John O'Leary is a former GOVERNING contributor. He is co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Locating parents who are negligent on their child support payments just got a little easier with an innovative approach used by Virginia's Division of Child Support Enforcement.
Recognizing the growing use of cell phones, DCSE determined that non-custodial parents could often be located through a search of cell phone company records. This relatively straightforward data matching exercise helped the state collect an additional $1 million in unpaid dues. As the nation grapples with an increasingly stressed safety net and an astounding 40% rate of out-of-wedlock birth, states should look to Virginia's DCSE as a proof as to what a little creative thinking can do.
A Multi-Pronged Strategy
The cell phone subpoena program is one of many strategies DCSE has deployed in trying to close its $2.5 billion dollar shortfall in past due child support. (If that sounds like a big number, rest assured that Virginia is actually a little better than average.) Innovations like a Driver's License Suspension Program and allowing non-custodial parents to make payments on-line or through their employer have borne tremendous fruit. In FY08, the Division reported a 3.4% increase in collections over the previous year (a continuing trend upward) and collected $7.01 for every dollar spent, an ROI that made it the sixth most cost-effective program in the nation. Virginia's leadership earned it a handful of awards from agencies and organizations like U.S. Health and Human Services, the National Child Support Enforcement Association and the Council of State Governments.
How It Works
The subpoena program is focused on what is known as "live" data matching that links the DCSE database with those of participating service providers. To date, four of the seven major cell phone providers have come on board with the program. Technical staffs from DCSE and cell phone providers work closely in identifying matches. Getting an address and phone number is a big step in trying to enforce support.
Overall, DCSE Director Nick Young feels the providers deserve tremendous credit. The program is funded entirely through the DCSE budget with annual operational cost of about $30,000. Prior to implementation, Young says DCSE rarely used its subpoena power on NCPs. For other states considering the program, he feels that it is critical to develop support among legislators.
The Real Challenge
Given the scale of the challenge, Nick Young, director of DCSE and the mastermind of the subpoena program is quick to acknowledge it as an "enhancement innovation". For Young and his staff, the real mission is not solely about collecting, but about the bigger task of helping parents meet their responsibilities, particularly the hardest to reach. To that extent, Young unhappily notes that 6,000 NCPs went to jail last year, and is proud of the Intensive Case Monitoring Program that began in July 2008. About the program Young says, "[Serves] as an alternative to serving prison time. Program participants receive job training and support services, designed to teach them skills and behaviors necessary to gain and retain employment. It's one last chance that shows that if NCPs get it right, pay attention and stop offending, DCSE and the state will help them." The holistic prevention-style approach coupled with more proactive enforcement techniques have been well received by the public.
Taking it to the States
Moving ahead, Young and DCSE is working closely with National Cell Phone Workgroup out of the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement to help devise a uniform system for states to implement. Child support enforcement varies by state, with some, such as New York, focused on the county-level and others like Virginia, California and Texas operating at the state-level. The National Cell Phone Workgroup is hoping to create a centralized portal open to all states for data matching purposes. This will make the program more efficient for both states and cell phone service providers.