Child Support Authority considered among best in nation

(Sarah Pridgeon photo) Members of the local Child Support Authority board discuss business during their regular meeting in Sundance on Wednesday.
(Sarah Pridgeon photo) Members of the local Child Support Authority board discuss business during their regular meeting in Sundance on Wednesday.

At the midpoint of the 1990s, Wyoming’s Department of Family Services realized it was losing control of child support and had neither the infrastructure nor the time to see that every payment was made. Stringent sanctions hovered ominously on the horizon and boxes of files had piled up in the basement in Cheyenne.

Fast forward a couple of decades and Public District Manager Carol Kinney is happy to explain just how far the system has come since it passed into local control. No longer struggling to fulfill their mandate, the Wyoming Child Support Enforcement Program is considered the very best in the nation.

Along with her staff, Kinney helps to secure child support payments for kids whose parents have separated. Her department covers Judicial District #6, made up of Crook, Weston and part of Campbell County.

The authority serves between two thirds and three quarters of every child support case that comes in front of the courts. Only those cases that are fully up to date are outside its responsibility.

Its mission is to ensure that, when a family separates, children receive every cent of the financial support that the court has ordered. Making sure this happens involves everything from helping to set up payments in the first place to determining true paternity and chasing down parents who have defaulted.

This, in turn, reduces the federal, state and local costs of assisting single-parent families, lowering governmental costs for such things as Medicaid and Food Stamps. It’s now possible for many families to avoid public assistance altogether, says Kinney.

Originally handled by the state, child support became a local matter in the 1990s. Facing sanctions regarding how child support should be handled, the southern half of the state signed a contract with a for-profit vendor.

The ten northern counties meanwhile contracted child support to four public districts, which included three joint powers boards and one county commission, all of them not-for-profit.

No matter its set-up, each district around the state provides four federally mandated services: locating noncustodial parents, establishing paternity, establishing child and medical support obligations and enforcing those obligations. Beset by teething problems during its initial few years, they have come a long way since the turn of the century.

“When we started out, we had less than $1 million in collections,” says Kinney.

“Last year, we collected $9,687,000 in this district and $72 million across the state, which is huge. It makes a difference for the children.”

Each state in the nation is evaluated based on performance measures, the number of collections made and the cost to collect payments for every dollar spent. The latter measurement requires that a minimum of $5 is collected for every dollar spent but, in this state, Child Support Enforcement maintains a level of $9 for each dollar spent.

Wyoming’s program has consequently been rated number one in the nation for child support services for a second time this fiscal year, something that Kinney attributes to its cost-effective practices and a uniform approach across the districts.

“We’re very, very cost effective,” she says.

“About ten years ago, we won an award for being the most improved state because our collection numbers were extremely low when we changed to this new system. Now, we have brokered this system so that it is the best and we are the state that everybody is chasing.”

The Sixth Judicial District itself has received the Outstanding Program Award for the State of Wyoming, granted by the Wyoming Child Support Association for 2013 and reflecting the leaps and bounds it has come since the program’s inception.

In 2000, when Kinney took on the role of manager, productivity was a major problem within the department, with high staff turnover and less effective technology at the root of the problem. Today, the department has almost halved from 23 staff members to 12 and is still achieving the same amount of success – if not more.

“Those 23 staff were each dealing with 450-500 cases, while one of my members of staff now has 1200 cases and is fine doing that,” says Kinney.

“We don’t need as many people to do the same amount – we’re functioning on a higher level of productivity than we’ve ever functioned.”

High turnover of up to 70 percent each year used to mean that the same training was repeated over and over to bring new members of staff up to speed.

“We’ve worked really hard to get our staff stabilized, because we all believe in a person that has some longevity,” says Kinney.

“You can’t just train a person off the street in two weeks to do the job, it takes a year. It takes six months for them to know what to do and then another six months to know why they’re doing it.”

All the data that staff members need is now stored via computer, which means considerably less data entry and duplication. Less time must be spent on the administrative details of each case than when the system was transferred from state control.

“Back then, it was a mess,” says County Attorney Joe Baron. “They basically brought 5000 file folders in boxes and dumped them in the office. The people at the state didn’t know how to do it, let alone the people here knowing how to do it.”

With every department doing things differently before the system was changed, it took time to create a sense of uniformity for Child Services Authorities across the state.

“One of the reasons we’re number one again is that we are all doing it the same way – we now do have a standard operating manual statewide,” says Kinney.

“Everybody follows it and does the same thing – if you’re in Evanston, you’re going to get the same service that you do in Sundance.”

Already surpassing expectations and meeting or exceeding all its performance measures for the first quarter of this year, the district is introducing new procedures that could improve its performance further, says Kinney.

The first is to offer a potential father the option of a paternity test at the beginning of the process. Instead of fighting through months of delays caused by non-established paternity, the Child Support Authority can skip months of delay in establishing payments.

If parents cannot agree to the terms of establishing an order, they also now have the opportunity to agree to a temporary order while they wait to take their case before a judge.

Waiting for a court date can take as long as six months, and this is time spent without a payment for the child, but a temporary order for a lower amount can fill the gap. The judge can then decide the final amount at the court date.