South Carolina’s 31-year struggle to comply with a federal mandate for how it collects child support from deadbeat parents has become a Rorschach test on government.
To some, the state Department of Social Services’ failure upon failure to get a statewide computer system up and running to track down and collect payments from noncustodial parents is a slam-dunk case of government incompetency.
To others, it’s an indictment of government contracting with the private sector to do its work. In case after case, big-name computer companies failed to deliver on contracts to complete the program.
COLUMBIA — A Spartanburg woman who has spent four years periodically tracking down her ex-husband to collect late child-support payments lashe…
Some see it as more evidence that the federal government shouldn’t tell states how to do their business. South Carolina, after all, was already among the nation’s best at tracking down deadbeat parents and forcing them to pay up, when the Congress decided it wanted all the states’ enforcement programs connected electronically, to help track noncustodial parents across state lines.
Others still see it as a monumentally bizarre and frustrating string of bad luck.
Which group each of us falls into probably says more about our own values and beliefs than what actually happened, because it was probably a little bit of all of that.
Congress passed a law in 1988 requiring all states to have electronic child-support enforcement systems operational and tied in to a national network by 1997. It was aimed at collecting payments from the parents of children receiving federal welfare payments, but it was to be available to help any custodial parents collect court-ordered payments.
COLUMBIA — Successfully collecting child support payments from deadbeat parents is starting to look like more of a reality in the near future …
South Carolina was quick out of the gates: Within two years, it had signed an agreement with nine other states to share a $3 million Hitachi computer, which was installed at the DSS headquarters in Columbia.
But Hitachi was a client of Ron Cobb, the sleazy lobbyist turned undercover FBI operative who was at the center of a corruption sting that resulted in the conviction of a tenth of the Legislature and several state officials, and the computer was installed in the middle of Operation Lost Trust. No criminal charges were brought involving the computer system, but the contract was held up, the deal fell apart, and DSS was forced to pay Hitachi a $55,000 settlement.
Things just went downhill from there. Over the course of the next 24 years, DSS contracted with three more computer companies to build the system, all of those contracts fell apart, and each time the agency had to start over with a new company designing a new system; one vendor simply walked away from the contract.
When a problem goes unresolved for 16 years, it’s not merely a lingering concern. It’s an institution.
After the 1997 deadline, the federal government started assessing fines against South Carolina — $170 million in all. DSS was able to force contractors to pay some of those fines, but nowhere near all of them.
Then in 2015, DSS started working with Xerox Corp., later spun off as Conduent, to install a program that Delaware developed. It started rolling out that program a year ago, and got final federal approval last month.
Fortunately, DSS and county clerks of court have been collecting child-support payments this whole time — DSS on behalf of welfare recipients, and the clerks of court from deadbeat parents with court orders to pay up. DSS officials expect collections to go up by 10 percent with the new system, and to begin more quickly in new cases.
We don’t have any grand policy recommendations to make in all this, because to us it never was clear what could have been done to avoid the delay. We’re just glad it’s over, taxpayers won’t have to keep throwing away money to cover federal late fees and it’ll be a little bit faster and easier to make deadbeat parents pay up.