By Megan Poinski
State Human Resources Secretary Theodore Dallas told legislators that improving enforcement, collections and information quality are top priorities during a hearing on three scathing reports about divisions he oversees.
Members of the Joint Audit Committee Committee grilled Dallas and staff on reports by the Office of Legislative Audits on operations of the Family Investment Administration, the Child Support Enforcement Administration, and the Social Services Administration.
“The only good news you can get from this audit is there are obvious opportunities where we can do better,” Dallas told the committee.
Child Support Enforcement
An audit released last week found the most problems at the Child Support Enforcement Administration. A total of $1.7 billion in child support money has gone uncollected, and auditors found that millions of that might be brought in if the agency used the laws on the books to capture the money.
“There’s millions of dollars involved here, and a small change could have significant impact because there’s a lot of money involved,” said Legislative Auditor Bruce Myers.
Major findings include:
- The agency had not initiated wage garnishing for 8,763 noncustodial parents, who were collectively late with $88 million in payments.
- State-issued professional licenses had not been suspended for 6,966 people who owed a total of $47 million in child support.
- The agency also did not garnish funds from bank accounts of 25,550 people who owed between $500 and $2,500 in child support, worth $33 million in total.
Dallas, who took the helm of the Department of Human Resources earlier this year, said that he has been focused on how to improve child support collections since he first got on the job. As the nation’s wealthiest state, he said, Maryland should have a high rate of child support collection. Instead, he said, it ranks near the middle.
“Our goal is that Maryland should be the top 10, or the top five in the country,” Dallas said. “The audit is a helpful tool to get us on the way.”
Some of the problems are on their way to being resolved, such as the lack of withholding wages from people with new jobs who owe child support, and not going after the bank accounts of people who owe between $500 and $2,500 in child support.
Dallas said that he will also be going after “low-hanging fruit” by suspending occupational licenses of those who do not pay, and ensuring that the correct databases are obtained.
Sen. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, was frustrated that there is nothing that the legislature can do to help struggling custodial parents get their money from “deadbeats.”
“We’ve created a number of ways to take care of it, and our agency is not availing themselves of the tools,” Astle said.
Dallas said that the failure to collect support cause other drains on the agency. Custodial parents who are not getting the money they need in child support come in for food stamps and temporary assistance, he said.
The majority of the problems in the agency will be resolved by next May, Dallas assured the committee. Del. Charles Barkley. D-Montgomery, asked Dallas to push up that schedule so that the problems are resolved by March – a time when the General Assembly can use budget or legislation to hold the agency accountable.
Social Services Administration
In the report completed in March, the Social Services Administration had voluminous problems with recordkeeping and the computer system that tracks cases.
The administration keeps its records in a computer system called the Children’s Electronic Social Services Information Exchange, CHESSIE for short. This network is supposed to keep local social services departments updated with information and to help them monitor out-of-home foster care placements.
Auditors found that information in this system was extremely inaccurate when compared with actual paper files. The agency knew about this problem but used inaccurate numbers from the computer system to make mandatory reports to the federal government. The reports failed to meet standards.
Lack of review of the data also led to children being placed in some homes where there wash credible evidence of child abuse or neglect, and several not receiving their mandated annual medical checkup.
Astle found the state’s use of incorrect data disappointing.
“The Social Services Administration was aware that CHESSIE contained incomplete and incorrect data, and used it anyway,” he said. “This is a character issue, knowingly using information that is not accurate for a report.”
Dallas said that the computer system is unwieldy and difficult to use, but the federal government mandates that Maryland use it to make reports. Employees are undergoing more training on how to properly input information, and an upgrade has made some improvements to the way the system works.
Family Investment Administration
This agency, which oversees public assistance programs like Temporary Cash Assistance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – commonly abbreviated as SNAP — and a program for home energy assistance, had several problems determining eligibility, according to the audit report released in February.
Because of problems with SNAP, the federal government penalizes the state $423,000. Family Investment Administration Executive Director Rosemary Malone said that this was negotiated down, and then the state was allowed to use the sanction money to upgrade its computer systems.
Dallas said that the main problems found in the audit are about to be addressed. There were several unverified Social Security numbers in the system, which Dallas said will be taken care of by an automatic check that verifies numbers with the Social Security Administration.
There is also a new system coming online to better verify eligibility for the assistance programs. Dallas said that the biggest problem the agency faces is how much recipients qualify for. The new system, he said, will catch eligibility problems before recipients receive any funds.