KHI News Service

State child support workers to be laid off

By Dave Ranney | July 05, 2013

The Kansas Department for Children and Families has told more than 200 workers in its Child Support Services division to expect to receive layoff notices by Aug. 5.

The actual layoffs will take place in September. Generally, those in the 10 judicial districts (26 counties) in the eastern one-fourth of the state will lose their jobs on Sept. 16. Those in the remaining 21 judicial districts (79 counties) will be laid off on Sept. 30.

The notices follow a KDADS decision in March to privatize its child support enforcement efforts. The contracts were awarded last month.

The successful bidders were YoungWilliams, Lee Fisher, Veritas HHS, and the 18th Judicial District Court Trustee Office in Wichita.

Most of those receiving layoff notices are expected to accept positions with the contractor in their region.

“We’re doing everything we can to ensure that current DCF workers will have jobs, and that this will be a seamless transition when the contracts go into effect in September,” said Theresa Freed, a spokesperson for the department.

“We are confident that everyone will have a job that wants one,” she said.

Trustee offices to close

Since the mid-1990s, DCF workers have helped people – young mothers, mostly -- who apply for public assistance to establish paternity, locate non-custodial parents, and obtain the court orders necessary for collecting child support. Most of these workers are stationed at court trustee offices throughout the state.

DCF also has long contracted with private companies – a group that includes YoungWilliams and Lee Fisher – to handle the actual collections.

After September, the four contractors will continue collecting child support payments. They also will take on the DCF workers’ previous responsibilities.

“They’ll be taking over everything,” Freed said, referring to the contractors.

Most of the state’s court trustee offices, she said, are likely to close when the contractors take over, though some – it’s unclear how many – may have enough non-public-assistance cases to remain open.

Federal regulations require states to provide child support enforcement assistance to custodial parents who receive public assistance and to those who do not.

In both instances, the services are free.

A custodial parent on public assistance is required to let DCF keep a portion of whatever child support is collected on their behalf. The withholding remains in place until the state and federal governments recoup the costs associated with a child’s being on public assistance.

Court trustee offices’ are underwritten with a mix of state and federal funds. They also are allowed to keep a percentage of the child support payments they collect.

The contractors will assume these funding streams as well.

Of the four contracts, YoungWilliams’ is the by far the largest, both financially and geographically:

• YoungWilliams, $48.2 million, covering 23 of the state’s 31 judicial districts (70 counties);

• Lee Fisher, $3.2 million, for six judicial districts (33 counties).

• Veritas HHS, $8.7 million, for the 29th Judicial District (Wyandotte County);

• 18th Judicial District Court Trustee Office, $14.8 million, (Sedgwick County).

Freed said the contracts are for “just shy of four years” and include three, two-year options for renewal.

The new contracts, she said, are expected to increase the department’s child support collections by approximately $52 million over the next three years.

Currently, the department collects more than $200 million annually.

Freed said the increase in collections will be facilitated by the contractors having “…better technology, streamlined processes, no duplicity of staff work, incentive measures tied to contract performance, and better service for clients.”

The contractors will be asking the courts to “increase the amount of current support and arrears – back child support – that is collected,” she said.

System wasn’t broken

Ron Nelson, a Lenexa attorney who serves on the Kansas Bar Association’s family law committee, doubts that the contractors will outperform their state-employed predecessors.

“YoungWilliams and the others, they’re collectors,” he said. “That’s their directive, that’s what they do. But the DCF attorneys have always been much more than collectors. They’re the ones who’ve always taken on the cases that from a business sense, no one else has wanted to take on because, chances are, that’s not where the money is.”

Rhonda Sullivan, managing attorney with the Kansas Legal Services office in Wichita, shared Nelson’s assessment. “The part that concerns me is that the ‘establishment’ part of all this – paternity establishment, locating non-custodial parents, finding where they’re working, petitioning the court – has never been tried through private means,” she said. “We’re doing something we’ve never done before.”

Sullivan said she was disappointed to learn that the Harvey County Court Trustee Office will be closing.

“They’re like a well-oiled machine,” she said, referring to the trustee office. “They’re incredible, but they’ll be gone after September.”

Nelson heaped similar praise on the court trustee office in Johnson County. “They’ve been incredibly responsive to attorneys, to parents who are receiving child support, and to parents who are paying support,” he said. “They’ve worked out many, many, many conflicts.”

Mary Winter and Harold Schorn, who run trustee offices in Johnson and Harvey counties, respectively, did not respond to calls from KHI News Service this week.

In an earlier interview, Winter said trustees were not allowed to comment on the contracts. All media inquiries, she said, were to be referred to DCF.

Charges of favoritism “unfounded”

Last month, Sen. Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, accused a DCF official, Trisha Thomas, of purposely undermining the department’s child support enforcement efforts to hasten the decision to privatize the services and help her former employer, YoungWilliams, obtain a lucrative contract.

Hensley said he’d received an email from a DCF employee in Topeka who cited departmental decisions that led to workers’ caseloads being doubled and to vacant positions not being filled.

“We had 12 people retire two years ago and have replaced only two of those employees,” the employee wrote. “Both of those were supervisors. No line staff. We have case workers doing filing. We have attorneys doing the work of legal secretaries. Our caseloads have doubled in the past year.”

Hensley also cited records that showed YoungWilliams CEO Robert Wells and his wife, Pam Wells, had each contributed $2,000 to Gov. Sam Brownback’s gubernatorial campaign in 2010.

YoungWilliams’ being awarded one of the contracts, he said, appeared to be “more than coincidental.”

Freed said Hensley’s allegations were unfounded. “Trisha Thomas had no involvement in the bidding process whatsoever,” she said. “She worked for YoungWilliams for a little more than a year, and they got the contract. But she worked for another company, Maximus, for 6 years and it didn’t get the contract. Where she worked before she came to Kansas had no effect on the decisions leading up to the awarding of the contracts.”

The awards process, she said, was based solely on which bids “came in the lowest.”

Freed said YoungWilliams has managed the Kansas Payment Center, which receives, records, and distributes more than $1 million a day in child support payments, since 2005. It also has collection contracts with 12 court trustee offices (44 counties).

“YoungWilliams, at some level, has been around since 2005,” she said. “They’ve been here since the Sebelius administration.”

Hensley’s accusations were the subject of a June 20 story in the Topeka Capital-Journal.