Gazette photo by LAWRENCE PIERCE
Jeanie Wines of Vienna, Wood County, survived a divorce and a subsequent descent into the welfare system. She supports herself now, and would like to see the system work better for families.
By Susan Williams
If Jeanie Wines' ex-husband had paid child support, she would never have had to go on welfare.
Collecting child support is a key element in the new welfare reform legislation.
When parents receive monthly child support, they can achieve self-sufficiency and save taxpayers money on public housing, food stamps and Medicaid, proponents of welfare reform say.
When he signed the welfare reform bill, President Clinton said, "If every parent paid the child support that he or she owes legally today, we could move 800,000 women and children off welfare immediately."
In 1996, a record $12 billion was collected in child support nationally - up 50 percent from 1992, according to the National Child Support Enforcement Association.
Wines and her two children were living comfortably in their home when her husband divorced her. He was earning $27,000 a year, working for the post office, and he had federal health and insurance benefits.
When her husband quit making payments on the house, Wines had to turn to public housing. Although she had worked as an accountant before she married, she suddenly had no transportation and no one to take care of her children, who were 10 and 8 at the time.
"The only job options I had at the time would have meant leaving my children alone. I was too afraid of doing that," Wines said.
The Vienna resident now has a good job, is going to college and feels proud that she raised two good children.
But she still feels the sting of living on welfare and still does not understand why so little child support was ever collected for her children. In 1980, she first tried to collect support.
"Being on welfare was the most humbling and humiliating experience I ever had. I didn't expect the human services workers to be my friends, but I didn't expect them to treat me like dirt.
"When your kids are sick and you have to fill a prescription using a medical card, the pharmacist acts like you're not there. He will wait on five other people before he fills your prescription."
Wines' former husband sent her children packages occasionally. The packages had return addresses from Arizona, and she quickly took the information to child support workers in Wood County.
"I gave them all the information I ever had. One worker told me he put as much effort in my case as it deserved. Another worker told me she was tired of calling out there."
She eventually got $3,000 to $4,000 of the $12,000 he owed her, not including the amount he owed the state for the welfare payments she and her children received.
"When I got any money, I received it in payments of $20 or $40 at a time," she said.
When her children got old enough to be left alone, she returned to the work force.
Wines would like to see the system work better for families.
"There should be more success stories," she said.
Improvements to the system
Since the days when Wines needed its services, West Virginia's Bureau for Child Support Enforcement has been in the forefront of agencies that establish programs to collect support.
West Virginia was the first state in the nation to require all employers to report when they hire someone new. Other states only required certain kinds of jobs to be reported, but according to the new legislation all states must track newly hired employees. A West Virginia worker even pioneered a hospital paternity establishment project.
But at the same time that the agency produces innovative programs, even in advance of welfare reform, it is still vilified from several directions.
Fathers complain they are hounded for money, but they cannot get help if they have visitation problems.
Fathers also say that if workers collect more from them than is due, they have to prove on their own that the money was overpaid.
They receive "threatening letters" from workers and also say they feel guilty until proven innocent.
Several fathers have said in previous interviews that child support workers like to get the "easy" cases - the fathers with the good jobs. They can attach payments to the wages of these men. But the fathers say they resent the workers who never try to get the hard cases - the fathers who hide from them and change jobs or quit jobs each time someone catches up with them.
And some parents who have applied for services are still waiting to have court orders prepared for their cases. No collections can be made until a court order is in place.
In the 1980s, it frequently took 21 to 28 days to distribute money to parents who had custody. Many parents who were paying by check complained that their bank statements showed checks were cashed on the day it was received, but former spouses might be calling for weeks saying: where's the money?
By 1994, workers succeeded in receiving, processing and distributing the checks in one day's time. They were able to shorten time through the new computer system.
To make it harder for a parent to shirk paying, the welfare reform legislation requires states to establish a way to track newly hired employees and to suspend licenses if a parent is not paying child support.
Ahead of welfare reform in 1993, West Virginia established its program for reporting newly-hired employees. Under the program, child support workers can find out if a new hire owes child support. The companies can then automatically deduct the amount in each pay check. Companies can be fined if they do not comply.
Jim Dingeldine is supervisor of the state's Parent Locator Unit. In 1994, West Virginia became a full member of the Electronic Parent Locator Network. The network shares data from 16 states.
Through the network, Dingeldine said, workers can get information from Department of Motor Vehicle records, food stamps and information about new hires in those data banks.
"We can use names or Social Security numbers to find parents. It's definitely been helpful," he said. "It took some education and word-of-mouth, but most companies are now complying."
In the last session of the West Virginia Legislature, officials with the state Child Support Enforcement were successful in getting a bill passed that suspends and denies licenses. This bill included federally- mandated legislation that complies with welfare reform.
This legislation was aimed particularly at self-employed people.
The new licensing bill will suspend a driver's license, a hunting and fishing license, and all professional licenses, if a parent is more than six months behind in payments. This includes doctors, lawyers, even barbers - anyone who needs a license to work.
Jeff Matherly was acting director of Child Support Enforcement for about a year until a new director was chosen in July. He remains the agency's lawyer.
"We're right on target. I cannot think of anything that we are worried about not being able to do to get ready for welfare reform," Matherly said.
But problems with incorrect information in the computer used to keep track of child support continues to trouble the agency. Under the pressure of meeting a deadline for federal funding, people hired by a computer vendor put wrong information into the new computer. Half the caseload was originally affected.
Last month, a computer consultant warned if the problems are not corrected, the computer system used for child support will not be able to work with the computer system designed for welfare reform.
"Since the majority of significant problems with OSCAR performance are in the areas of financials and interfaces, which are the areas impacted by federal welfare reform, a complete redesign of these features could be incorporated into the plan for responding to federal changes," said computer consultant Gene Lourey.
The child support computer is called OSCAR (On-line Support Collections and Reporting).
Paternity and visitation
Another program that has been successful in West Virginia and across that nation deals with establishing paternity from the get-go. The theory is that if new fathers see their little bundles of joy at the hospital, they would be in a good frame of mind to sign their names to the birth certificates. Once they sign, fathers are then obligated to pay for their children's support.
Nationally, paternity establishment has increased almost 100 percent in the past four years, resulting in paternity establishments for about one million out-of-wedlock births in 1996.
In the late 1980s, West Virginia had a mediation unit that helped parents with visitation. But a former director lobbied successfully for the Legislature to allow the agency to concentrate on collections and paternity establishment only.
Fathers argue they are forced to pay support, but they never get any help with visitation.
Donald Ballard has a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old from this first marriage. "I see them Christmas and birthdays. We take them out and buy them something."
Ballard, who lives in eastern Kanawha County, has had several bad experiences with Child Support Enforcement. "I've held the phone to my ear 45 minutes waiting for them to take my call.
"If you deal with human services you are always considered a 'deadbeat dad,' " he said, even though he pays monthly for his children and pays their medical bills, too.
"It's a one-sided system. You've got the money. They've got the ways. There is no one to help you. You just learn to live with it."