News » Cover Story

A new firm is taking over Davidson County’s privatized child support enforcement — and not a moment too soon

Child's Pay

by

9 comments

Page 2 of 2

Baker, a custodial parent, says she knows firsthand what other parents have experienced with Maximus. In 2006, Baker wanted her daughter's father to accept responsibility for her upbringing, so they went to family court to determine child support.

The judge ruled that the father, who was employed with benefits, was a year behind in child support. He was ordered to pay nearly $7,000 in arrears and provide health insurance. He paid the arrears, but never provided health insurance.

"I contacted Maximus many times to ask them to enforce the insurance issue, but Maximus told me there was 'nothing they could do for me,' " Baker says. She was confused as to why they wouldn't just enforce the order, so she turned to the DHS for help.

"They sent me a letter saying I would have to contact Maximus about my complaints, since they have jurisdiction over child support collections for my county, and that they could not assist me with anything child-support related," she says. "In 2007, I was forced to go on Medicaid since Maximus and the state refused to enforce the order, which stated the non-custodial parent was responsible for providing insurance."

Earlier this year, Baker received a letter from DHS informing her that both the Hamilton County Juvenile Court and Maximus had made a "mistake." DHS said Maximus had not deliberately denied health coverage, but the corporation had misinterpreted the court order, believing it was her responsibility to provide coverage for her daughter.

Baker says she loathed going on Medicaid, but had no choice but to accept what the system offered her.

"All of us who are forced to deal with Maximus child support are, in my eyes, at the mercy of a giant corporation and local governments that are clearly working together to make a profit from child-support collections," she says. "Politicians on a local level do not want to suffer the heat from an underperforming juvenile court system, and Maximus is more than happy to collect their millions, underperform and not give a crap about child-support collections."

Baker says hundreds of sympathetic parents have written posts on her blog in frustration. Many even signed a national petition online in protest of Maximus intended for President Barack Obama.

That heat has also been felt by the DHS, which logged 894 statewide complaints against Maximus from July 2009 to September 2012. When Maximus ran the Davidson County office in 2012, after its purchase of PSI, it logged 36 complaints from May 1 to Dec. 31.

Complaints heard by the state include lack of professionalism on the part of Maximus employees, lost or late child-support payments, and administrative gaffes on the part of Maximus employees that have cost the jobs of non-custodial parents.

"The department takes all complaints very seriously," said DHS spokeswoman Valisa Thompson. "Complaints received about any vendor or partner who is providing services on behalf of the department are investigated fully by the department."

As well they should be. The financial stakes for these private firms are high, Baker says, as huge sums of money are being exchanged. Besides the state funding to run the program, consider the amount regularly paid between non-custodial parent and custodial parent. For fiscal year 2012, the DHS says the state helped facilitate $602 million in payments.

Indeed, the state's DHS offers the custodial parent the option of receiving the non-custodial's payment in a prepaid Visa Card. And just like any banking card, Visa charges fees such as overdraft penalties and ATM charges.

Just how much money Maximus has made off Tennessee taxpayers is a mystery, as the company refuses to divulge whether they've made a profit off their child support enforcement contracts. Lisa Miles, a spokeswoman for Maximus' Investor Relations, tells the Scene, "We are unable to disclose financial information by project."

Another Maximus spokeswoman, Sally Anderson, who is outsourced by the company and works for Hall Strategies in Nashville, was forwarded specific questions regarding whether the wage and benefits of their Davidson County employees are consistent with what Tennessee government child support personnel earn. But Anderson would not speak specifically about wages paid for by state taxpayers.

"In addition to supporting custodial parents to obtain the child support ordered, Maximus focuses on addressing barriers that non-custodial parents face in paying their obligations," Anderson said. "This child-centric approach has been shown to lead to longer-term consistent child support payments as well as creating less divisiveness between the child's parents."

Many non-custodial parents, however — mostly fathers — claim Maximus and other privatized child-support enforcement agencies use heavy-handed tactics toward them. Tony Gottlieb, a single father from Nashville who once directed DAD of Tennessee, a group that seeks to empower divorced fathers as equal partners in parenting, says that financially marginalized or unemployed fathers become easy targets for Maximus and other private firms. The firms are desperate to meet government-mandated performance metrics or lose out on lucrative contracts, he says.

Gottlieb, who is mainly on the sidelines these days regarding the issue, says he's heard that the "ridiculous unemployment" problem in Memphis has forced the "poor non-custodial parent" into a corner — and that toward those parents, Maximus is relentless.

"It's deteriorated to the point where they're taking guys to the county lockup in buses now and they haven't solved anything," Gottlieb says, since nearly half of all Shelby County non-custodial parents are not consistently paying child support.

The situation there has drawn the attention of state Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis), an opponent of privatized child-support collection. "I get more complaints on Maximus than any other issue dealing with family services and juvenile justice," the lawmaker told Memphis' Fox affiliate WHBQ-Channel 13 in a February news story. Particularly galling to Hardaway, and Shelby County's low-income non-custodial parents, is Project Drive, a Maximus-run program that seizes driver's licenses for non-payment but will reinstate them — for a $750 fee.

