COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina’s computerized child support tracking system is nearly 20 years overdue, has cost the state more than $120 million in fines and had four different companies try to complete it.
But it took a single mother from Spartanburg County to put a human face on all the problems at a state Senate oversight hearing Wednesday.
Gina Arnold said South Carolina’s ancient network means her ex-husband can miss deadlines without worrying about immediate punishment and other deadbeat parents can move from one county to another and disappear from the child support system entirely.
It also requires her to call her Department of Social Services caseworker when he doesn’t pay instead of automatically notifying him and an official — as happens with thousands of modern systems from overdue library books to credit card payments.
She swiveled her chair to face DSS officials and read off the names of 10 women who have given up the constant battle and allowed their child support to fall behind by thousands of dollars that might take years to collect by the time the old system catches up.
“If we had a system in place, these ladies would not have given up,” Arnold said.
After years and years of delays, the new system is still on track to be working by October 2019, DSS project manager Jimmy Earley said. South Carolina has currently spent about $150 million on the project and is likely looking at $200 million more to get it up and running, not including an additional $120 million in fines, DSS officials have said.
It would allow counties to communicate with each other, make it much easier to collect child support directly out of paychecks and notify court officials and DSS when payments are missed.
The deadline is the same timetable Earley gave senators in November, which is progress. The system was supposed to be created a few years after a 1988 federal law mandated it and was pushed back for months as recently as 2015.
South Carolina has been paying fines since 1997, although some of that money has been paid by three other companies the state sued after they failed to install the network.
Senators remain frustrated, but don’t blame Earley, saying the problems grew to unmanageable proportions long before any of them were around.
“This is a real thorn in my side. It’s been something that has angered me more than anything,” 61-year-old Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said of the delays. “That’s longer than I have known my husband.”
DSS Director Susan Alford also spoke, telling senators a sharp spike in child abuse complaints after the state started a new centralized system to take the reports overwhelmed her already overworked staff. Alford said she wants most of the 170 new caseworkers she got in last year’s budget to be in place by next year before she transfers the other half of the state to the new system.
Senators asked if the nearly 20 percent increase in abuse and neglect cases indicated the cases were being ignored or not properly handled before the regional hub system was put in place, and Alford agreed that both were problems.
“That’s a horrible conclusion to make. But it validates the reason we needed the hubs,” Alford said.
The increase in cases has also slowed Alford on reaching her goals to reduce caseloads. She said 68 DSS caseworkers are handling 50 or more cases currently, a big decrease from the 142 employees with 50 or more cases in June 2015, but still nowhere near her goal of having all her caseworkers handle 24 or fewer cases.
She asked the senators to be patient as hiring and a reduction in turnover catches up with the increase in child abuse and neglect reports.