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Audit faults Maryland child support program

The agency responsible for operating Maryland’s child support program has been lacking in its collection efforts, according to a report published Monday by the Office of Legislative Audits.

The state auditors said the Child Support Enforcement Administration failed to establish wage withholding for thousands of noncustodial parents and to correct Social Security numbers the agency knew were incorrect, even when it was given the correct numbers.

CSEA also cut checks to hundreds of custodial parents who were dead, the audit found. In one case, the recipient had been dead for more than 20 years.

Auditors included eight additional “significant deficiencies” or “significant instances of noncompliance” in their report.

The audit, covering Sept. 1, 2007, through Oct. 20, 2010, identified 8,763 noncustodial parents with support arrearages totaling $88 million whose wages were not being garnished.

CSEA’s response, which was included with the audit, noted that wage withholding is its “most productive tool for collecting child support,” bringing in $345.5 million in federal fiscal year 2010.

While agreeing with the auditors’ recommendation to pursue wage withholding “to the fullest extent possible,” the agency questioned the use of daily wage reports as a measurement. Specifically, CSEA pointed to its own test of a daily match report of wages where “out of 61 total cases, none required any action because the cases were already paying or were shared cases with another state already enforcing the order.”

To put the report in perspective, state Sen. James C. Rosapepe, co-chair of the Joint Audit Committee, noted that about three-fourths of all state audits involve findings of deficiencies.

“Child support enforcement is detailed and complicated, so it’s not surprising” that auditors found fault with CSEA, he said.

However, he added, “it’s not acceptable either. And that’s why we do audits. It’s a constant effort on keeping a focus on doing it right.”

Gina Higginbotham, CSEA’s interim executive director, could not be reached for comment by press time.

In addition to wage withholding issues, the audit faults CSEA for insufficient procedures to identify payments being made to deceased custodial parents. The auditors found that nearly $208,000 had been paid to 362 individuals at least a month after their death.

“In several instances, payments were made years after the death of the custodial parent,” the report says. The payments included at least one that was made seven years after death, and another, made in June 2009, to a recipient who had been dead for two decades.

CSEA’s written response said the agency has implemented a new policy requiring staff to review Division of Vital Records reports and Social Security Administration death-match reports to identify deceased custodial parents. The policy further requires staff to hold child support payments in escrow if the recipient is dead and determine if there has been a beneficiary named to receive payments for the child.

Finally, CSEA says it will seek advice from Maryland’s Office of the Attorney General to determine what action should be taken against those who cashed support checks made payable to deceased parents.

In regard to incorrect Social Security numbers, the auditors’ test of 17 cases showed that CSEA did not take appropriate follow-up action in 16 of them. In seven of those cases, CSEA was informed by the federal child support enforcement agency of the correct numbers; however, it corrected only two of them, and the corrections came three and seven years later based on other information the agency received.

To resolve incorrect numbers in the future, CSEA said it now requires staff to review the SSA’s Social Security number error report within two days of receipt.

According to the agency’s own records, statewide child support collections totaled approximately $530 million during federal fiscal year 2010, ending Sept. 30, 2010. As of that date, the statewide unpaid child support due from noncustodial parents totaled approximately $1.72 billion.