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.
“In addition to supporting custodial parents to obtain the child support ordered, Maximus focuses on addressing barriers that non-custodial parents face in paying their obligations,” Anderson said. “This child-centric approach has been shown to lead to longer-term consistent child support payments as well as creating less divisiveness between the child’s parents.”
The contract to run a child support enforcement program in Tennessee is awarded by the state’s Department of Human Services or DHS. In some cases, DHS has fired a county’s entire child support office for poor performance and turned the program over to Maximus; this happened in Memphis’ Shelby County in 2009. But in the case of Hamilton County, the county voluntarily handed the program over to Maximus in 2000.
One county employee who is familiar with why Hamilton County made the move to privatize its child support enforcement program said the decision was mostly based on what some refer to as the “new normal” regarding nuclear families.
“The number of children born out of wedlock is growing,” said the county employee, who wished to remain anonymous. “It became overwhelming [the county making non-custodial parents pay child support to custodial parents]. We decided to give it up because Maximus could do it better and more efficiently. The county also opted out because we would be able to throw more resources at the judicial side of things.”
Chattanooga single parent Baker believes Maximus is too dependent on temporary employees to do such essential work for Hamilton and other Tennessee counties. The complaints she has heard largely focus on the inexperience of the temporary workers.
Baker said the government employees who were fired by Maximus were seasoned and experienced, and most seemed to genuinely care about their work and service to the community. The government employees performed at a higher level because they were paid better and received benefits, she said.
The Pulse tried to verify Baker’s claims about Maximus’ use of temporary workers in Hamilton County and their pay, but the State of Tennessee, Hamilton County government and Maximus refused to speak about this.
The Pulse also asked Maximus if it was making a profit for its work in Hamilton County. Lisa Miles, a spokesperson for Maximus’s investor relations, said, “We are unable to disclose financial information by project.”
What can’t be hidden is Maximus’ record outside the state of Tennessee. In 2000, Maximus lost its child support contract with El Paso County in Colorado Springs, Colo., after its district attorney’s office fielded 3,000 complaints over three years. Florida also fired Maximus and another contractor when both companies collected 3 cents for every $25 of taxpayer’s money, according to the Sarasota (Fla.) Harold-Tribune.
Locally, the anger against Maximus rose to a crescendo last December when State Rep. JoAnne Favors (D-Chattanooga) hosted a fact-finding forum about the corporation at the Kingdom Center. Favors recently told The Pulse that she’s “heard so many complaints” about Maximus that she said she’s making the issue of child support enforcement one of her top priorities.
“Three hundred people attended the forum and I had prepared for 50,” Favors said, who added that some of the stories told during the forum were “heart wrenching”.
Favors said she never knew child support enforcement was “this complex.” She said she now believes the child support enforcement system in Hamilton County and other Tennessee counties sets the non-custodial parent “up for failure.”
“You can go to jail for 10 days for each payment you are behind,” Favors said. “When you are working a low-wage job, you’re not going to catch up. Some non-custodial parents were told to pay $1,200 a month when they’re making $800 a month. You just can’t do it.”
Maximus spokesperson Hall from Nashville said Favors’ position on child support is too “extreme.” During the forum, said Hall, Favors told the audience, “‘Going to jail for [not paying] child support is like going sharecropping, being enslaved, prison labor.”
Nevertheless, Favors said custodial parents, mostly mothers, also had plenty to say during the forum.
“I was surprised with custodial parents too, who came and said they were not receiving their payments in a timely matter,” she said.
Baker, a custodial parent, said she believes her own experience with Maximus is a good indicator as to what many other parents are going through.
In 2006, Baker wanted her daughter’s father to accept responsibility for her upbringing, so they went to family court to establish child support. The judge determined the father, who was employed with benefits, was a year behind in child support and ordered him to pay nearly $7,000 in arrears and provide health insurance. He paid the arrears, but never provided health insurance.
“I contacted Maximus many times to ask them to enforce the insurance issue, but Maximus told me there was ‘nothing they could do for me,’” Baker said, adding that she was confused as to why they wouldn’t just enforce the order.
She turned to the DHS for help.
“They sent me a letter saying I would have to contact Maximus about my complaints, since they have jurisdiction over child support collections for my county, and that they could not assist me with anything child-support related,” she said. “In 2007, I was forced to go on Medicaid since Maximus and the state refused to enforce the order, which stated the non-custodial parent was responsible for providing insurance.”
Earlier this year, she received a letter from DHS telling her that both the court and Maximus had made a “mistake.” DHS said Maximus had not deliberately denied health coverage, but the corporation had misinterpreted the court order believing it was her responsibility to provide coverage for her daughter.
Baker loathed going on Medicaid, but she had no choice but to accept what the system offered her.
“All of us who are forced to deal with Maximus child support are, in my eyes, at the mercy of a giant corporation and local governments that are clearly working together to make a profit from child-support collections,” she said. “Politicians on a local level do not want to suffer the heat from an under-performing juvenile court system, and Maximus is more than happy to collect their millions, under-perform and not give a crap about child-support collections.”
John Lasker is an Ohio-based investigative reporter whose work has appeared in more than 50 newspapers and magazines, including Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, Agence France Press, Truthdig and the Cleveland Scene. In 2010, Lasker received a grant from the Knight Foundation to write about U.S. military servicewomen and military sexual trauma, for which he won a 2012 Project Censored award.