Rarely in the annuals of Grand Jury Reports has a sub-committee been able to so effectively blend superficial knowledge of a subject with biased reporting and inaccurate information so as to produce such a worthless report. I say sub-committee for a reason. It is important for the public to understand that while the Report says "Grand Jury," in reality, it was the work of a 4-5-person sub-committee. The whole Grand Jury simply rubber-stamped the sub-committee work.
Its "INTRODUCTION" and "CLIENT INTERACTION" sections begin by suggesting the inquiry was promoted by contact from "… several paying parents." Actually, during the course of my conversations with the Grand Jury, on a number of occasions, they made it clear to me that this inquiry was promoted by three complaints. Now one might quibble over whether three is the equivalent of several, but I doubt anybody would reasonably quibble with the fact that it creates a quite different impression on the number of complaints, which prompted its interest. It is significant that the complainants were identified as parents with whom we were attempting to obtain compliance with court ordered child support.
Inasmuch as the Grand Jury hides the specifics of the complaints behind its confidentiality’s curtain, the Department was given no opportunity to provide the Grand Jury with specific information on the validity of the three complaints. It seems a tad unfair to print the specific allegations and in so doing, lend an air of validity to what may be totally untrue.
The "OBSERVATION" section is particularly noteworthy for its errors, superficiality, and shaded presentation. As pointed out in more detail later, they did not correctly describe how this program is funded and omitted numerous other agencies and individuals who benefit from our services. Despite the fact they were given specific numbers, in all instances, they shaded workload statistics to give the worst impression. Collections were shorted by 1.5 million dollars. The correct figure is $21.5 million. Caseworkers have less than 400 cases and the case count is actually 18,737.
Again, despite being given specific and detailed annual collection figures. (See attached chart.) They select 1993-1994 as the baseline year to question collection effectiveness. As the chart shows, 1993-1994 was the year we converted to our new automated system. The chart clearly shows a large jump in collections once that process was completed. In most instances, it is a well-documented phenomenon that collections decline or flatline during conversion. Instead of viewing the 2.5% increase as something negative, they should be praising staff for increasing collections during this very time-consuming and difficult conversion process. One is at a loss as to why they selected this approach and ignored impressive annual collection increases since conversion was completed.
The "CLIENT INTERACTION" section contains a nice lecture on collection procedures. Evidently, none of the sub-committee members has ever worked in collection or dealt with absent parents trying to avoid financial responsibilities for their children. This is not like regular collection work. Many of these cases come to the Division with all the emotional scares and bitterness generated by a failed marriage. "Negotiate" is a nice term. Evidently, the sub-committee also didn’t learn that this is a highly regulated program and state and federal regulations often preclude such an approach. In the most "adversial" instances staff is dealing with people hiding assets, working under the table and quitting jobs just to avoid detection. While it is hard to disagree with the Grand Jury’s pontification about respect and effective communication, those qualities are a two-way street. Unless you have been on the other end of some of these highly emotionally charged contacts like many of my staff and I have, it is sometimes impossible for the most patient, respectful or compromising person to tolerate the abuse, especially from someone seeking to avoid their parental financial responsibilities.
The last paragraph of this section is also misleading by what it fails to mention. First, a review of the complaint log given to the Grand Jury contains several instances of verbal complaints. Second, caseworkers are required in the "notepad chrono" section of each case to record verbal and telephonic complaints. Third, in order to facilitate timely response to telephone inquiries and complaints, all offices and caseworkers have a Voice Response Unit (VRU). The system is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Any inquiry or complaint can be left for the caseworker and must be responded to within 48 hours. The system logs the time of the inquiry and of the response, if done by voice mail. Any other response, such as personal contact, letter or conference, is noted in the individual’s "notepad chrono" section of their file.
Given our 18,737 cases, I’m confident most objective individuals would find this a more comprehensive, efficient, and more than adequate substitute for a log.
