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Child support agency failed to seek data from 8 agencies

Despite warnings by auditors going back to at least 2011, Maryland’s Child Support Enforcement Agency did not ask the state’s top court to provide identifying information on attorneys until last week, state audits show.

Audits from 2012 and 2011 found CSEA had not collected data from eight of 15 licensing agencies, including the Court of Appeals, in order to see if licensees were seriously delinquent on court-ordered support payments.

A law enacted in 2007 added attorneys to the list of licensing authorities subject to CSEA scrutiny. Attorneys who are 120 days or more on payments are eligible to have their licenses suspended.

University of Baltimore School of Law professor Jane C. Murphy said while using license suspension may not be an effective way to collect child support from some people, like low-income parents, it could be a stronger mechanism for traditionally higher-paid professionals like attorneys.

“The fact that the Child Support Enforcement Administration has not requested information from the Court of Appeals in that number of years seems to me probably not the best policy,” said Murphy, who has written and lectured extensively on family law. “There are probably a number of attorneys on that list that could afford to pay child support and that could benefit the state.”

In a September 2011 report on CSEA, the Office of Legislative Audits noted that the agency had not obtained attorney information from the Court of Appeals the previous year. The auditors, however, asked for that information from the court, which provided about 35,000 names. The court did not have Social Security numbers for 9,800 attorneys, the audit report noted.

“Consequently, these licensees were not included in CSEA’s matches with its child support obligors and any delinquent noncustodial parents were not subject to license suspension,” the Office of Legislative Audits wrote.

The September 2011 audit report recommended the data exchange be completed with the court and seven other agencies by May 2012. The Court of Appeals’ status at the time of the audit report was “Data exchange in development.”

A November 2012 audit found CSEA was still not collecting data from the eight licensing authorities, but was working with the agencies to implement procedures for future data exchange.

An April Joint Chairmen’s Report on the state’s budget ordered the Court of Appeals to give CSEA the data or face a $1 million hold on the Maryland Judiciary’s funds.

The chairmen’s report also threatened to withhold $750,000 from the Health Professionals Boards and Commission and $50,000 from the Board of Nursing unless information was provided.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Baltimore and Howard, who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee; and Del. Norman H. Conway, D-Wicomico and Worcester, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, charged the Office of Legislative Audits with verifying the records exchange in the Joint Chairmen’s Report.

The Office of Legislative Audits sent the chairmen a letter last week confirming the Court of Appeals had sent CSEA the names and Social Security numbers of the state’s approximately 37,000 attorneys on July 22.

Neither Kasemeyer nor Conway returned requests for comment Tuesday or Wednesday. Requests for comment to the judiciary and CSEA were likewise unavailing.

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law professor William Reynolds, who lectures on child support enforcement issues. said a number of other states have enacted similar attorney suspension laws.

“I understand that they have been quite effective,” Reynolds said. “The threat of suspension certainly should be a major wake-up call for anyone who is behind in child support payments.”

University of Baltimore School of Law associate professor Daniel L. Hatcher, however, cautioned against the use of license suspension as a means to collect.

“Just because someone has a law license doesn’t mean they are doing well,” said Hatcher, an expert in child support issues. “My concern with any of these enforcement tools that are available to the child support office is that automation not take over. There needs to be flexibility applied.”

Hatcher said in many cases a license suspension can create more hardship for a person who is, for example, out of work and can’t make payments.

“It just depends on the individual circumstances…,” Hater said. “Life does not fit within one box. Laws like this don’t allow for enough discretion.”

The 2007 law passed both the House of Delegates and Senate without opposition and added the Court of Appeals to a list of other agencies that are subject to license suspension for delinquent child support payments.

The law stemmed from a Montgomery County teacher whose husband, an attorney, left her the day her child was born. The man set up barriers to paying child support like being self-employed and keeping his bank accounts below a certain limit.

The law sets up a procedure in which CSEA has the authority to ask for attorney information from the Court of Appeals. CSEA would then review the information with names in its system. Any attorneys who fall 120 days behind in child support payments would be referred to the Attorney Grievance Commission.

The Attorney Grievance Commission would investigate the complaints and petition the Court of Appeals with what it deemed to be the appropriate sanction. The state’s top court would then make the final decision.

Besides the Court of Appeals, CSEA is authorized to collect data for license suspension review from the Clerks of the Court, the Comptroller of Maryland, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Human Resources, the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Transportation, the Maryland Insurance Administration, the Office of the Attorney General, the Public Service Commission, the Secretary of State and the State Department of Education.