Mississippi’s screwed up child support system touches half of state children; here’s how state is working to fix

Published 9:32 pm Monday, December 28, 2020

A stack of cash — money that noncustodial parents paid to help care for their kids — sat unsupervised on a table in the middle of a room at Mississippi’s child support disbursement unit.

Local government contractor Rob Wells encountered the scene in 2010 when he visited the office to look for ways to improve a deeply flawed and antiquated system overseen by the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

The unit was responsible for intaking child support money, a debt the state imposes mostly on separated fathers, and issuing it to the correct family.

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Many mothers had complained of long delays in receiving the funds. Wells knew about this because his company ran the call center where parents could call for help on their cases.

At the office, Wells spoke to the sole worker tasked with solving “exceptions,” which occur when the unit receives payment but can’t immediately identify its corresponding case in the state computer system.

If she couldn’t find the right case in three minutes, she would send the flagged entry to a separate floor, where another worker would pick up the queue. So Wells journeyed upstairs to find that employee.

“They said, ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about,’” he said.

The incomplete computer entries were stranded in the ether, along with millions and millions of child support dollars that could have been used on food, clothing, housing and health care for children of separated parents.

In over twelve hours of interviews with Wells for this investigative series, he told Mississippi Today that he and his staff worked for a year and a half to clear the backlog.

Once that was solved, the state eventually let his $100 million a year corporation modernize and operate the enforcement side of the child support program — a public service that’s been financially strangled and largely neglected by state leaders.

Years before the state outsourced virtually all facets of the office, Mississippi had a haphazard child support program — the worst in the nation by many measurements, in large part because of severe underfunding. Mississippi could hang its hat only on an extraordinary cost efficiency score, because of how little the state spent to run it.

Despite its still paltry budget, the program has improved its ranking in most of the federal performance metrics that reflect how smoothly the gears of the agency are turning.

But the poorest state in the country is always going to have a harder time extracting money from its residents, which goes far in explaining why Mississippi still ranks dead last for its rate of collections. The office collected and disbursed 54% of the money currently ordered to custodial parents in the program in 2019 — at about the same rate as it did a decade ago — compared to 66% nationwide. The total amount of past child support owed has continued to grow, totaling $1.6 billion in 2019.

Any technical improvements made by the deeply complex and often misunderstood program, which touches half of kids in the state, haven’t minimized scrutiny from the public officials and advocates at all familiar with it.

“I have a great lede for you,” Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, told Mississippi Today when the publication reached out to him about this series. “The child support system in Mississippi is f-cked up, and no one knows how to unf-ck it.”

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: A separated parent, usually a mom, who needs help collecting child support from a noncustodial parent applies to the state’s child support enforcement program by mailing in an application and a $25 fee. Other moms are forced into the program when they try to apply for assistance.

The child support division of the Mississippi Department of Human Services then creates a case and starts by identifying the child’s parents. If a child’s birth certificate only contains the mother’s name, for example, the state helps track down the father and facilitate a paternity test.

A staff attorney then secures a support order — a legally binding document that spells out how much a noncustodial parent must pay each month — from the local chancery court.

Next, the state has several enforcement and collection measures it can take. For parents who have jobs, the state can investigate their employment and seek wage or unemployment benefit withholding and tax refund offsets. The state collects about 80% of child support this way.

Collecting the rest from the many Mississippians with nontraditional or unstable employment is tougher. After locating the parent, caseworkers can try to level with them, to convince them to pay voluntarily. Otherwise, the state may choose to suspend the parent’s driver’s license until they pay, file a contempt order in the case, take the parent to court and potentially put them behind bars.

The federal government created the child support enforcement program within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families in 1975 primarily as a way to spread the societal financial responsibility of caring for families on welfare, which were mostly those headed by single mothers, to the fathers.

Child Support is one of the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ largest divisions, and nationally, the anti-poverty program touches more families, especially men, for a longer period of time than nearly any other social program.

Single-parent households are one significant determinant of poverty in the state and nation. Women-headed families with minor children, where no husband is present, are about five times more likely to live in poverty than married-parent families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And about 44% of Mississippi children live in single-parent families compared to about a third nationwide.

But for decades at the child support office, stacks of paperwork that single mothers submitted in hopes of receiving some help sat ignored in banana boxes.

Empty folders served as placeholders for cases — some 10, 15 years old — that the state had never taken to court. Out of all families who were seeking the state’s help in 2010, only a little over half of their cases contained support orders.

No support order meant there was nothing for the state to enforce.

Many mothers also complained of long lags between the time their child’s father paid into the program and when they received the funds and a lack of proper accounting, leaving them unable to track how much they were receiving or owed.

In short, the system was broken.

As is still true for many government agencies and courts today, the child support division had not digitized all of its cases, so processes to move them through the system could not be automated.

The state did not employ enough people to do the manual functions needed to manage the load. Mississippi was typically spending under $100 per case per year, compared to almost $400 nationally, according to a Mississippi Today analysis of federal data.

Though Mississippi receives a generous 2-to-1 match in federal dollars to operate the program, officials say the agency never allocated the budget the child support office needed to bulk up its staff. During a time when the Legislature was looking to cut state government, increased funding to this niche program was the last thing on lawmakers’ minds.

But right in the agency’s backyard, there was an attorney who believed he knew the fix.

Wells, a Yazoo City-native attorney, had started a Jackson law firm specializing in the delivery of child support services in the early 1990s after he watched a similar firm called Maximus try to secure work in the state.