In the "PROCEDURE" section of the Report, the Grand Jury lists the materials reviewed. They omit several items of information provided by this Department, such as:
At least two lengthy memorandums responding to specific Grand Jury questions detailing operations, policies and complaint processing procedures;
Copies of collection graphs and various statistics, which were more detailed than the state reports;
Copies of various forms and mailings, including a variety of letters and monthly billing statements; and,
A spreadsheet on all complaints received in the last 12 months, investigative findings, and our responses or actions taken.
To say the Grand Jury observed our walk-in operations is quite a stretch. On one Wednesday afternoon, for approximately two hours, one member of the sub-committee appeared. Omitted from the report is the fact that the Grand Jury, on several occasions, rejected the Department Head’s invitation to provide Marnie Pinsker, the Office’s fiscal officer, to respond to any aspect of their inquiry dealing with the budget, expenditures, funding process, and personnel issues. In light of Recommendation #3’s focus, this decision had the unfortunate affect of producing a terribly ill informed, poorly researched and useless Recommendation.
A final observation about the superficial nature of this Report. The Grand Jury was very quick, too quick, as will be demonstrated later, to compare us to other counties’ cost-effectiveness. Yet, the Report is totally void of any attempts to evaluate or compare Santa Barbara’s operational practices, client services, staff availability and training programs with any other counties.
ESSENTIAL COMMUNICATION AND PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS ARE NOT EMPHASIZED IN THE TRAINING FOR FAMILY SUPPORT OFFICERS.
WE STRONGLY DISAGREE WITH THIS FINDING.
THE FAMILY SUPPORT DIVISION SHOULD EXPAND TRAINING FOR FAMILY SUPPORT OFFICERS IN THE AREA OF COMMUNICATION AND PROBLEM SOLVING.
WE FEEL THIS RECOMMENDATION IS ALREADY BEING MET.
The only information in the Grand Jury Report related to Recommendation #1 is found in a single paragraph on page three under "Training." The information is both incomplete and incorrect in numerous instances.
The Grand Jury’s statement, that only one training position is filled is wrong. The Grand Jury erroneously concluded, despite information to the contrary, the position was vacant, because the second training officer has been out on a prolonged medical leave. In reality, the position has been back-filled with a highly skilled Family Support Officer, who has been operating in that position on a full-time basis.
It is also unclear whether the Grand Jury is criticizing the new employer- training format as deficient in personal communication and problem solving skills or whether the remarks are directed at all employees. In either instance, it represents the most disingenuous of all their statements.
During the course of this very inquiry, the Grand Jury was told that the Division, as part of our ongoing training program, had previously contracted with an outside consultant to conduct in-service training on "Consumer Service and Time Management," which emphasized communication skills. To quote the trainer, Jim Wesson, in his recap of what actually was covered that day, "We focused significantly on training our internal and external customers with professional respect, and maintaining a professional attitude, because all of this effects our customer service skills and time management allocation." It is important to note that (1) this was not the first time this trainer has been asked to train our staff, and (2) we not only advised the Grand Jury of the training, we invited them to attend. Ironically, not only did they decline to attend the May 5th training; the Grand Jury sub-committee scheduled a series of interviews with Family Support staff, on that very day, which deprived them of the opportunity to attend the training session. Attached to this response is a copy of the curriculum vitae of the training officer and course descriptions and course content of the training given by the consultant in May 1999 and in June 1997.
Another inexplicable oversight in the Grand Jury Report was their failure to acknowledge that our staff was encouraged to attend, and in fact may have attended, the communication workshops provided by the county through the Employee University. Furthermore, many of the Family Support Officers have attended the annual training conferences sponsored by the Family Support Council. Annually, we send between 20-30 staff members to this four-day training. Training covers all areas of their job responsibility, including communication skills and problem solving. These classes are put on by national and state experts and addressed in the specific context of a child support caseworker’s job.
