An open letter to Michigan's Top Government Leaders
National Family Justice Association (NFJA)
Michigan Open Letter
March 5, 2004
An open letter to Michigan's Top Government Leaders:
The Honorable Jennifer M. Granholm
State of Michigan
P.O. Box 30013
Lansing, MI 48909
The Honorable Maura D. Corrigan
Michigan Supreme Court
3034 W. Grand Blvd.; #8-500
Detroit, MI 48202
The Honorable Ken Sikkema
Senate Majority Leader
P.O. Box 30036
Lansing, MI 48909
The Honorable Rick Johnson
Speaker of the House
Michigan House of Representatives
P.O. Box 30014
Lansing, MI 48909
Dear Governor Granholm, Chief Justice Corrigan, Majority Leader Sikkema, and Speaker Johnson:
The National Family Justice Association (NFJA), a national nonprofit organization, states that there is an urgent need to look into Michigan's current child support system, procedures, guidelines, and the actual effects of the so-called "deadbeat parent" crackdown on Michigan families and their children.
Michigan's $459 million child support computer system is not working.
According to the Associated Press, "In some cases, parents who pay support are getting notices that they haven't paid and the money is not reaching the people who need it, families say." (Holland Sentinel, Dec. 8, 2003)
It's time to point out the obvious:
In light of numerous newspaper reports and editorials about serious errors in the child support enforcement computer system, how can arrests and punitive measures against alleged child support debtors be justified when the child support computer system is in such disarray?
NFJA believes that the likelihood that a serious mistake or civil rights violation will occur is made extremely probable due to problems with data and problems within the system, and NFJA believes civil rights violations have already occurred.
Furthermore, how can Michigan citizens trust that the child support money collected will actually get to the custodial parents, mostly mothers, and their children in a timely fashion?
This is a system that has been referred to recently in terms such as "mass confusion". (Lansing State Journal, Dec. 7, 2003)
And from agency insiders: "We are simply buried in computer problems now." (Lansing State Journal, 9/30/03)
"We're just putting out fires." and "It's hard to see any discernible progress." (Lansing State Journal, Dec. 7, 2003)
One report said automated enforcement kicked in bench warrants for people who made arrangements with judges to pay their child support arrearages. (Lansing State Journal, 9/30/03)
Titles of some recent newspaper articles from across the state tell the story:
"Errors slowing checks for kidsWe at NFJA believe that the above phrases and news report titles do not describe a system that citizens should put their trust in and rely upon to accurately collect and pay out child support to families, and use as a basis to arrest and publicly shame people.
State concedes new system needs repairs"
(Detroit Free Press, February 25, 2004)"Complaints flood agency"
(The Jackson Citizen Patriot, February 16, 2004)
"High Price For Michigan's Paying Parent:
Child support cost is an ambush for some"
(Detroit Free Press, February 10, 2004)
"Two-bit change, $1,000 errors
Friend of Court computer system stumbles big time"
(The Flint Journal first Edition, February 01, 2004)
"Glitch in state's new system ties up divorcee's alimony for 11 weeks"
(The Grand Rapids Press, Oct. 22, 2003)
"Schneider: Child support missing in action, mom says"
(Lansing State Journal, Aug. 6, 2003)
"Families waiting for support from GM bonus"
(The Flint Journal, Nov. 20, 2003)
"Child support process criticized:
State's new system has kinks, some say"
(Lansing State Journal, 9/30/03)
"Schneider: Assault on support deadbeats hits a wrong target"
(Lansing State Journal, 5/1/2003)
"'Don't know' doesn't fix missing support checks"
(Flint Journal Editorial, Nov. 23, 2003)
"State Mess: Child support computer system deserves federal inquiry"
(editorial- Lansing State Journal, Dec. 7, 2003)
The media is to be commended for informing the public. We applaud some recent editorials that show a willingness to point out the obvious - this system is not working.
A Lansing State Journal editorial (Dec. 7, 2003) calls for a federal investigation into Michigan's child support computer system. From the article: "Two-thirds of the $459 million system's cost was paid by federal funds. This makes it an issue for U.S. taxpayers, not just Michigan's."
A shocking excerpt from "Complaints flood agency" (The Jackson Citizen Patriot, February 16, 2004) follows:
"...The latest problem followed the state's move to impose a 25-cent per case fee that would go to the Attorney General's Office. The change caused the statewide computer system to change clients' income withholding orders automatically, in some cases by amounts that had no obvious explanation. Of 80,000 withholding orders that were affected statewide, about half contained errors, said Marilyn Stephen, a Jackson resident who directs the Office of Child Support for the Family Independence Agency. ..."NFJA is alarmed at some state officials' apparent insensitivity to the plight of families who may be experiencing continuing punitive and sometimes traumatic child support enforcement methods, especially in light of the mounting number of reports on the malfunctioning of the child support computer system.
