The Child Support Mess
Howard Baldwin will look like either a fool or a hero; there won't be much middle ground. This month, Baldwin takes over the most fouled-up agency in state government, the Child Support Division of the Texas Attorney General's Office. It's a job that Baldwin has wanted for many years -- a remarkable fact, given the panoply of problems at the agency. Consider the following:
- The division has a new $75 million computer system with so many bugs that it has actually decreased productivity by 10%. The current program works so poorly that staff members sometimes have to re-compute all of the financial information contained in a case file.
- The agency has an overwhelming workload. The division has 1.2 million cases spread among 904 child support officers. That's 1,267 cases per staffer -- a load that one child support worker says is twice as many as can reasonably be handled alone.
- Since 1993, the number of staffers has remained the same while the number of active cases has increased by 70%. The agency collects child support funds in just 18% of its cases. The best states collect at twice that rate.
- The workload is increasing. In the last year alone, the agency has added 202,000 new cases and the numbers will continue to rise. In Texas, 30% of babies are born out of wedlock.
- The agency has suffered from eight years of neglect under outgoing Attorney General Dan Morales, who reportedly set foot inside the division headquarters one time -- on the day he was inaugurated -- and never returned.
- The lack of leadership has crippled the agency; it has had seven chiefs in the past eight years.
- The agency faces a funding crisis: Despite the lousy performance of recent years, it must convince the Texas Lege to give it up to $30 million to fix the computer system and hire more staff.
- The looming Y2K problem could wreak havoc on the division's computers.
Into this mess comes Baldwin, an affable, burly, bearded policy wonk who is expected to fix an intractable program while everyone from federal regulators to state legislators look over his shoulder. Saying it won't be an easy job is a radical understatement. The child support division has been a political football for years. In 1997, the Legislature tried to move the division out of the AG's office, but Morales successfully staved off the move. Morales apparently wanted to keep the clout and the resources that the division brings. After all, the child support division accounts for two-thirds of the agency's workforce, and two-thirds of its $293 million budget.
But given all the problems at the division, can Baldwin really change things? Some of his employees think so. One 10-year veteran of the child support division, who asked not to be named, has nothing but praise for Baldwin. "He's the answer to our prayers, I'll tell you that," said the employee. Attorney General John Cornyn echoes that, calling Baldwin the "answer man."
Baldwin blushes when told that his employees have been praying for someone like him. Talking with Baldwin, it quickly becomes clear that he has a passion for child support issues. And if anything was lacking during the Morales administration, it was passion. "I've always believed in the child support program," says Baldwin. "It gets into your blood because it makes such a difference in people's lives."
And due to changes in federal welfare laws, child support has become more important than ever. In 1996, Congress limited the number of years families can be on welfare. That has meant a dramatic increase in the number of people who are relying on child support payments to make ends meet. In 1990, 48% of the cases handled by the child support division were receiving some form of federal assistance. Today, that figure is 23%. The other 77% "depend on us totally," says the veteran child support division employee. "You can imagine custodial parents are on the phone constantly saying 'Why haven't you established paternity? Why haven't you gotten my money?'"
Baldwin may be the most qualified administrator the child support division has ever had. During his career, Baldwin estimates he has personally handled over 5,000 child support cases as either a private attorney or as a state-appointed judge. He began working for the state on child support issues right after he graduated from St. Mary's Law School in San Antonio. Within seven years, Baldwin was the regional director for child support in 21 counties. He quit to practice family law, but after four years of private practice he went back on the state payroll and spent 16 months working as a judge on child support cases in Bexar County and seven surrounding counties. From there, Baldwin went back to the AG's office for a short stint as an administrator before taking another position at the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, where he worked with legislators on child support issues. When Cornyn was elected, Baldwin became the natural choice to head the child support division. Cornyn and Baldwin have known each other for two decades, dating back to their days practicing law in San Antonio.
Fixing the computer system is Baldwin's first priority. The fix could cost $10 million, and must be allocated by a state Legislature that has grown increasingly skeptical of the child support division. But legislators trust Baldwin and are supporting his appointment. Tom Marshall, a spokesman for Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, said of Baldwin, "We are hoping he will put the program back on track and that he will have a more productive and stable relationship with the legislature." In a swipe at Morales' problem-plagued tenure, Marshall added, "And that would not be hard to do."
To be fair, Texas isn't the only state having a hard time designing a computer system for its child support system. California recently scrapped a new $171 million computer system -- without ever having turned it on. The state is now requesting $312 million from the federal government for a new system it hopes will be better.
The problem lies in the system's complexity. The Texas computer system has to meet a myriad of federal requirements regarding payment methods. It must share data with the state Comptrollers Office, the Human Services Department, and several other agencies. It must also keep track of three separate balances for each case, including the amount of money paid by the father, the amount paid to the mother, and the amount kept by the state to pay for welfare costs. Add to that the need to differentiate between cases in which paternity has been established, cases in which enforceable court orders have been entered, and a million or more mailing addresses that continually need to be updated, and you have a recipe for confusion.
Baldwin readily admits that his challenge is daunting. But he remains upbeat. "We owe it to the parents to make this system work as well as we can. We can be more efficient," he said. "We aren't going to make the system perfect, but I can make it a lot better."
It's bold talk. Given the history of the child support division, those are the kinds of words that only a fool -- or a hero -- would use.