A state audit released this week found that the agency responsible for child support failed to collect more than $1.7 billion over three years, largely because of insufficient enforcement against non-custodial parents who fell behind on their payments.
The Office of Legislative Audits reported that more than 165,000 parents missed payments and faulted the Child Support Enforcement Administration for failing to use all the collection tools it had at its disposal.
The state collected more than $530 million over the three years that ended last October, mostly from garnished wages, the audit said. But the enforcement administration failed to retrieve payments that amounted to three times as much.
The agency can legally withhold wages, suspend occupational and drivers' licenses, intercept tax refunds and seize the bank accounts of non-custodial parents who are delinquent in their payments, and should use those measures to the maximum levels allowed under state law, according to the audit.
"The audit makes clear that we were not making the best use of the tools we have," said Ian Patrick Hines, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees the administration. "We are now shifting gears and tightening up."
Hines said the agency has already strengthened its policy for seizing money from bank accounts. The audit said the agency failed to garnish the savings and checking bank accounts of more than 25,000 non-custodial parents whose arrears amounted to $33.6 million. The agency often waited until a parent owed more than $2,500 before it acted, the audit said. State law allows seizure of checking or savings funds if a parent owes more than $500 in child support and has not paid for more than 60 days.
CSEA will now act when the amount owed reaches $500, he said. An automated process, put in place this year to garnish bank accounts, has already increased collections by $1.4 million.
"We agree with the findings, which have been informative for us," Hines said.
The agency could have withheld wages from nearly 9,000 more parents who were about $88 million in arrears at the end of September last year, according to the audit. It also did not review information from all of the state's professional licensing boards — such as the Maryland Insurance Administration. Such checks could have helped in the collection of another $47 million, the audit said.
"For most of the report, we are looking at how to improve enforcement and increase collections," said Bruce A. Myers, legislative auditor. "If you can do something a little better, you can have a tremendous impact."
CSEA has also avoided a $2 million federal fine by increasing to 89 percent the proportion of cases in which it investigates and verifies paternity.
The Baltimore-based agency, with an annual budget of $42 million, oversees local offices throughout the state. Auditors recommended that CSEA ensure all its local offices perform sufficient, timely reviews of delinquent cases. The audit uncovered a few cases in which payments continued after the death of the custodial parent, and said the local offices should do more to ensure sure payments are going to the right person.
CSEA officials said they have addressed recommendations from the auditors and expanded their collection strategies.
"We know people are struggling in this economy," Hines said. "Notwithstanding that, we know there is still room for improvement in our collections."
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Ian Patrick Hines' title. The Sun regrets the error.