1993 Finalist
Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Innovations in American Government Awards
Innovations in American Government Awards

Nationwide, state child support enforcement agencies handle 13 million cases. Less than 50 percent of all child support owed is collected; consequently, $18 billion in past-due support remains unpaid while child poverty rates remain high. These statistics have prompted child support advocates to call for a massive increase in child support staff. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts created a program that enforces routine child support orders without human intervention. The Automated Child Support System is a computer program that matches a list of child support obligors against a variety of databases to find out where obligors work and bank, and whether they receive government benefits. Once assets or streams of income are identified, the computer generates the necessary forms and notices to initiate appropriate enforcement action, tapping into these revenue sources to satisfy each obligor's child support debt.

This automated enforcement program is based on three key elements. First, cases with similar characteristics are grouped together. Second, decision rules determine the specific enforcement action appropriate for each type of case. Lastly, the computer searches various databases and automatically takes the appropriate enforcement action.

This three-fold strategy is based on the concept of an administrative lien. Every obligor who owes at least $500 in past due support is notified of the amount of his debt and required to make the past-due payment within 30 days. If the debt is not paid, a second notice is sent, informing the obligor that an administrative lien is in effect and that the Department of Revenue will seize any asset or stream of income it can find, without further notice. Since last spring, 70,000 notices have been issued, followed by the automatic file match of the obligors against other databases and subsequent enforcement action. Depending on the type of case and asset located, any of the following actions can occur without human intervention: transfer of wage assignment to a new employer, 25 percent increase in wage assignment to satisfy arrears, wage levy, bank levy, attachment and garnishment of unemployment or workers' compensation benefits, and attachment of lottery winnings.

When action is taken, the system sends notice to the obligor of the action being taken and informs him of his rights to appeal. The vast majority of obligors do not appeal, meaning that thousands of cases are enforced with no human intervention at all.

In 1990, the Massachusetts unemployment rate reached 10 percent. Collections stalled in fiscal years 1990 and 1991, sparking the drive for enhanced staffing and collections. The following years, after the automated system was put into place, collections rose by eight and 12 percent almost entirely as a result of the system. The total number of parents paying child support on time also increased from 36,742 to 43,447, an 18 percent increase.