Child Support Tops in Texas, AG Says

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says in the Lone Star State, child support enforcement is number one in the country.

In 2009, Texas collected more child support in than any other state, including California, federal statistics show, and Texas is first in a federal metric ranking state programs’ cost-effectiveness.

“During my tenure as attorney general, the child support division has been elevated to the number one national ranking,” Abbott, a Republican, said in a Dallas Morning News interview last month. “And it is recognized around the country as being the top child support agency anywhere in the land.”

But what do statistics show when digging deeper into the data?

The state of Texas actually lags in the percentage of overdue support it collects, according to an analysis of federal data by the Morning News. Delinquent cases and amounts owed are rising faster in Abbott’s home state than in many other states, and Abbott’s critics, including Democratic rival Barbara Ann Radnofsky, accuse the state of “chronically underreporting” how much child support is owed.

“This attorney general is very bent on making his numbers look as good as possible,” Radnofsky told the Morning News.

Collecting child support payments takes much of the attorney general’s office time and resources, a Morning News examination of the office’s budget showed. The Texas child support division employs more than 2,600 people and has an annual budget of $274 million, the budget showed.

Texas parents owe about $13.3 billion in current and back child support.

In fiscal 2009, Texas took in $9.80 in child support for every dollar it spent, statistics showed. That more than doubled the national average of $4.73, federal statistics show. California collected $2.10 per dollar spent, putting that state in 48th place.

The Texas attorney general attributed the statistics to a “streamlined corporate culture and a caring workforce.”

“The people who work in the division understand that each case is not a statistic,” Abbott said. “Each case they work on involves a child and a parent, typically multiple parents. And it’s usually a child who desperately needs access to health care, food, clothing, essential supplies.”

Comparing Texas with other states is difficult since each state collects child support and child support data differently. Abbott says his numbers account for only the “most challenging” cases. Other states include all cases in their reports to the federal health agency, which gathers the data.

According to federal statistics, Texas distributed about $2.7 billion in child support in fiscal year 2009 – more than any other state. Yet that number masks average performance when accounting for all of the money owed there.

The state collected about two-thirds of all child support owed last year, ranking it 17th, according to the Morning News’ analysis. The state ranks 30th, though, when all past delinquent support is included. When Abbott took office, the state ranked 10th and 42nd, respectively, in those categories, the analysis showed.

And the amount of child support owed in Texas is rising faster than in other states. Child support due nationally has increased about 11 percent since 2005, federal statistics show. But the amount due in Texas rose almost five times faster during the same period, and Texas’ caseload is mounting. The number of cases involving delinquent support has climbed 20 percent since 2005, statistics show.

Radnofsky, Abbott’s political rival, accused him of issuing “misleading” numbers, arguing that the state has “incorrectly calculated” the amounts owed for a large number of families since a 2002 change in state law.

“All of the bragging of success depends on ignoring the failure of the attorney general to collect or even acknowledge the legal debts that noncustodial parents have had written off,” Radnofsky told the Morning News.

Radnofsky said the state should take another look at its child support records to reconcile any discrepancies. State officials say that’s not necessary because, they believe, the division’s numbers are correct. They also noted that the federal government audits all of Texas’ numbers.

The fact remains, though, in Texas, like other states, there are parents not fulfilling their obligations to provide sorely needed child support.

 

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