Ryan asks child support recipients to be patient with new check system (Illinois - computer snafu)

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By Douglas Holt Tribune Staff Writer October 19, 1999

A bureaucratic mess that has snarled the delivery of child support checks for thousands of Illinois women has no quick, easy solution, Gov. George Ryan said Monday.

The only answer, he said, is patience until the kinks are worked out in a new system that sends all Illinois child support checks from a central nerve center run by DuPage County Circuit Court Clerk Joel Kagann.

"By the end of this month they'll have it up and in good shape. In the meantime, there are no quick fixes," Ryan said Monday. "I don't have an answer for that, and I don't know if anybody does, other than to get the system up and running as quick as we can."

The new system has left parents such as Christine Coster of Orland Park in the lurch. After getting a $112 weekly check from her ex-husband's employer through the Will County clerk's office without problems for two years, this month she has received no checks to help care for her girls, Amanda, 6, and Felicia, 10.

"The thing that really has me outraged about it is the state was so ill-prepared for this," she said. "You can blame it on the federal mandate, but whoever set up this state disbursement is at fault."

Since the state opened a hot line for complaints on Friday, operators have fielded 1,600 calls, said Joyce Jackson, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Aid, which administers child support checks. The hot line (877-225-7077) is open 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays.

In DuPage County, frustration is running high as officials struggle to gear up a system that officials said was designed to process 5.5 million child support checks per year from across the state.

"As clerk of the court, I think it's the most stupid thing we've ever done," Kagann said Monday after staff members worked all weekend and are considering going to double shifts to meet the workload. "The system wasn't broke. Why did we have to fix it?"

Until Oct. 1, employers who withheld wages from employees to satisfy child support payments sent checks to clerks in each of the state's 102 counties, which in turn sent them to parents caring for children.

As part of federal welfare reform in 1996, each state was required to designate a central "state disbursement unit." The idea was pushed by large employers who sought to streamline child support payments. Child support advocates also supported the plan, saying it would ease record-keeping and enforcement efforts by allowing states to more readily compare databases.

On the advice of the Illinois Association of Court Clerks, DuPage was awarded the job. The contract covered startup costs of $8.9 million from October to June.

Cook County, which until the changeover handled 60 percent of the state's child support payments with 71,000 clients receiving more than $10 million per month, submitted a proposal but was rejected, said Carolyn Barry, a spokeswoman for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Aurelia Pucinski.

Officials say the computers have worked fine, but they have been hampered by incomplete or inconsistent data that had to be corrected or verified by hand.

Though he defended state managers, Ryan expressed frustration at federal rules requiring the system.

"I don't think there's anybody that's not accountable or anybody that's messed up here," he said. "It's just a part of a government, bureaucratic system that was set up."

-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), October 19, 1999

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