The lawmaker went on to lambaste Maximus' "cozy relationships and the revolving door that existed between government, state government, the administration within the DHS, and the corporate executives with Maximus."

One person the Scene hoped could address Hardaway's "revolving door" comments is David Sanchez, current director of the DHS' Division of Child Support. But Sanchez did not respond to multiple interview requests. The state, however, did confirm that Sanchez had another employer as recently as 2011.

"Mr. Sanchez was previously employed by Maximus," DHS spokeswoman Devin Stone tells the Scene. "He is a subject-matter expert in child support services with over 21 years' experience in states across the nation."

Praising Sanchez, Magistrate Rosenberg says he "has worked really hard to get [Tennessee's] numbers up." According to the DHS, for fiscal year 2012, the state collected $7.31 in child support and passed it along to the custodial parent for every $1 spent in taxpayer's money. That ranks Tennessee sixth highest out of the 50 states.

Many proponents back the privatization of child support enforcement agencies, and the Scene attempted to speak to several of these organizations. But the groups contacted, which included the National Child Support Enforcement Association (representing both public and private employees) and the Office of Child Support Enforcement (of the federal government), declined to address why privatizing child support enforcement is the right move for both child and taxpayer.

But one entity maintains an unshakable belief in the power of privatized social service. In 2004, Maximus was hired by Metro Nashville to study and improve city social service programs such as Nutrition Services and Homemaker Services. In its final report, Maximus recommended to city officials that these services should be handed off to a private firm. What the report didn't mention was that Maximus was just such a firm.

Sensing something was amiss, Service Employees International Union Local 205 did some checking into Maximus. The union concluded the company was acting as much more than a "consultant," says SEIU Local 205 spokesman Mark Naccarato.

"Maximus ended up not getting any contracts in Nashville and lost credibility because they were not forthcoming about their role as provider of services," Naccarato says. "The Maximus report also gave us the momentum we needed to pass anti-privatization legislation in 2005, which is still on the books." The legislation — actually an ordinance amending a Metropolitan Code of Law relating to privatization — requires providing employment opportunity for displaced Metro employees, among other obligations.

But the tide of privatized social service continues to roll. This summer, the state of Kansas is preparing to privatize every one of its child support enforcement agencies. The trend that apparently began in 1991 with PSI in Tennessee is gaining momentum.

Carolyn Heinrich, director of the Center for Health and Social Policy at the University of Texas, is an expert on federal efforts to increase child support collections. She says the jury is still out on whether privatized child support enforcement agencies serve a community and its children better than government-run agencies. But in the case of Maximus and its poor performance and high number of complaints, she said it is the state's responsibility to make the right decision on which firm to use.

"Maximus probably hooked [Tennessee's DHS] with, 'We're going to save you money,' " Heinrich says. "This is when the state has to be prudent and ask, 'How are you going to save us money?' The state has to get out there and see what they do. And during negotiations, if the private firm says they're going to lay off this many people and hire temps, this should make the state take pause and ask, 'Is this going to work for us?' "

Within a matter of days, Mississippi-based YoungWilliams will take over for Maximus. The Scene tried to speak with YoungWilliams on several occasions but was told by a YoungWilliams representative a stipulation of the contract with Tennessee's DHS is not to talk with any media about the contract or their work for Davidson County.

Nonetheless, Magistrate Rosenberg traveled to Knoxville several times to personally research YoungWilliams, which currently holds Knox County's child support enforcement contract. He's confident YoungWilliams will run the Davidson County child support enforcement agency better than Maximus did.

"I have a lot of hope for YoungWilliams," he said, "and the reason is I am very familiar with how YoungWilliams runs their contract in Knoxville." YoungWilliams claims the company strictly works for child support enforcement agencies only, and is superior to other private firms because everything it does is designed to improve child support enforcement.

Rosenberg has worked for Juvenile Court since 1998 and thus has worked with a private child support enforcement firm for his entire stay. And even though he doesn't throw much support behind privatization, he doesn't endorse letting Metro Nashville's child support enforcement program revert entirely back to government control.

"I'm not sure all the citizens of Nashville are best served by [any government agency] being completely privatized," says Rosenberg. "There needs to be a combination of both. As a private company, they're not as accountable to the taxpayers of Nashville. If it was run by the county, and there's a problem, you call the mayor's office and something is going to happen.

"If the government was to utilize privatization but run certain ethics of the program and still maintain control over it, that would be a much better model, but I don't know if anyone has ever tried that."

Maybe not. But after 20 years of privatized child support enforcement of drastically uneven quality, perhaps Nashville is learning what it doesn't want.

Portions of this article previously appeared in the Chattanooga Pulse.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

Comments (9)

Showing 1-9 of 9

Add a comment
 

Add a comment