According to the Lansing State Journal (Dec. 7, 2003) some system fixes are not going to be done until May when a new Bermuda-based consultant comes on board. And, according to the same report quoting Jeff Albaugh, president of Michigan's Friend of the Court Association, "Clients will see some improvements at mid- to late next year. But it'll take three to five years before we see huge, material, obvious results."
This makes no sense. What are families supposed to do in the meantime to keep food on the table, pay for gas to get to work, and avoid bench warrants perhaps issued in error by the system? And, all of this is costing U.S. taxpayers millions.
NFJA believes that official apologies for mistakes and omissions and promises to fix things years in the future are not enough. Warnings to the public that mistakes are coming and to be expected are certainly not enough. We also believe that political careers should not be made at the expense of Michigan families.
This is a serious situation. Families are suffering. Without their expected money - that the non-custodial parent has sent to the child support collection agency for his children - utilities can be shut off, mortgage payments not paid, children can go hungry, and families scramble just to survive. With computer mistakes and the acrimonious attitude fostered by the aggressive anti-"deadbeat" campaign, good families are living under the threat of imprisonment, losing one's driver's license and livelihood, and all that that entails. This is intolerable in a free society, and in our great country of America. We can and must do better than this.
We believe that Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox's goal of creating a "credible threat" regarding child support enforcement, as Cox describes it, is forcing good families, some simply down on their luck, to live in fear and dread. For child support paying parents and their families, having to see billboards that depict handcuffs and threats, while constantly fearing that one might get behind in payments due to becoming laid off, unemployed, downsized, or getting sick or disabled, as can befall any family, is callous and extremely inappropriate.
This public shaming and intimidation is unacceptable in a Democratic society and is a throwback to earlier, more sinister times in our national history. To implement an oppressive policy that treats all parents who pay child support as guilty until proven innocent, based on a few truly unfit parents is unacceptable. American families should not have to live under this kind of foreboding shadow.
The likelihood of ensnaring innocent people, or "deadbroke dads", or simply parents who are down on their luck in a poor economy where unemployment, layoffs and downsizing are prevalent, is a price too great to pay.
In this climate, innocent people have already been victimized. For example, many General Motors employees who did not even owe back child support had part of their bonus pay seized. As recently as Nov. 20, 2003 the Flint Journal reported that parents are complaining to a FOC office about the withheld money, but it's not clear where the money GM seized actually is. Some custodial parents are waiting, with few answers, for the child support money to arrive.
It has become painfully obvious to anyone that both custodial parent families and noncustodial parent families are suffering under what NFJA feels is an overzealous system and misguided campaign. Many of the custodial mothers and children that the system says it is helping are living with, and some being financially supported by, the very men who are being targeted by this campaign. Which brings us to the question: Who is this system helping? While the system costs the taxpayers huge sums of money, what are taxpayers really getting for their hard-earned dollars?
For people who cite increased collections of child support resulting from the aggressive campaign, yes, perhaps some money is being collected, but at what cost? Since research shows that most people who don't pay, can't pay due to unemployment, illness, or disability, who is really coming up with the money to pay off arrearages? The Lansing State Journal reports that state figures show that 75% of the state's child support debt is "owed by parents who earn less than $20,000 a year..."
On February 19, 2004 in an article titled "Amnesty gives deadbeats chance to pay off child support" (Booth Newspapers), it was reported that: "...A recent study by FIA showed that 87 percent of arrearages are owed by those earning less than $10,000 a year."
We at NFJA believe that frequently it's the family of the child support payer who are paying the amounts demanded in an effort to keep their loved one out of jail - perhaps his elderly parents depleting their retirement nest egg to pay the states' demands. The family members may end up on the public dole. Is this fair, or is this increase in collections mostly ill-gotten money? We believe Michigan's flawed and outdated child support guidelines to be unjust, and the use of imputed income to figure child support awards needs to be examined also, especially in light of new research.
If this system is hurting and not helping many families and children, what perpetuates it? Part of the answer was mentioned in the Dec. 7 editorial of the Lansing State Journal.Federal law requires state centralization of the computer system, and we believe states are rushing to do so, even though many people know the systems don't work properly. Why? States are trying to avoid fines and keep their federal funding. States make federal money off the collection of child support, although the child-support enforcement agency, overall, loses money for the taxpayers.
According to Ingham County Friend of the Court, Donald Reisig, commenting on the delay of child support payments to payees, (Lansing State Journal, 8/20/2003), "We are as frustrated by the 'blips' and 'bumps' along this path as the payees. We did not design this system. We do not like this system. The state imposed it to save $147 million worth of penalties."
We at NFJA say this so-called "savings" is unacceptable, because doing this may keep money in the state coffers, but it has dire consequences for the taxpayers, as evidenced by recent news reports describing the negative effects of the system on families. State officials cannot put the desire to fill the state coffers above the welfare of the citizens.
