A panel of South Carolina legislators expressed their frustrations Wednesday that a child support database that was supposed to be finished 17 years ago is still possibly four more years away from completion.
The comments came as the Joint Bond Review Committee heard an update from the state Department of Social Services over its well-documented struggles to get the database up and running. The database, which has now gone through four different contractors and several legal challenges, was supposed to be a way for state officials to keep tabs on parents who pay child support. A 1988 federal law required the system to be in place by 1998.
DSS has been assessed more than $120 million in total fines for being the only state that is not in compliance with the law, according to agency senior project manager Jimmy Earley. Earley said a settlement was reached with previous contractor Hewlett-Packard in January that would require the company to pay more than $77 million of those penalties for not completing the project.
A new contract has been reached with Xerox, pending federal approval, that would task the corporation to set up both the long-delayed system and a separate family court case database. Earley said officials hope to save time by basing the system off a similar version used in Delaware.
“Rather than trying to develop a system from scratch, for lack of a better term, we’ll be transferring the Delaware system in,” he told the committee on Wednesday. Similar databases are being used in Arkansas and Missouri. However, he said federal certification for South Carolina is unlikely to come before 2019.
But legislators made it clear they were irritated DSS is only now moving to duplicate an existing database. “We’ve been asking for 15 years why we can’t have a system that’s operating successfully in another state to be modeled here in South Carolina,” State Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, told Earley. “We’re doing exactly what, in my opinion, we should’ve been doing some 15 years ago.”
Early, who was hired away from South Carolina’s state IT office two months ago, said a 2001 agency study found that doing an in-house system was more cost effective. But he said improvements in technology have changed the agency’s position.
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, noted the fines come as DSS has been in the headlines for other problems with its child welfare division. She pointed out the agency is struggling to hire and keep underpaid and overworked caseworkers. “And we keep pouring money down a freaking computer system that doesn’t work,” she added. “It’s just mind-boggling.”
The federal Department of Health and Human Services has set South Carolina’s annual fine at 30 percent of its total child support spending from the previous year, which Earley said has ranged roughly $11 million to $15 million each year.