Lesson from the past: investment in public services pays big dividends

In September, the Houston Chronicle reported that despite efforts by Texas’ Child Protective Services (CPS) to clear a backlog of child abuse investigations, the backlog continues to grow. It also reported that a Houston toddler named Julia Martinez died of child abuse as her backlogged case from a previous abuse report was awaiting attention.

According to the Chronicle, before Martinez died Houston CPS investigators were sent temporarily to Central and West Texas to help work a backlog of cases even bigger than the one in Houston. The shuffling of investigators marginally reduced but did not eliminate the backlog in Central and West Texas; however, it increased the backlog in Houston.

The problem is that CPS simply doesn’t have enough investigators, caseworkers, and support personnel to clear the backlog. “The effort (to shift staff) underscores (CPS’) most pressing dilemmas,” reported the Chronicle. “High caseloads and employee turnover . . . continue to erode progress at the expense of Texas children.”

Nearly 25 years ago, another Texas agency that serves children faced a similar problem. The Austin American Statesman in 1988 reported that the Texas attorney general’s Child Support Division (CSD) had a backlog of 355,000 pending cases.

Some of these cases required that court ordered child support be established. Others required that paternity be established. Still  others needed an enforcement action to collect support that was due.

Whatever the next appropriate action was supposed to be, it was too often not being taken. As a result many children were not receiving financial support they were owed.

The problem was so bad that in 1987 the federal government gave Texas an F on its state child support agency performance report card.

Realizing that CSD did not have adequate staff to work the backlog of cases, CSD management and then-attorney general Jim Mattox did what today would be considered unthinkable. They asked the Legislature and the governor to for more money– at the time, a lot more money.

Mattox asked state leaders to transfer $4 million in surplus money not being used by the Department of Human Services (DSH) to CSD. That $4 million, generated by CSD’s work but held by DHS, could be used to draw an additional $9 million in matching federal funds. The resulting $13 million would immediately increase CSD’s budget by 46 percent.

Mattox also asked that future revenue generated by CSD’s work be diverted to CSD from DHS, so that CSD could draw down more federal matching funds.

Mattox said that CSD would use this investment over the three years that were to follow to increase the number of staff from 731 to 1,570 and its field offices from 30 to 57.

He also laid out an ambitious set of goals to show state leaders what they could expect as a return on investment. Child support collections, Mattox said, would increase from $96.1 million a year in 1988 to $372.5 million by 1991.

Mattox also promised substantial increases in the number of paternities and support orders that CSD established.

Recognizing that the investment in improved public services had a chance to pay big dividends a conservative dominated Legislature and a Republican governor, Bill Clements, agreed to the deal.

As new workers were hired and trained, results began to show. By 1991, child support annual  collections had grown to $235 million, short of the promised goal but still 150 percent higher than collections in 1988.

The gain in paternity establishments was even bigger. In 1988, CSD established 1,034 paternities for children born out-of-wedlock, often the first step toward getting child support payments started. By 1991, that number grew by 1800 percent to 19,627.

During the 1990s, CSD continued to invest in its staff. Jobs were upgraded, so that CSD could increase the salaries of  child support officers, attorneys, and staff who supported them. The upgrade led to the retention of more experienced staff and reduced turnover.

Today, the Office of the Attorney General’s turnover rate is 9.5 percent, well below the state average of 14.4 percent and much lower than the 31.9 percent turnover rate for CPS investigators.

(Turnover statistics for the Child Support Division aren’t available, but CSD staff comprises about two-thirds of the total Office of the Attorney General’s workforce.)

During the 1990s, the Child Support Division continued to build on its successes. It did, however, run into some trouble in 1997 when it installed a new computer system designed by a private contractor.

Flaws in the design caused major disruptions to services. Collections continued to rise but at a slower rate. Paternity establishments and the establishment of other child support orders actually declined.

It took four years for state employees in CSD’s Information Technology section to correct the flaws, but by 2001, the Texas child support program was back on track and productivity was growing. Child support collections topped $1 billion for the first time in 2001.

Today, Texas has one of the best, if not the best, child support programs in the US. In 2012, child support collections topped $3 billion and paternity was established for more than 47,000 children. Texas collections are higher than any other state including California, which has a much larger population.

Over the course of time, there have been other improvements that enabled this surge in productivity. New laws helped make child support collection easier, court documents such as pleadings were automated, and special child support masters’ courts that exclusively hears child support cases were established.

But it’s unlikely that these changes would have had the impact that they are having today without the initial decision by program management, lawmakers, and the governor to make a substantial investment to improve public child support services.

The work of the agency is still not perfect. CSD has a caseload of 1.2 million cases, and occasionally there are delays in collecting support. But the investment made nearly 25 years ago has made these delays the exception rather than the rule.

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