Alibi V.16 No.9 • March 1-7, 2007 

Talking Points

System Overload

So what does it take to get child support in this state?

Betina McCracken (left) and Katie Falls
Betina McCracken (left) and Katie Falls
Kate Trainor

Earlier this month, the Alibi ran an article that focused on a single child support case in New Mexico, the case of Jessica Sanchez and her two children [News Feature, “Show Mom the Money,” Feb. 8-14]. The New Mexico Human Services Department (HSD) did not respond to calls before the article went to print, but later contacted the Alibi with their comments. Katie Falls, deputy secretary of the HSD, and Betina Gonzales McCracken, HSD communications director, spoke with us about the article and child support in New Mexico.

What is the process to apply for child support?

People contact us for primarily two different types of assistance. One is they need help in establishing child support orders, or sometimes people contact us because they’ve got an order, but the noncustodial parent isn’t paying. We do two primary functions. We help an individual establish an order, and then we help enforce the order. So all they have to do is contact us. We have an 800 number set up, so people can call [(800) 288-7207]. People can go into the office, and they can let us know what kind of help they need.

Let’s say I'm a parent and I want to apply for child support. What would I do, specifically?

We have attorneys in our offices, and we have folks who are the legal assistants who help also. So a person would be told, "We need to get some information from you about your divorce, about the children in your home;" all kinds of information that allows us to understand who the family is and who the parents are. Then we would file papers for them that would go to the court to get them a court date. Only the court can establish the child support order, but we would help collect all the paperwork and help them file the papers on their behalf for the court. So then they’d have their day in court with the noncustodial parent to determine the amount of child support owed and to set up the mechanism for payment.

As you mentioned, it’s the job of the agency to enforce payment of child support. What steps does the agency take to enforce that payment, to ensure that it’s paid?

Sometimes, unfortunately, we don’t have a person who’s paying or they’re paying sporadically. So what we do is help locate where the noncustodial parent is, if the person doesn’t know. Or sometimes the person will say, "I saw him in Wal-Mart the other day and I followed him, and he’s living with his aunt." So we try to confirm the location so that we can contact the noncustodial parent and say to them, “you’re required to pay.” So we try to get the cooperation. If we can’t, we can do other things.

What kinds of other things?

We can find out where the person is employed, and we have access to information from the employer databases and new hire data that helps us figure out where the person is living and working, and then we can contact the employer and say, “you need to withhold the wages from the person’s check and send them to us, so that we can then pass it on to the custodial parent.” We can also revoke driver’s licenses or suspend their professional license. We do tax intercept, if they’re getting a refund.

Sometimes people get really overwhelmed. It’s not infrequent that you come across noncustodial parents who really want to help support their children, but because they have a history of late payments, they have so many back payments, they just can’t get out of the hole. They say, “what’s the point?” So we have a Fresh Start program that we offer to noncustodial parents. We can help negotiate a forgiveness of certain late charges and late payments. As a matter of fact, in the Fresh Start program right now, we’ve actually waived $9.9 million in interest and principal through the program, and we’ve got $2.7 million in new judgments ordered to the program since it began in 2005. The custodial parent needs to be cooperative in that effort as well. So you give a little bit, then you might be able to get a little bit in return. The program has been pretty successful. So far, we’ve had 733 cases participate across the state.

It seems to me that the program would be more beneficial to the person who owes child support, versus the children.

Not necessarily, because sometimes when a person owes so much, they just completely quit paying. They’re so overwhelmed by their debt, but the custodial parent is getting nothing. So if we say to the custodial parent, “he owes you $50,000 in back pay, and he owes you $200 a month in child support and right now he’s paying nothing, you’re not seeing a penny of it. What if he were to give you a lump sum payment of $5,000 and start paying the regular child support?” So she’ll say, “well, at least I’ll start getting something because now I’m getting nothing.” We can’t do it without the custodial parent agreeing that it’s beneficial to her and her children. While there’s a lot of emotional feeling between the parents, they can come together and agree about what’s best for the child.

You mentioned that you sometimes have to resort to garnishing wages. But in Jessica Sanchez’ case, and I’m sure in others, the noncustodial parent is working, but getting paid under the table. What does the Child Support Enforcement Division (CSED) do in that circumstance?

Well, we have no way of knowing that they’re employed, because they’re getting cash. They’re not paying taxes. It certainly makes it more difficult for us to withhold wages. We’ll definitely work with the tax and revenue department on it. People who are determined not to pay child support will do many, many things that are out of our control and may be illegal. It makes the CSED’s job much more difficult.

Our focus is on the child and the family. I think the primary problem is that we’re trying to establish and enforce the orders that are designed for the protection of the child. Yet you’ve got these two adults who often hate each other and have a whole different agenda and perception of what’s going on and what’s fair. And we have to stay grounded in the law. We can only enforce the order that the courts establish.

