, in Richmond, instead of allowing welfare and court agencies across the state to process the payments. The state agency has hired more than 100 new employes and put workers on night and weekend shifts, but the backlog of payments remains large.
Because of the problems, it is not unusual for the agency to have more than $100,000 in support payments sitting in what the director calls "suspense." Those funds represent payments that the agency is unable to forward, often because it doesn't know for whom the payment was intended, social service officials said.
"What we don't have a handle on yet is the magnitude," said Susan Urofsky, deputy secretary of human resources. She said it will take weeks to discover that.
Officials at the poverty law agency said, however, they believe the problems are so serious that they may sue the state to force improvements. "It's embarrassing to the state of Virginia," said Harman.
"There have been people hurt," agreed Jean White, director of Virginia's Division of Child Support Enforcement.
Rebecca Baker, 31, of Stafford County, who is separated from her husband, was placed in the state program in February but did not receive her first support check until the end of May.
Her attorney in Fredericksburg is trying to recover her June and July payments of $325 each, but her husband said he has sent the money to Richmond.
"I'm just living from day to day," Baker said in an interview. "Friends have been giving us food and clothing," said Baker, who has three children. Although she has a job, she said she is behind on payments for her trailer home and she cannot afford to have an abscessed tooth treated. "If I lost the kids, it would be because I can't afford them," Baker said.
White said that her agency's problems emerged during the past 10 months as it has been reorganized to receive and disburse the support payments for about 68,000 welfare and nonwelfare clients.
The program was created in response to 1984 federal laws designed to improve the collection of child support money for working parents as well as for custodial parents receiving welfare. So far, White said about 43,000 of 68,000 cases have been assumed by the state agency.
Payments in those cases have overrun the agency. "We have checks coming in, but we don't know who it goes to," said Jane Clements, chief of program operations for the child support division.
A large numbers of payments were received before the agency was ready to process them and before a new computer system was operational, officials said. Hundreds of the checks fail to identify the children for whom the money was intended.
Under the system, checks are sent to Richmond made out to the state treasurer. Once the payment is recorded, the state is supposed to issue a government check to the custodial parent.
As of Thursday White said the state had about $125,000 in its suspense account. Assuming the average monthly payment of $214, she said that amount easily could represent about 580 lost payments.
The delays also have cost families on welfare. In Virginia, noncustodial parents are expected to reimburse the state for part of the welfare payments granted to their children. As an incentive, the parent caring for the children is given an extra $50 a month if support payments are received on time, but this has been made difficult by the processing delays.
Several legal aid attorneys said this week that they have counseled their clients to pull out of the state collection program and privately arrange to receive support payments directly from the other parent.
Direct payment may be the answer for the moment, said Daniel Fascione, regional representative for the federal office of Child Support Enforcement, but "we don't recommend it as a long-term solution."
Fascione said Maryland "does a fairly good job" collecting payments through 24 separate jurisdictions. The District has yet to enact enabling legislation in response to the 1984 law.