The Mississippi House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would allow the state to privatize its child support enforcement functions. If the bill becomes law, the state could become the first to fully privatize enforcement.
Mississippi’s Department of Human Services, which currently handles collections, is notoriously understaffed and underfunded, and in total, about $1.1 billion in child support is owed by non-custodial parents in the state.
However, some lawmakers are skeptical, suggesting that the privatization measure is intended to funnel money to politically connected firms, with one representative calling the proposal “a greased pig.”
The private system would likely work on a contingency basis, with contractors taking a percentage of the money they collect, although it is still unclear if they would receive state money as well.
The state Senate had previously passed a similar measure, and the two legislative bodies are expected to iron out the differences in their bills later in the year. Gov. Phil Bryant has indicated that he supports the legislation.
If Mississippi does fully privatize support enforcement, it would move into uncharted territory. According to a report prepared by the state Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, no states have totally privatized all enforcement components.
However, 44 states have privatized at least some aspect of their support collection functions. Mississippi is among them, already contracting out call centers and new hire reporting. Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming all have at least one private full-service child support office.
The scant research that has been done on privatizing child support enforcement has reported mixed results compared to public agencies, both in regard to cost-efficiency and effectiveness. When Mississippi previously contracted out its enforcement in two counties in the 1990s, the private operators spent more to collect less, according to the report.
Ultimately, the review found empirical information lacking, noting that the state “does not maintain cost data at the service level and does not sufficiently analyze its child support enforcement performance data, both of which are necessary to making fully informed decisions regarding the privatization of child support enforcement services” and concluding “without cost data at the service level, the division is not in a position to make an informed privatization decision.”
Pros and Cons
Currently, Mississippi residents owed child support can either go through the Department of Human Services to seek what they’re owed, or use a private attorney or child support collection agency.
William R. Wright
“People mostly go to private attorneys because DHS takes a very long time,” says William R. Wright, a family law attorney with the Wright Law Firm and a member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. However, the flip side is that using the public agency means parents get the full amount of whatever money can be collected and aren’t charged any fees.
A potential consequence of full privatization could be the elimination of a free option for parents. On the other hand, a private agency could prove more efficient than the state overall. “The pros of this would be, if lawyer has a contingency fee, he would probably aggressively go after the money,” Wright says. DHS attorneys, he notes, have less incentive to collect because they are paid a salary regardless of how successful they are.
Meanwhile, parents who are owed money are left with a tough decision. “Do you wait, do it for nothing and hope you get it,” Wright asks, “Or go the private route and hope it goes more quickly?”