Also perpetuating the failing system is the fact that corporations and other business entities have discovered that there are profits in major state contracts, and there is little or no accountability for mistakes made, or cost overruns. We believe money should not be made off the backs of poor families who often can't afford to fight back when they fall victim to an injustice, error, or questionable practice.
In addition, some private child support collection agencies profit by taking 30% or more of the child support money they say they collect for custodial parents. And, from theLansing State Journal (4/14/2003) Donald Reisig, the Ingham County Friend of the Court said of commercial collectors, "They're a bunch of scams." and "They sit there and let us do the work to collect the money ... and then they skim 30 percent off."
Time magazine (Sept. 2, 2002), and the Chicago Tribune have written reports criticizing practices of private collection agencies. Again, the titles are telling: "Deadbeat Profiteers. Private collection agencies are going after delinquent parents who owe child support. But do the companies benefit kids or themselves?" (Time.com). And, from the Chicago Tribune (Sept. 27, 2002): "Firms lean on deadbeats -- then on moms."
To have a system that is rife with error, and to expect child support payers or payees to somehow know that there may be an error in their printout and to spend tremendous amounts of time to try to get the errors corrected, while they are working full time or caring for young children is wrong. Many people are unaware of how difficult it is to correct a child support error once it occurs. Logically, many people may think that if they make a few calls or send a letter to the agency, the mistake will be fixed. NFJA believes this is not what typically happens.
According to a quote in The Christian Science Monitor, (August 9, 2000), citing a national nonprofit organization survey, "In a study released Aug. 8 by the coalition, 55 percent of child-support payers say they have experienced billing errors by a child-support agency. Among those who tried to get the agency to fix the error; 61 percent were unsuccessful. In 43 percent of cases, the payer had been subjected to punitive measures as a result of a billing error; such as having cars booted or assets seized."
There can be irreparable, serious, and traumatic harm done to families if wrongful arrests are made, names published in error for public shaming, negative marks put on peoples' credit report, bank accounts seized, drivers' and business licenses lifted and jobs lost as a result, electricity shut off, families going without food because they didn't get their support check, rent not paid, the list goes on. This is wrong. These are civil rights violations.
NFJA believes that one basic problem is that there are errors in the data, and that the current problems are not simply a result of the changeover to a centralized computer system. Paying $500 million for a computer or $50,000 will make no difference if the data put into the computer is wrong. We believe the old computer saying, "Garbage in, garbage out" applies here. And, the taxpayers lose.
NFJA highly recommends that the Michigan Governor and all policymakers read the following article describing the child support computer system fiasco in the U.K. that sounds remarkably similar to what is occurring in Michigan (and has occurred in other states).
It can be read at:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/connected/main.jhtml?view=DETAILS&grid=P8&target Rule=10&xml=%2Fconnected%2F2003%2F12%2F03%2Fecntbugs30.xmlNFJA is calling for a moratorium on enforcement activities based upon questionable data. NFJA is in the process of exploring the possibility of conducting a town hall meeting for policymakers, officials, custodial/noncustodial parents and their families, to come up with solutions to these mounting serious problems. We especially encourage people from within the child support system to come forward and give their perspective on the functioning of the current system. There needs to be open public discussion, accountability, and real solutions.
Taxpayers need to understand why it is reported on the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES) website that $68 million in undistributed child support is being held by Michigan. Withholding child support that has been collected adversely affects both the custodial parent family and noncustodial parent family. What exactly are the consequences for noncustodial families paying in and not having their money going to their children, and perhaps not credited to their account while they think they are paid up? What exactly are the consequences when custodial families do not receive the money they expect that has already been paid and sent in by the non-custodial parent or his employer? Iowa's Senator Grassley is looking into why nearly $660 million in collected child support nationwide is not getting to custodial parents, mostly moms, and their children, according to a national news report.
It should also be examined why Michigan has hired a Bermuda-based company, Accenture, "initially called Andersen Consulting," that, according to a BBC report, has found itself on a California treasurers' list of companies not to do business with based on its alleged tax avoiding activities (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/2152923.stm).
It is time the truth be told. This system is badly broken. Overall, it is hurting, not helping, Michigan families and children. It interferes with good families' ability to raise children without unwarranted, unjust intrusions into the private realm of the family. It is time for some brave policymakers to step up to the plate, take responsibility, tell the truth, and tackle this festering problem - for the families and children of Michigan's sake. The well-being of Michigan's families is at stake here.
Parents who see their children and who have jobs pay their support, and they financially and emotionally support their children directly. Enforce child visitation court orders and offer joint physical custody. Make sure Michigan's child support guidelines are just, equitable, and enable all to live comfortably.
The National Family Justice Association is ready, willing and able to provide research, education and awareness; and to assist all parties concerned in finding appropriate solutions wherever possible.
Who else is up to the challenge?
For more information contact the National Family Justice Association: www.NFJA.org
Op-ed by Dianna Thompson & Murray Davis of NFJA: "Child support system doesn't give parents a chance" (Lansing State Journal, Oct. 26, 2003)