In the following 20 years, more and more states, including Mississippi, began contracting out certain functions within their child support programs, such as call centers and disbursement units. Wells’ company, YoungWilliams, eventually became one of a handful of primary companies conducting this work nationally.

By 2015, the Mississippi Department of Human Services sought something new: a completely privatized child support enforcement office — though early studies suggested that these contracts produced mixed results.

“The significant additional cost of privatization would outweigh the potential additional benefits,” the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER), the legislative watchdog, wrote in a 2013 report that examined the potential of outsourcing the child support program.

After winning a competitive bid, YoungWilliams started with a pilot program in 2015 and began running case management across all county offices in 2016. The company extended job offers to all existing state workers. Separately, the Department of Human Services contracted out the disbursement unit to another firm.

“I think the state has to strike a good balance of recognizing what does the state do well and where they need help whenever they’re considering privatizing,” said former child support program director Lyndsy Irwin, who took over after the initial pilot and left the agency in September. “… being able to leverage the technology that a vendor has to offer in the area of weakness for the agency.”

Republican state leaders have increasingly pushed for government privatization with the belief that having private companies operate public programs results in better quality and more cost efficient services. However, public policy researchers say privatization more often increases inequity in an economy with a growing opportunity gap.

YoungWilliams was going to have to find a way to fix a floundering program without any more money. The company would have to keep the operation lean, but luckily, it also had the capital from its work in other states to invest millions into developing specialized software and building a new child support enforcement infrastructure in Mississippi.

It implemented its signature computer program called Y-Trac, which continually populates “tasks” for caseworkers to complete within the child support system. The Mississippi Enforcement Tracking of Support System, the system of record, was where state workers had been managing cases. It’s a legacy system, characterized by its black screen and lime green lettering, that made a slog out of performing basic tasks, data entry and pushing cases along.

The new technology made it possible for YoungWilliams to centralize case management, and it eventually closed about 60 physical child support offices, roughly three-fourths of them, across the state.

Wells has gotten the quality control software down to a science: He knows how many fewer seconds it takes a worker to complete a certain task — processing a wage withholding or entering biographical information from a client — in his system versus the old one.

“Without Y-Trac we would be flying blind,” Wells said.

This also makes for a cutthroat work environment, two former YoungWilliams employees told Mississippi Today, with each employee working large loads. The company places cameras in each office, where executive staff may beam in at any time. Corporate leadership can log in to its computer system and view exactly how long a caseworker was inside Y-Trac, how quickly they entered information and how their performance compared to their peers.

These factors are perhaps why even as the contractor was making improvements, it was still able to reduce the program’s already limited staff 15% from 515 in 2015 to 438 in 2019, which reflect national trends, according to the most recent federal report.

The program reinvention resulted in a decrease in overall child support cases, Wells said, as YoungWilliams identified old cases that needed to be closed. The state is still spending just $165 per case — and that’s counting a budget hike in 2019 — compared to $442 nationally.

But now, instead of boxes of empty files, the office has secured court orders in 84% of child support cases. The rate of cases with established paternity rose from 94% in 2015 to 98% in 2019. Collections, as a dollar amount, are increasing even as the caseload is dropping.

The office of child support enforcement helped pump about $340 million into the households of children with separated parents in Mississippi in 2019, compared to $268 million in 2010.

While the state recorded $11.9 million in undistributed child support dollars at the end of 2019, just 12 percent were any more than a year old. Mississippi is one of only five states that does not have any undistributed collections more than five years old.

For the program’s improvements, Wells said he credits state agency leaders like Irwin and Walley Nalor, former child support directors, “taking careful risks and trying against all odds and barriers to fix something nobody was screaming to fix.”

With its current funding, Wells claims the program, with its new sophisticated infrastructure and increasing automation, can continue performing its basic functions at a reasonable rate. It will continue to petition courts, locate fathers, garnish paychecks and intercept tax refunds where those avenues exist.

After that, he said, the current program and its collection rate will only improve as much as economic circumstances and the conditions of Mississippians’ lives do.

But the service could conceivably go further. With the existing wide net of the child support program, the welfare agency has an opportunity to connect with men it might not otherwise, to identify their needs and barriers, and to offer counseling and workforce training.

This would follow a national trend, an attempted shift in philosophy away from punishing and shaming unwed fathers to uplifting them. And while YoungWilliams says it’s eager to take that approach, this kind of outreach costs money — the type of funding that’s never even been on the table.

Wells says he’s never had much pull with Human Services and that the agency doesn’t confer with him on policy changes, contract language or recommendations to the Legislature — which could be considered an appropriate distance for a state contractor to have with his client.

From the CEO’s perspective, he’s not a tycoon or a consultant so much as a government plumber.

To appreciate the work of contractors like Young Williams is to understand the complex “plumbing,” as Wells puts it, of public services. Everyone wants their sewer to work, but few care to peek at the pipes beneath the soil to see how.

Wells, a wealthy and undoubtedly influential figure, and his company simply exist below the surface of state government, tinkering away on the lines.

While lots of people have gripes with the child support office, he says few with any power to invest in improvements have had the time or will to wade into the mud with him — try as he might.

“Bureaucracy that’s underfunded doesn’t work,” Wells said. “The people who are in public office care … They want to listen and they want solutions. It’s just, it’s so hard to make happen.”

By Anna Wolfe, Mississippi Today