Over 40% of child support payments are unpaid in Kansas. Officials want to improve the program.

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Elizabeth Cohn, director of child support services for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, hands out overview papers regarding the specific services her department handles during a committee meeting Tuesday at the Statehouse.

Families and an independent audit of the state's child support process are pushing for changes to the privatized system, with state lawmakers set to study potential improvements in the months to come.

The Department of Children and Families, the agency largely tasked with managing child support issues in Kansas, notes improvement in many key metrics and argues they are pursuing improvements in working with contractors to cut down on the hundreds of million of dollars of support payments that remain unpaid.

Federal data from fiscal year 2020, the most recent year for which figures are available, show a 58% collection rate in Kansas. While that number is better than the 54% mark in 2014, it is still below the national average. Moreover, Kansas has ranked 44th nationally in the percentage of support payments collected since 2008.

Matthew Shepard, president of Midwest Evaluation and Research, an Emporia-based firm that handled an audit of the child support program last year, said Kansas has seen a rise in how cost-effective its enforcement work has been but has stagnated in other key areas.

"It was a bit of a mixed bag," Shepard said.

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The number of moving parts to the state's child support system can add to confusion for parents owed money.

Complex cases or those involving parents who receive social services, such as food stamps or unemployment benefits, are deemed to be a IV-D case, with the category named after the federal law under which it was established. There are 129,748 open IV-D cases in Kansas, according to DCF.

In these situations, the state is tasked with locating non-custodial parents, getting court orders establishing paternity and collecting payments, although in Kansas most of those functions are handed off to contractors. Those firms also run customer service centers and the online system where payments are made.

Elizabeth Cohn speaks on the specific services her department handles.

Non IV-D cases, meanwhile, are largely handled by the court systems. But toggling between the two can cause confusion and frustration for families, according to Katie Whisman, who is owed over $53,000 by her ex-husband in a case which has dragged on since 2005.

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‘These are contracts that were failing’

Whisman's case was transferred from Shawnee County District Court to DCF after her ex-husband stopped paying. While there were organizational snafus at the district court level, those compounded when the case was handed off to the state.

Despite filing pages of official documents showing her ex-husband's address in Missouri, it took months for the state to attempt to locate him out-of-state and Whisman said there was never any effort to involve federal agencies or improve coordination between the states.

She outlined dozens of calls, in-person meetings and emails with state officials, some of which were unreturned, while others were an hours-long morass. Whisman said she was even advised to retain a family lawyer to help on the matter — but was told attorneys in that field had stopped handling child support cases in Kansas because of the byzantine nature of the state's setup

"Child support is an essential income for thousands of Kansas families and when those sources aren’t paid it is a source of strain and resource deprivation in the custodial parents’ household," Whisman said. "I experienced that firsthand."

Former Gov. Sam Brownback fully privatized the child support collection system in 2013, under the logic that private contractors could handle the work more efficiently. At the time, four contractors were brought aboard to handle enforcement and collections. In September that was consolidated to two firms, Maximus and Young Williams.

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DCF said the move to focus on two contractors with eye toward a more efficient model that integrates enforcement and collection with the customer service apparatus. 

Both contractors said the nature of Whisman's case, including having to work with Missouri officials, created unique challenges. But Kelly Lamson, project manager for Young Williams, acknowledged communication needed to be better.

"It is not acceptable for parents not to get an update," Lamson said.

But Whisman said she received affirmation from DCF when she voiced concerns about the vendors and questioned what the state was getting from their contracts, which are worth more than $27 million annually.

"These are not new contractors," she said. "These are contracts that were failing and they were re-awarded." 

Legislators investigate issue, weigh potential policy action

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, chairs the Special Committee on Child Support.

Legislators will soon have the ability to weigh structural changes, with a committee established to make recommendations on policy options ahead of the 2022 legislative session, which begins in January.

That panel held its first meeting Tuesday and its formation follows the Midwest Evaluation and Research report last year that outlined many of the problems with the child support collection system.

Recommendations for improvement included modernizing the computer backend — KAESCES — which the report said was a main culprit behind the system's woes. The report noted it was difficult to learn and didn't work well with other state computer programs.

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"It caused all sorts of ripple effects across the system," Midwest Research's Shepard said, adding moving toward a more modern, easier-to-use system would make a big impact.

The report also advocated for establishing better performance metrics for contractors. Elizabeth Cohn, director of the child support division in DCF, noted the agency was in the process of establishing a baseline level of performance, which will be used to drive future decisions.

"From this baseline we can work with our contractors to identify where we can shift policy, procedure or cases to make meaningful change to our collections and other progress measures," Cohn said.

With many of the concerns centered on DCF and its relationships with contractors, Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, the committee chair, said the Legislature would be reviewing those deals closely as they expire in the coming years.

Determining the scope of the problem would be the goal for lawmakers.

"It is something we need to learn and discover a little bit," McGinn said in an interview. "We don't need this to be difficult for single parents who are just trying to get what monetary help is due to them."

Shepard said there are any number of ways the state could modernize its system to make it more user-friendly, including automating some functions and better engaging with employers to facilitate payments. That could also include revising the current funding structure, which is primarily reliant upon fees paid by families using the system.

He compared the current system to a car on the interstate.

"In lots of ways that car hasn't changed in the last 20 years," Shepard said. "But all the other cars on the freeway has. It is older and has gotten beat up and you do some repairs. But the question for you all is what repairs do you want to do and do you trade it in for a newer model."

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.