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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 18, 2002

Child support called a mess

By David Waite
Advertiser Staff Writer

A state agency created to force parents to make their child support payments has accounting problems that are so severe it cannot say where more than $5 million in two separate checking accounts came from or to whom the money is owed, according to a Honolulu attorney.

Francis O'Brien, who has waged a nearly four-year legal battle with the Child Support Enforcement Agency, claimed in a recent court document that the agency has had problems with two checking accounts that had millions of dollars sitting in them that should have been going to child support recipients.

The agency had to stop using the first account, which totaled $1 million, because of shoddy accounting practices, he said in court papers filed on behalf of a woman whose case has grown into a class-action lawsuit. A second account was opened, but it ended up with $4 million and its use had to be suspended because the agency again could no longer determine who exactly had paid money into the account and who was still owed money, O'Brien said.

Now the agency is using a third checking account, one that routinely has a $4 million to $6 million balance even though "it is supposed to maintain a zero sum balance," he claimed.

The agency is entrusted with keeping track of people ordered by the courts to pay child support, usually the result of divorce or paternity cases. In most cases, the employer of the person who has a child support payment obligation is required to withhold the amount from the employee's paycheck and send a separate check to the Child Support Enforcement Agency.

By state and federal law, the agency has no more than two days to log the check in and pass the payment on to the intended recipient.

Diane Taira, a deputy state attorney general assigned to the case, said the agency disputes O'Brien's claims about the various checking accounts but could not comment beyond that because "the matter is in litigation."

"He makes it sound like the agency is out of control, and I can assure you the agency is not out of control," Taira said.

The agency, however, is not without problems, she said, most of which have to do with too few employees handling too much work.

O'Brien contends that after spending more than $38 million and changing computer vendors twice, the Child Support Enforcement Agency still has a difficult time tracking payments and is virtually incapable of checking on complaints.

"Since the beginning of the case, the CSEA has tried to hide behind its own negligence and incredibly shoddy accounting practices to say again and again that it cannot answer the questions that are being put to it by plaintiff in this case," he said in court papers.

Taira could not immediately say how many people with child support obligations in Hawai'i pay money directly to the Child Support Enforcement Agency or have amounts deducted from their paychecks each month.

But she said she has been told the agency handles more than 110,000 cases a month.

When O'Brien filed his initial lawsuit against the agency in August 1998, it was on behalf of a woman who worked for the city and got divorced in May 1998. The woman's first child support check took four to six weeks to arrive, the second one took about four weeks and the third about two weeks.

The delays were primarily because of glitches in the state's installation of a new computer system called Keiki that was supposed to make it easier to track child support payments, Taira said.

O'Brien then expanded the original suit to class-action status, allowing him to represent others who had experienced delays in getting child support checks within two years of his initial filing.

Taira said the Child Support Enforcement Agency acknowledged that there were a number of start-up problems with the Keiki computer system, but she said most of those have been resolved and that the system's programs are constantly upgraded.

She said she had no information, however, on how many of the agency's child support checks reach the intended recipients on time each month.

O'Brien said it's not unusual for a child support recipient who has a problem to have to deal with several different agency staff members.

"Each time they deal with a new person, it's like starting over again," O'Brien said.

To add to the frustration, people with child-support payment problems have to drive to the enforcement agency's office in Kapolei and may or may not get help since appointments are not given over the phone.

When agency administrator Arnold Enoki went to the Legislature in February 2001 to ask for more money to fill staff positions, he said the agency was receiving an average of 34,000 telephone calls a month, 12,000 of them from people asking to speak to an agency representative. But ultimately, only about 1,600 of the callers got through to caseworkers, Enoki said.

Taira said the Legislature turned down the request for more money.

O'Brien said he hopes to obtain a court order that would force agency representatives to meet with him and an accounting expert to explain the agency's accounting system.

Taira said the meeting will be held so O'Brien can get an understanding of agency accounting procedures. But O'Brien will not be allowed to look at the books, because the information they contain is "strictly confidential," Taira said.