May 16, 2010

State pulls back on child support privatization

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By Erich Wagner
Erich@MarylandReporter.com

The state is pulling back on its exploration of privatized child support enforcement with the elimination of a Queen Anne’s County pilot program, and some believe Baltimore City should follow suit.

After the General Assembly allowed the Child Support Enforcement Privatization Pilot Program to expire in 2009, the Department of Human Resources decided it would be beneficial for Queen Anne’s County to return to a public program, while in Baltimore City it would be more cost-effective for child support enforcement to remain privatized.

Tammy Bresnahan, director of government, corporate and community affairs for the department, said it makes more sense because Queen Anne’s County is much more rural, making the difference between the cost of state and private operation negligible.

“It could be cheaper for the state to run it rather than put it out of the contract, because of the number of staff,” Bresnahan said. “[In Queen Anne’s County,] there are a couple of thousand total cases, needing six or seven staff, compared to hundreds of thousands of cases and hundreds of staff [needed for Baltimore City].”

But Roanne Handler, a family law attorney with Schlachman, Belsky & Weiner, P.A., said that while the Baltimore City program does a “fairly good job,” given the volume of cases, the city could benefit from the stability of a state-run program.

“[The company handling child support enforcement] changed several times over the last ten years,” Handler said. “[The company turnover] has to have an effect. I don’t know how per se, but just in the last ten years even the location has changed three to four times. People don’t even know where to go anymore.”

Handler acknowledged that before the pilot program began in the early 1990s, the public enforcement program was worse than it is today. But she said the system still doesn’t work, and that employees are underpaid and poorly trained.

“A statewide anything would be preferable to what we have now,” Handler said. “You’re never able to talk to the actual agent who might know the actual case. I don’t think it ever worked.”

The pilot program was originally enacted in 1995 as part of the Welfare Reform Pilot initiative. Nancy Lineman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources, said a bill renewing the program got lost in the shuffle on the last day of the 2009 legislative session.

“It was moving through both houses, but didn’t get a final vote,” Lineman said. “There was definitely interest in not letting it sunset, but with the way things can get at the end of session, this was something left incomplete.”

Bresnahan said she anticipates the department will formally propose the regulation changes necessary to shift Queen Anne’s County to a state-run program in the next three or four months.

“We’re going through the regulations right now,” Bresnahan said. “We’re figuring out what [language] needs to stay and what doesn’t need to stay.”