Welfare computer woes grow

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Troubles with a new state computer system that pays child-support checks and determines welfare eligibility will cost taxpayers millions of dollars over the next few years -- with no quick fix in sight.

During nine years of development, Maryland's federally required Client Information System (CIS) has become a money pit, critics say. The Department of Human Resources (DHR) -- which terminated the computer developer's contract amid a stream of problems -- has committed more than $100 million through 1999 to build and operate a system originally expected to cost about $60 million.

Some children whose fathers have paid support promptly for years don't receive their checks on time. Prosecutors complain that referrals of some support cases have been delayed; others have been hurt by inaccurate accounting. Some families have received full welfare and child-support checks by mistake.

Jane Lynn's February child-support check arrived in her maiden name -- for half the normal amount and 20 days after her child's payment had been received.

"It used to take two days for me to get that check," said Ms. Lynn, who lives in Germantown. "You count on this money. It's hard even if you're making decent money -- it doesn't stretch but so far."

Glitches and delays were so bad in Montgomery County, the first large county to go on-line Feb. 6, that workers had to go back to the county's old system last week. Now, social services workers fear, the problems will spread to Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, all scheduled to join the system by October.

Maryland officials say the problems will be fixed, and note that other states have had similar troubles. They blame much of the rising cost on state welfare reform, problems with the original contractor and the unwillingness of some county workers to embrace new technology. And, they say, the system's features have been upgraded -- from a "Chevette . . . to a Taurus wagon with an air bag" in the words of DHR spokeswoman Helen C. Szablya.

Others are less forgiving.

"This thing has been screwed up from the word go," said state Sen. John A. Cade, an Anne Arundel County Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee that reviews DHR's budget. "It seems like we've invested tens of millions in system design . . . only to fail. It's time to sit down and decide what's realistic."

Information sharing

The problem-plagued computer has two main systems that, while separate, are supposed to share information. One database holds information about clients on public assistance and other benefit programs; a child-support arm generates support checks, keeps track of what parents owe and helps find those who don't pay.

Sharing information is important because collecting child support is one of the best hopes for cutting welfare rolls across the nation. Now, the state collects only about a third of the support owed Maryland children in its more than 300,000 cases. Many single mothers whose former partners don't pay are forced onto welfare to care for their children.

But in Ms. Lynn's case, the system apparently pulled her maiden name out of CIS's public-assistance database, from an old case she had, and transposed it to her child-support case, said Norris E. Sheppard, the Montgomery County child-support director. That had happened in several other instances, he added.

Geneva Coleman of Silver Spring also has had problems. Missing two "bonus checks" -- the amount of support she gets after the state is reimbursed for her public assistance -- meant that spring suits she wanted to buy for her 19-month-old son stayed on layaway longer.

"I don't understand how they can switch over like this without something else to fall back on," she said.

Mr. Sheppard agreed: "They are pushing an inferior, substandard system on us."

Because of computer problems, he said, only half the usual number of checks were sent out in February. One of every four child-support dollars in the county had been falling into one of several escrow accounts that workers combed for the money while families waited.

In response to complaints, state officials said last week that they would pay checks on a backup system until glitches are fixed.

Those officials maintain that Montgomery County's problems stem largely from child-support data that was not well-maintained by the county. Mr. Sheppard countered by pointing to a plaque recognizing the department for having the best rate of collection per dollar spent.

Tests of the conversion process in Baltimore County -- scheduled to join next, in April -- also turned up inaccuracies, though state officials again blame them on the way the county keeps its data.

Other counties have had problems, too. In St. Mary's County, notices to nonpaying parents are taking six times as long to go out, because the system requires workers to put in more information about cases and do more follow-up, said Betsy Fritz, a legal assistant in the child-support unit of the prosecutor's office.

"We have a stand-alone computer we still use," Ms. Fritz said. "It's like our security blanket. We wouldn't be able to operate without it."

James F. Brewer, assistant state's attorney for Carroll County, has noticed some cases in which information about how much a person owes has been incorrect -- something he said never happened before the system was introduced there.

By contrast, at the Queen Anne's County Department of Social Services, the system is seen as a boon.

Patricia Handzo, assistant director of administration and child support, said it helps workers determine when a client has a case in another county, reducing fraud. And support checks go out faster.

Still, she concedes the office has had some problems cited elsewhere. The difference: The county has about 1,200 child-support cases and about the same number of public-assistance cases -- less than one-tenth of Montgomery's caseload.

"Being a small agency, we know these people individually," Ms. Handzo said. "We see [mistakes], but we just override those."

Warning of problems

State officials have had warning of the problems for some time.

Reviewing the performance on two contracts issued in 1990 with SHL Systemhouse Corp. -- a Canadian firm with an office in Columbia, to develop the system -- a legislative auditor wrote that the state should promptly seek damages against the company, stop paying for work before it was completed and consider scrapping the contracts and starting over. That was in 1992.

It took two more years for DHR to terminate the company's contracts. In a settlement that Maryland's attorney general said was intended to save money on litigation, Systemhouse walked away with $30.1 million of its original $34.8 million fee -- and with the state's largest counties still not on-line.

Since then, millions more have been spent hiring a raft of consultants to finish the job.

Mike Thran, who was Systemhouse's managing director for national systems during the latter years of the company's work here, said the biggest problem might have been the use of Connecticut's welfare-eligibility system as a model for Maryland's computer. At the time, it was a federal requirement that eligibility systems be borrowed from another state already on-line.

Systemhouse has had welfare systems certified in nine states and is working on several state child support systems. Never has the company had as difficult a time as it did in Maryland, Mr. Thran said.

The amount of mainframe space needed for the system's data has been responsible for much of the cost of running CIS.

Systemhouse's original contracts specified that the data was to fit within the state data center.

But Robert L. Swann, deputy state comptroller, said DHR informed him last summer that it would need 2 1/2 times the space originally anticipated -- which would have required doubling the capacity of the Annapolis Data Center.

David D. Truax, executive director of DHR's Office of Information Management, said Systemhouse had misled the state about the space the system would require. And he disputed the company's claim that it left workable recommendations for solving the problem.

As the amount of stored data has increased, so has the cost. Based on the original contracts, the state planned to pay about $8 million annually to use the Annapolis Data Center. Instead, it has hired a company outside Maryland to store the data -- at a cost of about $68 million over five years.

Of the $106 million that Maryland has set aside for the CIS system through 1999, about $60 million should come from the federal government. The Administration for Children and Families has agreed to pay for 75 percent of the CIS system and half the operating costs.

Lois Whitaker, a DHR deputy secretary, said Maryland's costs have been relatively controlled in comparison with other states: "Maryland still has gotten a bargain."

And Maryland officials note that although all states are required to develop automated child-support systems by Oct. 1, only Montana has received tentative certification.

Frank Reilly, an information-systems specialist with the U.S. General Accounting Office, is a harsh critic of automated social services systems, particularly for child support. States have spent about $1 billion on technology that may be found, in the end, to be inadequate, he said.

"You can't put these things in without testing them, with real data," he said. "You're dealing with people, with lives -- that's why it's so important."

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