Jessica mentioned that her case had been opened and closed time and again, seemingly for no reason. She was told by a CSED operator that applications were sent out in “batches,” but by the time she received the paperwork she needed to return, her case had already been closed.

That doesn’t make any sense to me. We’re going to have to look into it. Either it was told to her incorrectly or she interpreted it incorrectly. Cases could be closed for a number of different reasons, but, as we said, we need the cooperation of both the custodial and noncustodial parents to make sure that a case is handled properly. If there’s noncooperation by the custodial parent, the case could be closed. Or if the custodial parent chooses and lets us know that they don’t want our help anymore, that they’re moving forward on their own, then it doesn’t make sense for two different entities to be working the same case. In that instance, we’d close the case. This thing about batches, I don’t think it’s about that.

I had much the same experience as Jessica with the CSED telephone operators. I left numerous phone messages and was told that someone would call back. They never returned my calls just as Jessica says they never returned her calls. What’s your response?

In your instance, they should have called me immediately. In other instances, generally, they do have to get back to the custodial parent within a certain amount of time.

What’s that amount of time?

Three days, I believe.

Jessica claims that she was repeatedly dismissed, laughed at and disrespected by unhelpful, unprofessional operators at the CSED. What are the qualifications for the operators at CSED? Do they get any kind of training?

Well, let me first answer a different question. First of all, I want to tell you that we have heard from others some concerns about the responsiveness of workers. Some people complain that their worker didn’t get back to them at all, or got back to them late. We’ve had other concerns about the call center. I do want to acknowledge that we know there may be some room for improvement in those areas. As a result of that, we’ve recently started monitoring. We’re checking on our workers to make sure they’re returning the calls within the three-day time period and we’re watching this very carefully to make sure people get responded to.

The second thing is that the call center is under a contract. They’re not state employees. I don’t know, technically, the answer to your question, but we can find that information and get back to you.

[They later confirmed that minimum qualifications for operators include a high school diploma or GED, but they prefer an Associate’s degree. They also do a background check and skills assessment. Operators receive two weeks of training before answering calls.]

How many caseworkers do you have?

About 350, but I’m not sure. We can find you a definite number. [They later they confirmed that they have 140 caseworkers.]

There are 30 staff that work in the call center, and in 2006, they handled 39,068 calls per month. Ninety-two to 94 percent are handled without referral to case managers. The majority of the calls are about payments.

How many cases does a single caseworker carry?

In December 2006, the average caseload per caseworker was 580. This compares to December 2002, when the average caseload per caseworker was 700.

Jessica was told on numerous occasions that she couldn’t speak directly with her caseworker. Was she just misinformed by an operator?

No, what happens is that we do not transfer the individual to the caseworker at that time. The call center takes a message, and the caseworker is supposed to call back. That’s because the caseworker may be meeting with attorneys or clients.

What’s your response to attorney Jeffrey Goldberg’s conclusion that the CSED merely “pushes paper”?

There is a lot of paperwork in any legal proceeding. I don’t know what he was implying by “pushing paperwork.” I think we help people establish orders and we enforce those orders. Paperwork is a necessity, but we see our job as getting income for that child.

This may depend on the case, but is there a certain time frame in which the CSED aims to obtain child support for a family?

Obviously, our goal is to process a case as efficiently as we can, but there are so many variables. It really depends very much on the case.

Is Jessica’s case an extreme case?

We’re not able to talk about Jessica’s case directly. In an instance similar to Jessica’s case, it’s not the easiest case to handle, no.

Do you think there’s room for improvement at the CSED?

Let me start by saying that many of the procedures that we’re required to follow, the paperwork that you referred to before, they’re in law. I keep hounding on this, but they’re legal procedures. They’re there for the protection of all parties involved. So there isn’t much room to improve those, but in terms of customer service, that’s something we’re concerned about. We always take it very seriously when we hear that a caseworker didn’t return a call. We want to improve in customer service in any way we can.

We’ve collected $50.3 million in child support collections in this fiscal year. In the previous fiscal year, it was a record number, over $80 million, something like that.

How many cases are open with the CSED?

As of January 2007 there were 59,830 cases.

How many parents in New Mexico are receiving child support, via the help of the CSED?

There are approximately 30,000 cases collecting child support of the 59,830 cases CSED is handling. Approximately 63.5 percent of all cases have judges’ orders.

How many parents in New Mexico are entitled to child support, via the help of the CSED?

This is not a question I can answer. We currently have 59,830 cases. Not all child support cases in New Mexico come through, nor do they have to come through the CSED. Thousands of orders are done privately and do not go through the state.

How much child support money was collected by the CSED in 2006?

In Fiscal Year 2006 (July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006), CSED collected $89.4 million in child support. This is a 6.85 percent increase from Fiscal Year 2005.

How much child support money is outstanding (based on open cases with the CSED)?

This is a multi-billion dollar issue nationwide. In New Mexico, based on open cases with the CSED, there is approximately $586 million in arrears.