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State’s child support collections lag national average

Topeka Capital Journal - 1/24/2020

The state of Kansas hired a consulting firm to evaluate how to modify a privatized child support system that fails to match national averages in terms of convincing parents to make overdue payments for care of minors, officials said Thursday.

Arrearage collection rates in Kansas inched upward to 58.4% in 2019, the fifth consecutive year in which the figure remained below 60%. The national average stands at 64%. From 2001 to 2014 in Kansas, the portion making payments on child-support debt ranged from a low of 60.1% in 2014 to a high of 65.8% in 2008.

Elizabeth Cohn, interim director of child support services at the Kansas Department for Children and Families, told House members the below-average figures for Kansas didn't reflect payment history of one-fifth of the state's cases handled privately. The child support system in Kansas includes 240,000 children of 580,000 adults.

Cohn said DCF in November hired Midwest Evaluation and Research, of Emporia, to conduct an eight-month assessment of the child support collection system in Kansas.

The analysis is scheduled for completion in June and should assist with formulation of recommendations to the 2021 Legislature, she said.

"We anticipate drawing on that report to develop a concrete, strategic plan of meaningful long-term metrics and impactful program changes including the decision on whether to change parts of privatization," Cohn said.

Rep. Will Carpenter, the El Dorado Republican who chairs the House Social Services Budget Committee, said the state's child support collection operations had taken a "step back" and the system was ripe for an oversight evaluation.

Inability of families to secure financial resources necessary for raising children fuel higher demand for government social services, said Rep. Monica Murnan, a Pittsburg Democrat on the House committee that was provided the DCF briefing.

"This was just a great acknowledgment of where we're at," she said. "This is important because it is a cascade issue."

Kansas privatized child support collections in 2013. Gov. Sam Brownback championed the reform as an effort to boost collections from deadbeat parents. DCF's secretary at that time, Phyllis Gilmore, said collections could be done more cost-effectively by private companies.

Paul Johnson, who represents the Kansas Rural Center and the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said total arrearages for child support in Kansas surged from $720 million in 2014 to $876 million in 2018. Iowa and Kansas have comparable caseloads in terms of child support, but Iowa distributed $304 million to families in 2018 while Kansas distributed $193 million that year.

He said reform strategies developed by DCF, the Legislature and the Office of Judicial Administration should include measurable goals to bring the state in line with national averages.

"We're after the best interests of the child," Johnson said. "The plan should discuss the issue of privatization."

In 2018, Gov. Jeff Colyer responded to inadequacies in securing child support payments by ordering creation of a website to shame people who owed money in Kansas. The website initiative was taken offline by Gov. Laura Kelly.

The state's contract with YoungWilliams, which operates the Kansas Payment Center, expires in 2022. The child support call center contract and agreements with the four contractors working directly on child support cases ends in June. It is possible DCF will extend the short-term agreements one year to allow for development of the reform package.

Tim Carpenter, The Topeka Capital-Journal