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Columbia, SC (written by Tim Smith/GreenvilleOnline) -- When the state Department of Social Services first began working on a computer system to automate its child-support enforcement efforts, Bill Clinton was in the White House and gas was $1.05 a gallon.

The federal government had ordered South Carolina to have the system in place as a result of a federal law passed by Congress in 1988.

Today, 24 years after the law was passed, the system isn't yet in place and it may cost more than $116 million by the time it's expected to start next summer. South Carolina is the only state not to have its automated system running, officials say.

"The agency is doing its best to get this system implemented as expeditiously as possible," Katie Morgan, a former DSS chief of staff who now oversees the project, told GreenvilleOnline.com.

Other officials said they are frustrated by years of delays and federal fines and aren't as certain the system will be running next year.

"I'm hopeful," said Jean Toal, chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. "But it sure has been a checkered history."

Sen. Thomas Alexander, a Walhalla Republican who chairs the Senate Finance subcommittee that oversees DSS funding, said he will believe the system is operational when he sees it.

"I've heard that before," he said. "It's just been one fiasco after another."

Linking resources

The federal government asked all states to create an automated child-support enforcement system so that state agencies' computers could interact with each other and search for those behind on child support.

The government gave South Carolina a 1997 deadline to have its system running, almost 10 years after the 1988 law.

The first contractor, Unisys, and the state parted company in 1997, DSS records show, with the state recovering about $17.6 million from that arrangement.

"Unisys' work on the 1994 contract with the state of South Carolina ended in 1997," Brad Bass, a Unisys spokesman, said in a statement to GreenvilleOnline.com. "Unisys and the state subsequently reached an agreement to terminate the contract in a way both parties believed was fair and reasonable."

Eventually, the state rebid the contract and the winner, Saber Software, was eventually purchased by Electronic Data Systems, which is now a business unit of Hewlett Packard.

A contract dispute between HP and the state was resolved earlier this year and HP agreed to pay any penalties through the federal fiscal year 2012-13, according to a DSS report to the Legislature on the system.

Frank Chechile, vice president of HP's state and local government division, said testing of the child support system and the Family Court system is being done now.

"The statewide child support enforcement system project incurred a number of necessary changes in scope, functionality and requirements over the life of the project, which did impact its delivery schedule," he said in a statement.

"HP became the third contractor to take on the project in 2007, and is pleased to have the opportunity (to) improve collections for children. HP will continue to work closely with the state to achieve federal certification for the new systems."

The penalties assessed South Carolina by the federal government over the years have been substantial.

The state began paying penalties in 1998, the year after the deadline, according to DSS. The penalty that year totaled $893,628 and has risen each year since, according to the DSS report to the Legislature. This year, the state was assessed a penalty of $11 million.

To date, according to DSS, the state has been assessed $104 million in penalties. But because of the amounts Unisys and HP have agreed to pay, the state's total bill for penalties, if the system goes online next year, will be about $66 million, Morgan said.

That, plus the $50 million state portion of the $151 million cost for the project, means the state's bill for the system will total about $116 million. That equals 402,000 monthly child support payments for the average case last year.

"I can't imagine a computer system in this day costing that much," said Sen. Kevin Bryant, an Anderson Republican and a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Benefits for children

Sen. Mike Fair of Greenville, who also serves on the Finance Committee, said he believes it will provide a benefit to the public but he remains puzzled at the delays, saying it took "a third of our lifetimes" to complete.

"I'm glad it's over," he said. "And I don't understand why it took 25 years."

When the system becomes operational, Morgan said, the improvements will be apparent.

"It will increase child-support collections because it's going to improve our ability to locate non-custodial parents," Morgan said.

"It's going to allow us to be more efficient in monitoring compliance with child-support payments. It gives us more connections with a variety of agencies to get information, trying to help us locate these parents."

It also will increase the state's ability to provide remedies for deadbeat parents, such as intercepting their taxes, lottery winnings or suspending their driver's license.

Custodial parents will be able to visit a website to check on the status of child-support payments, she said.

Businesses also will see changes, Morgan said.

Businesses must now submit money withheld from wages for child support to the county where the child support payment is due.

For large corporations, that may mean payments to each of the state's 46 counties. But with the new system, employers will send payments to one entity, the state's new disbursement unit, she said.

Efficiency also will increase with court and government workers, Morgan said.

"They will be operating on the same system, seeing the same information and the same cases," she said.

'Calamity of issues'

The agency collected $261 million in child support last year, according to DSS, and located almost 25,000 absent parents.

The irony, officials say, is that while the state has struggled to get the automated system online, DSS workers have been among the best in the nation in collecting child-support payments. And that performance has come with some of the highest caseloads in the nation.

"It's just unfortunate that we're being told to comply with the new system when we had one that was outperforming others and serving the needs in a more appropriate way," Alexander said.

Alexander said he wouldn't be surprised if the state's total bill winds up being more than $116 million. He said he has been frustrated and disillusioned at the project for years.

"To me, it's not a way to do business and to enhance the program," he said. "But our hands were tied."

Alexander said South Carolina hasn't been able to simply adopt another state's system because of the uniqueness of the state's current system, which includes Family Court.

He said no one person or agency can bear responsibility for the delays and costs.

"I'm sure DSS shares some of the blame but I think there is enough blame to go all the way around," he said.

"It's just been a calamity of issues that has delayed, delayed and delayed. On more than one occasion we've been told we'll have it up next year. So I'm still cautious and nervous saying we're going to have it up next year."

Toal, who said she became involved in the project in an advisory role because the courts will use the system, said the new system is driven by federal requirements.

"It requires a uniform automation of everything," she said. "Frankly, a lot of the clerks of court have had to put on hold updates to the automated system they currently have, waiting on this Family Court case-management system."

But she said she cannot render an opinion on how the new system will work until it is up and running.

"I think anything is better than the diffuse, non-standardized system that we've got now," she said.

"From that standpoint, standardization is going to be a good thing. It's just the length of time it has taken with these various iterations of vendors to get this thing done has been very frustrating."

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