Consultant’s report: Kansas’ outsourced child support system suffering from neglect

State’s privatized program struggles with $842 million owed by parents

The Kansas Department for Children and Families financed an independent assessment of the privatized child-support system designed to operate in support of more than 140,000 children and their families. The review identified staff management, communication and computer issues hindering delivery of assistance. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas Department for Children and Families financed an independent assessment of the privatized child support system designed to operate in support of more than 140,000 children and their families. The review identified staff management, communication and computer issues hindering delivery of assistance. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The privatized system in Kansas for handling child support payments to 140,000 children suffers from Byzantine complexity perplexing to employees and the public, a laissez-faire approach to enforcement of support orders, and a computer network that should be a candidate for the scrap heap but isn’t because of high replacement costs.

The child support program overseen by the Kansas Department for Children and Families and operated by a collection of private contractors hired by the state was placed under the microscope of Midwest Evaluation and Research, an Emporia consulting firm. The independent evaluator was hired by DCF to review accountability and effectiveness of the privatized system in the context of Kansas’ performance on key metrics and with knowledge of persistent complaints about IT and communication shortcomings.

The Midwest Evaluation assessment concluded it would likely require a dedicated group of people — politicians, administrators and advocates — to break through resistance to reform.

In a nutshell, the report said: “A lack of support at the highest levels of leadership in Kansas could be one reason why Kansas lags behind other states in terms of carrying out changes that could build a high-performing program that ranks in the top tier nationally.”

The analysis took the measure of a system responsible for distributing $200 million last year paid by parents for benefit of children with whom they didn’t have full custody. It traveled back more than 20 years to when Gov. Bill Graves took the first baby steps into child support privatization and it considered results of the aggressive plunge into case-management outsourcing by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2013.

Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, authorized a consultant's review of the state's privatized child-support system that affirmed computer system, communication and operational shortcomings. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, authorized a consultant’s analysis of the privatized child support system in Kansas that affirmed operational, computer and communication shortcomings. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The 180-page document offered options for how the administration of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and the GOP-led Kansas Legislature might improve a system that last year accumulated $842 million in unpaid child support, a $75 million surge in arrearages since 2015.

The independent reviewers said Kansas could maximize potential of privatization by retooling contracts scheduled to expire in three years. DCF, with the Legislature’s assistance, should deal with its frustrating computer system — KAESCES — by migrating to a modern user-friendly platform. The consultants considered the computer upgrade “one of the most important and impactful steps” to improve operations.

In addition, the report said, Kansas should eliminate policies in the child support program “outdated in ways that create unfair barriers to its customers.”

Midwest Evaluation said lack of data from DCF “severely hampered” development of answers to questions about performance of child support contractors in terms of enforcement of court orders and monetary collections. The reviewers recommended DCF conduct an in-depth study of contractor performance to determine whether a single contract or the current approach with multiple contracts was preferred. The report said DCF would benefit from creation of a data unit to gather detailed information about the child support system.

The report said there could be benefit in movement of some cases to an administrative process rather than sticking with the adversarial environment of a courtroom. The child support system in Kansas is primarily a judicially operated program.

Elizabeth Cohn, an attorney and director of Kansas child support services at DCF, said she welcomed the evaluation and accompanying ideas for improving the child support call center and the work to establish paternity, create or modify court orders, enforce court orders and collect support payments.

“It helps me personally and it helps my team identify where our strengths and weaknesses are,” Cohn said. “The evaluation did not give us a clear pattern of success or failure through the current privatization model.”

However, the consultants said expiration in 2023 of major contracts with companies handling child support work in Kansas offered DCF an opportunity to overhaul performance incentives that weren’t originally “done with the greatest forethought.” Contracts could be restructured to reward companies for meeting aspirational objectives rather than attaining routine metrics, the report said.

Cohn said the outdated computer network would get remedial attention by DCF, but a complete overhaul costing tens of millions of dollars wouldn’t be on the table. DCF started tackling a problem identified by consultants regarding poor internal communication among operators of the system and weak external communication with the public, she said. It’s clear from the audit the public struggles to get information from DCF or contractors about maneuvering through the child support system and that turnover among contract employees limited development of institutional knowledge useful to consumers.

“It is a complicated program and I think that communication piece comes into play,” Cohn said. “We need to do a better job explaining the program to everyone. We need to help people understand us better.”

Paul Johnson, who lobbies at the Capitol on child welfare and food insecurity issues, says the new report on the state's privatized child-support system is a valuable starting point for a discussion about reform of a system with $842 million in unpaid child support. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Paul Johnson, who lobbies at the Capitol on child welfare and food insecurity issues, says the new report on the state’s privatized child support system is a valuable starting point for a discussion about reform of a system with $842 million in unpaid child support. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

She said the consultants indicated Kansas did a good job with its payment center and in establishing parentage and in processing new court orders. An enrollment form on the DCF website has been shortened and a frequently-asked-question section has been updated online, she said.

The Kansas Child Support System had 135,773 child support cases involving 140,219 children during 2019, the latest year for which federal statistics were available. The state’s annual budget for child support operations was $38 million, with much of that money coming from fees. The consultants raised questions about Kansas’ reliance on fees paid by participants and whether those charges were an unfair burden on struggling families.

The system in Kansas relies on approximately 410 full-time equivalent staff, but nearly all those people are employed by contractors. Federal reports indicate the average number of cases for full-time equivalent employees working child support cases increased dramatically under the 2013 privatization. The figure in Kansas was 192 cases per worker in 2010, but stood at 322 per worker in 2018. Nebraska, which has a similar child poverty rate and history of unemployment, had child support caseloads of 274 per worker in 2010 and 291 in 2018.

Paul Johnson, who has worked with the Kansas Rural Center and other organizations lobbying at the Capitol, said he appreciated DCF’s willingness to put funding into an examination of the child support system. He said the Legislature could work in the 2021 session to broadly explore the issue before authorizing a joint House and Senate committee to develop recommendations for the 2022 session.

He said the consultant’s report illuminated troubling inadequacy of the computer network and the miserable level of communication among child support contractors and state employees. There must be a way to adjust administrative procedures to shrink complexity of the system and to reduce reliance on court proceedings, he said.

“It can really be a good starting point. This is a great start to a substantive discussion of child support in Kansas that is so needed,” Johnson said. “It asked some of the right questions. It raises issues that need further study.”

While governors from Graves to Brownback turned to privatization for answers to the state’s struggle with child support, Gov. Jeff Colyer tried to get the attention of parents not paying child support by posting their names and images alongside amounts owed on a DCF website viewable by the public. It was launched in 2018 with 10 targets.

Colyer said the initiative had a “deterrent effect, and that’s the important part,” because “Who wants their face on the website?” The site has been discontinued by DCF.

Kansas began moving toward privatization of child support two decades ago by contracting out the enforcement of court orders in nearly two dozen judicial districts. A centralized payment center was added in 2000 under contract with a single vendor. In 2007, a customer service center was added to the list of contracted services. All case management was contracted out to four full-service vendors in 2013.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.