Gov. Nikki Haley and a group of senators are pressing the state Department of Social Services to finish a long-overdue child support enforcement system project before its scheduled roll-out completion in three years, to save millions of dollars in federal penalties.
But DSS officials say they are as yet unsure whether accelerating the project makes good financial sense or would put too much risk on the agency.
Also Tuesday, DSS officials told senators that Anderson and Spartanburg counties remain "hot spots" for caseload problems and officials hope more workers and some caseload management consulting will address the problem.
The Senate DSS Oversight Committee has been pressing DSS since earlier this year to somehow shorten the time it will take to get the child support enforcement system, which has been in the works since the 1990s, operational.
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South Carolina remains the only state not to have an automated child support enforcement system up and running in response to a 1988 federal law. The state now does the work manually and while that work has been lauded, officials say the new system will connect with more agencies and is expected to boost enforcement actions against deadbeat parents.
The project has thus far incurred $134 million in federal fines, though previous vendors have paid about half of that, said Jimmy Early, who has been overseeing the project for DSS for the past year. He said earlier this year the agency expects to pay another $63 million in fines before the project is complete and running statewide.
Early told senators Tuesday that the project should be finished in October of 2018, when three counties will then begin a pilot program after which the rest of the state will see the system. The fines don't stop, he said, until the state sends a letter saying the system is complete and installed. Early said officials are looking at whether deployment can be shortened or whether additional staff could speed up testing. But he said he does not want to see the new computer system rushed before it has been adequately tested.
"The worst thing we could do is to deploy the system before it's ready," he said.
Sen. Tom Young, an Aiken Republican who chairs the panel, pressed Early for a solution.
"There has got to be a way to accelerate this," he said. "The question is what do you need?"
DSS Director Susan Alford said the agency has been meeting with the maker of the system, Xerox, for months over ideas to speed the project up. She said that also is the focus of Haley, who meets with agency officials each month.
"It's the first question she asks and it's the last question she asks," Alford said.
She said the governor is looking for a proposal that would not require the agency to ask lawmakers for more money.
"We haven't come up with a figure yet because the estimates we have receiving so far, at least to me, do not appear to meet that test," she said.
Alford said one of the issues is if the project accelerates, that could place more risk on the agency. And while preventing a year of fines could help, officials would have to spend more to speed up completion.
"The issue is how much money that is going to take," she said. "I don't have a price tag right now. We're debating the price tag."
The system is actually two projects, one to create an automated child support system and the other to create a case management system for the courts that can be used in each clerk of court's office. The child support system has a myriad of components and requirements by the federal government, each of which must be tested. Officials demonstrated the new system Tuesday to give senators an idea of how it will work.
Last year, officials decided to abandon developing a system from scratch and entered into a contract with Xerox to copy the system used in Delaware, which is also used in some other states.
The cost of using that system is $137.5 million, though most of that will be paid for with federal funding.
For every year the project is not certified as up and running by the federal government, the state incurs between $10 and $19 million in fines, Early said. The fines are actually federal monies due the agency that are withheld.
Last year, officials announced that Hewlett-Packard Corp., the previous vendor on the project, had agreed to pay the state $44 million and the state had agreed to pay HP $5 million to settle a contract dispute. The state terminated its contract with HP in 2014 and each side blamed the other for delays. The dispute wound up before a state procurement officer in trial-like hearings that lasted for months before the two sides agreed to mediation.
HP was the third vendor on the project. Early said the state will use some of the hardware and work product developed by HP.
The system also will make participation easier for businesses with employees paying child support and allow the state to connect faster and easier with authorities in other states when searching for parents who owe child support, they said.
Young said he would like DSS to present options for accelerating the project when the panel meets next in early December. Alford said she should be able to do that after talking the issue over with Haley.
Outgoing Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat, noted that Alford inherited the project and that previous directors have for years promised the system would be completed.
"I can tell you after 18 years, I see the light at the end of the highway," he said. "It's not pretty and I appreciate the fact that we are all pushing as hard as we can. But it's important to know this is one of many new problems and challenges this administration has taken on. We all want it done as quickly as possible but for the first time ever, I leave here thinking it's going to get done."
Agency caseload management
Also Thursday, Alford gave an update on the agency's caseload management, saying while officials are seeing progress, there were 73 workers handling more than 50 children each, an increase in the last report to senators. The agency's standard is no more than 24 children per worker for the areas of assessment and family preservation.
She said Anderson and Spartanburg are "hot spots" for caseload problems.
Anderson, she said, has a new director but seven vacancies. DSS plans to add second- and third-shift workers in 2017. The county also will get the addition to two caseworker positions, she said.
Spartanburg County's numbers have increased since the last time the agency briefed senators, Alford said. She said DSS had to change the leadership in that county and has an interim director. DSS is adding two new caseworkers as well as second- and third shift workers, as well, she said.
The agency also is sending Casey Family Programs, a national child welfare foundation, to both counties to research why the caseloads are increasing and to work with officials on caseload management.
Overall, she said, about 47 percent of DSS workers have 24 children or less. She said it is likely the agency will request funding for more workers for next year and that she expects further caseload spikes as a centralized intake system is rolled out to the rest of the state, since the system makes it easier for people to report complaints of abuse and neglect.
"These are not where they need to be," she said of the caseloads. "But they are about halfway there."