In Hamilton County, thousands of parents pay child support, a financial obligation they willingly meet. Doing so is also both state and federal law. But what many in Chattanooga don’t know is that Hamilton County does not have complete control over its child support enforcement program. Instead, a private corporation by the name of Maximus is in charge and their performance has some Chattanooga parents angry, confused and looking to their county and state government for answers. But in this age of privatization, answers are hard to come by.
Nearly 25,000 Hamilton County children are dependent on the child support enforcement program run by Maximus. A child support program’s mission is simple enough, but difficult to execute: it requires the non-custodial parent, who are mostly men, pay the custodial parent until their child is 18. This task is made more challenging by a slumped economy; out of the 25,000 cases, just over 50 percent of non-custodial parents pay on consistent basis.
Nonetheless, the financial stakes are high for Maximus, as huge sums of money are being exchanged—not just the state funding needed to run the program, but the huge sum that is regularly paid between non-custodial parents and custodial parents.
Indeed, Maximus and the State of Tennessee offer the custodial parent the option of receiving the non-custodial’s payment through a pre-paid Visa card. And just like any bank card, Visa charges fees such as overdraft penalties and ATM charges.
These fees take away money that’s meant for their children, say parents. Which makes more and more Chattanooga parents ask: Should a private corporation, whose ultimate goal is to make money, be responsible for a social service task so critical to the well-being of the community? Shouldn’t a community’s children come first, instead of the bottom line?
“When you have a private company coming in and taking over, it becomes a business,” said Michelle Baker, a single parent from Chattanooga who has inspired an online uprising against Maximus of other parents from Hamilton County and across Tennessee. “It is no longer a public service that assists the public,” she said. “They’re going to be more concerned about making money and trading their stocks. They’re more concerned about the almighty dollar. They’ve turned [child support] into a money-making industry.”
Baker has been penning a blog about Maximus for several years now titled mothercluckerblogger.blogspot.com and the blog’s banner headline best sums up what it’s all about: “Tennessee Child Support Enforcement is a Joke.”
Baker told The Pulse that since she started the blog in 2009, her rants and investigations have logged more than 30,000 views. She said hundreds of parents have left posts and their disdain for Maximus is seething through their words. This anger is backed up by the state, as Tennessee’s Department of Human Services has logged 894 complaints against Maximus from July 2009 to September 2012. Out of the 894 complaints, 88 came from Hamilton County.
Maximus is listed on the New York Stock Exchange (MMS), so making as much money as possible for themselves and their stockholders is certainly a priority. Maximus is based in Virginia and the company’s mantra is “Helping Government Serve the People.” It has offices all over the world, employing more than 7,500 people, with reported revenues of more than $1 billion in 2012. But Maximus told The Pulse making money is not it’s top priority.
“The family-centered approach we take reflects the financial realities that custodial and non-custodial parents face in a community where economic recovery and employment lags behind the national average,” said Sally Anderson, an outsourced Maximus spokesperson who works for Nashville-based Hall Strategies.