COLUMBIA — More than three decades after Congress required every state to create an automated system for enforcing child support payments, South Carolina finally got a thumbs up from the federal government.
The nation's last computerized enforcement system — which makes it far more difficult for parents to dodge court-ordered payments — cost taxpayers more than $254 million to build and resulted in nearly $173 million in federal fines, though a series of contractors who failed to get the job done covered $98 million worth of those penalties.
It means this year's budget is the last to waste millions for failing to comply with a 1988 law.
"Hallelujah!" said Sen. Thomas Alexander, who as a budget panel chairman has repeatedly grilled Department of Social Services officials over delays and missed deadlines.
"I think we could have been done decades ago," the Walhalla Republican said.
The federal government officially certified the system as working in September, a month after DSS completed a five-stage rollout that began in October 2018. Nine Upstate counties were the last to be brought online. The Lowcountry was part of phase three in April.
Prior to South Carolina, California was the last state to comply, in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Officials blame a series of contract disputes and lawsuits. The initial contractor abandoned the job in 1998, the year federal fines began. After yet another contract ended with a settlement in 2015, the state gave up trying to create a system from scratch.
Under the contract with Conduent approved later that year, South Carolina essentially transferred and tweaked Delaware's system. Its timeline for completion actually stayed on track.
"If every other state could do it, there's no reason we shouldn't be able to fix this a long time ago. If something could go wrong, it did, every time," said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, who's led the push to reform DSS.
"This was one of the most frustrating parts of DSS we've dealt with," she added.
The decades-long debacle came up Tuesday, as a House panel heard how a lack of automation in court convictions has resulted in prisoners remaining locked up days or even years beyond their sentence. In South Carolina, sentencing paperwork is still filled out by hand and shuffled between various offices before being handed over, literally, to prison officials.
Frustrated legislators scolded the state's court administration — which is in negotiations for a new computer system — for not seeking input from those in the broader judicial system, including sheriffs and prisons and probation officials, on what functions would be helpful.
"We have a sordid history in South Carolina of failed computer systems in other deals, going back to DSS," Rep. Gary Clary, a Central Republican, said in encouraging more collaboration.
What does DSS' new system do?
The purpose of DSS' statewide computer system is to find parents who are behind on child support payments weeks sooner, helping children and their parents who often are struggling economically.
The automation means parents can no longer disappear from the court's radar and skirt payments by moving out of county or state.
"One of the most important things we have to do in child support is find somebody," said Jimmy Early, who took over as DSS project director in 2015. "If you're trying to track down a parent who needs to pay, these interfaces obviously make it much more efficient."
The system communicates electronically with other states and centralized the 47 separate networks that were maintained by DSS and each county clerk of court. It also automatically updates the new hires of all employers and those collecting unemployment checks to better track someone and garnish wages.
Other databases the system searches automatically include the state's professional licensing agency and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The automation also makes it easier to find a delinquent parent's checking and savings accounts and file liens to have banks withdraw money from them to pay overdue child support. While the authority existed before, it was a "very manual process," Early said.
Collections from personal financial accounts jumped from $584 in the year before the new system was rolled out to $723,000, he said.
That included $21,500 collected from one delinquent parent on June 13, $26,000 collected from a different parent on Aug. 6, and $33,000 collected from another on Sept. 30, according to DSS, which declined to give any details on the parents.
In the year since the rollout, DSS collected more than $305 million in child support payments, or nearly $5 million more than the previous year, setting an all-time high, the agency said.
The new system is also easier for businesses tasked with withholding employees' wages to pay their child support. Rather than payments going through each local clerk of court — which, particularly for big companies, could involve sending money to multiple counties — they're paid to and dispersed by the state, Early said.
"No more middle-man," he said.
For parents who are at least $500 behind and haven't made a payment in 60 days, the system can automatically suspend their driving, hunting and fishing licenses.
While Early says the automation means the data is more accurate — less prone to typing and transfer errors — there are complaints about computer kinks.
Brian Pound of Lexington County, whose child support comes directly from his paycheck, said he was recently pulled over for a suspended license while driving to work and had to call his supervisor to drive his Jeep.
"I said, 'No way has it been suspended.' (The officer) takes my license and CDL permit and leaves me beside the road," Pound said. "I had to take a sick day to get it straightened out. … They said it was a glitch in the system."