Thirteen-year quest for payment of child support exposes Kansas bureaucracy, incompetence

Privatized collection system piles up $843 million in unpaid family support

By: - October 20, 2021 9:18 am
Katie Whisman, who has endured a 15-year struggle to secure child support payments for her daughter, delivered a searing indictment of the state's privatized child-support system Tuesday to a special legislative committee wrangling with reality that $842 million owed the children of Kansas. (Screen capture of Kansas Legislature/Kansas Reflector)

Katie Whisman, who has endured a 15-year struggle to secure child support payments for her daughter, delivered a searing indictment of the state’s privatized child-support system Tuesday to a special legislative committee wrangling with reality that $842 million owed the children of Kansas. (Screen capture of Kansas Legislature/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Shawnee County resident Katie Whisman’s testimony about failure of the state’s child support collection system to deliver more than $53,000 owed by her daughter’s father inspired a rousing assault by legislators on state contractors responsible for the mess.

Whisman proved no match for the bureaucratic indifference of companies managing the privatized system, despite bringing her skills as a veteran law enforcement officer to the battle. She said the system proved difficult to understand and even more challenging to navigate.

She offered statistical evidence of system failure that landed like punches of a boxer pounding away at a taxpayer: More than 103,000 cases are in arrears. Kansans are owed $842 million in unpaid child support. Only 55% of payment orders generate cash.

There are 11,000 cases, including Whisman’s, hanging in interstate limbo with no clarity as to whether Kansas and the other states have the inclination to get the work done.

She said DCF and the state’s contractors engaged in a blaming exercises whenever another gear slipped in the system. She documented 25 instances in which she visited a child support office, made phone calls or sent emails without progress. She repeatedly submitted the documents that were mishandled by contractors or DCF.

Rachel Zietlow, a vice president at Maximus, center, said the case of Katie Whisman inherited by Maximus on Oct. 1 was unfortunate and the company would prioritize Whisman’s plea for assistance collecting $53,000 in unpaid child support. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

“I am here today because I am losing hope. I do not know where else to turn,” she told the Legislature’s special committee on child support Tuesday. “While I might be the only one in the room today sharing my experience with a failed system, I can assure you I am not the only one. They might be your friends, your neighbors, your fellow state employees. One thing is for certain: They are your constituents.”

Whisman, who bought her 18-year-old daughter to committee meeting at the Capitol, asked House and Senate members to view child support as essential income for thousands of Kansas families. When not paid, she said, it spread financial strain and emotional stress through a custodial parent’s household.

Her presentation followed remarks by the Kansas Department for Children and Families and prefaced testimony by the two payment collection companies DCF awarded three-year contracts to Oct. 1 — Maximus and YoungWilliams. YoungWilliams previously controlled the Topeka area, but DCFs new contract moved oversight of Topeka to Maximus.

“I am not only here today to share my story, but to expose theirs, too,” Whisman said. “If I, with over 20 years’ experience in dealing with the Kansas legal system and understanding the ins and outs of state government, can’t move the needle on my case, what does that mean for those who are at an even greater disadvantage than I? We need advocates. And, even if you can’t help me, please, fix it for them.”

Before Whisman could sit down in the statehouse room, Republican senators and representatives lauded her courage for outlining in detail the extent of her family’s child-support misery.

“What a mess,” said Rep. Tory Arnberger, R-Great Bend. “What a mess. I am so frustrated for you.”

“We’re failing a whole lot of other individuals who would be frustrated at the first step,” said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, the Sedgwick Republican and chair of the joint committee.

She said DCF would likely be called to testify about the Whisman case before the committee submitted recommendations to the full Legislature.

It was obvious from lawmakers’ initial remarks they were eager to dig into shortcomings of a system fully privatized in 2013 during the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback.

The state of Kansas previously fired Maximus for bungling the telephone call center used by people applying for KanCare, which is the Medicaid program in Kansas.

Under the new contracts issued by DCF, the unified call center for child support payments managed by Maximus was shut down. Maximus and YoungWilliams now handle their own customer calls related to child support.

In terms of territory, Maximus has responsibility for child support cases in Wyandotte, Sedgwick, Johnson and Shawnee counties. YoungWilliams has jurisdiction in the 101 other counties. Under the old contracts, DCF had four companies handling work on cases of child support.

“How is it we would recontract with groups that have served us so poorly?” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg. “How will Maximus be addressing what really has been a very failed process? Give us some feedback.”

Rachel Zietlow, lead vice president for U.S. services at Maximus of Reston, Virginia, said the company was dedicated to providing a positive customer experience for Kansans involved in child support system. She said Whisman’s predicament was unfortunate.

“I know that Maximus is committed to putting the customer experience first,” Zietlow said. “It is focused on helping noncustodial parents overcome barriers to supporting their children.”

Kelly Lamson, representing YoungWilliams, said the company’s new contract with the state gave it authority of child support cases in 101 counties. The company plans to work with Maximus to resolve Katie Whisman’s plea for collection of child support owed her. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

“Have you reached out to this individual?” Baumgardner asked.

Zietlow said she hadn’t, but the company had her testimony and “it’s something we will prioritize.”

Kelly Lamson, who oversees project operations for YoungWilliams in Kansas, said the company invested in its workers so they would have skills to deliver highly professional customer service. YoungWilliams has worked in the child support field for Kansas since 2013.

Rep. Shannon Francis, R-Liberal, said YoungWilliams should explore what elements of its delivery system led to problems outlined by Whisman.

“Are they endemic to your company?” he said.

Lamson said testimony from Whisman was heartbreaking. She said there were significant legal hurdles to collecting child support from a self-employed parent living in an different state who refused to pay. Those factors make it hard for Kansas to garnishment wages, she said.

“I just can’t comment specifically on any case due to confidentiality,” Lamson said. “I’m really going to refrain from commenting on any specific case.”

In 2020, DCF received a report evaluating the state’s child support system. The assessment concluded Kansas needed to modern its processes and upgrade of the computer network used to handle cases.

Midwest Evaluation and Research, an Emporia consulting firm, concluded it would require a dedicated group of politicians, administrators and advocates to break through resistance to reform.

“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 report said.

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Tim Carpenter
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.