It is correct that training of new caseworkers focuses on the technical aspects of the job. However, unmentioned in the Report, discussion, or Recommendation is the important fact that it is a mentor oriented training approach. During this training period, the trainee has no caseload, and little or no direct contact with the public. They work with an experienced Family Support Officer, the training officer, and the trainee’s Supervisor and the Branch Manager provide oversight. While it is true the focus is predominately on the technical aspects, it is equally true they are taught and given a valuable lesson in communication skills observing more experienced colleagues and discussing problems with the mentor and trainer. This on-the-job communication skill training is as intregral to the mentor’s trainee as the technical learning process. What better way to learn than by actually seeing the problems in a real-life, practical environment.
Accordingly, I disagree with Recommendation #1, the Department is currently already meeting this Recommendation both in spirit and in practice
WRITTEN MATERIALS PARENTS RECEIVE ARE OFTEN DIFFICULT FOR THEM TO UNDERSTAND.
AGREE THAT LEGALLY MANDATED FORMS CAN BE DIFFICULT. DISAGREE IT IS OFTEN AND DISAGREE HELP ISN’T PROVIDED TO DEAL WITH THOSE INSTANCES WHERE IT IS.
a) THE FAMILY SUPPORT DIVISION SHOULD PREPARE A SUPPLEMENT TOT HE STATE HANDBOOK WITH LOCAL INFORMATION AND PROVIDE A COMPREHENSIVE WRITTEN EXPLANATION OF ALL LEGAL FORMS IN ENGLISH AND SPANISH.
WE FEEL THIS RECOMMENDATION IS NOT REASONABLE OR NECESSARY.
Presently there are 139 judicial council forms utilized by the Division. These forms are constantly being changed, new forms are constantly added and old forms are deleted. While the Family Support Division utilizes these forms, it is important to point out they are not Family Support Division forms, nor is the Family Support Division the only agency that utilizes the forms. These are court-mandated forms.
In addition, there are an equal number of letters and in-house forms used by the Division. Those forms, which are most often used and comprise the core information gathering or action required, are already documents available in Spanish and English. In many instances, these core documents are completed at in-take, when the caseworker is present to assist and answer questions. In instances where questions remain unresolved, appointments can be made with staff to resolve difficulties. 43% of our caseworkers are bilingual so that is not a roadblock. As correctly pointed out in this Report, in instances when the person is still having difficulties or disagrees, referral to the mediator is commonplace and proving effective.
Given the large number of forms utilized in this program, it is difficult without specificity to evaluate the validity of this Recommendation. Even some minimal identification of those forms or documents that illustrate this Finding or Recommendation would have been helpful to this Department as responder, the Board as reviewer, and the public as evaluator.
Publishing a Handbook and launching into a highly expensive, staff intensive and questionably necessary shotgun project suggested by this Recommendation is simply not prudent or warranted based upon the sketchy information available. Also, adequate resources and processes already exist.
b) THE FAMILY SUPPORT DIVISION SHOULD DEVELOP VIDEOS EXPLAINING THE RIGHTS AND OBLIGATIONS OF CLIENTS AND MAKE THEM AVAILABLE TO CLIENTS WAITING IN FAMILY SUPPORT DIVISION OFFICES.
THIS RECOMMENDATION WAS ALREADY UNDER CONSIDERATION BY THIS DEPARTMENT PRIOR TO THE GRAND JURY’S INTEREST.
Department’s identification of this project was documented in the Public Information Officer’s evaluation as a future task. The Grand Jury was informed of our video project during their site visit. We are glad they support our efforts to enhance service despite the fact it will cost more money.
We need to develop a script, have it translated and obtain approval for the necessary equipment. Once this is completed, the tape will be shown in all three offices in both Spanish and English. This Recommendation should be implemented by the first of the year.
SANTA BARBARA COUNTY RANKS LOWER THAN OTHER COUNTIES IN COST EFFECTIVENESS OF COLLECTIONS AND COLLECTIONS.
DISAGREE WITH THE FINDING. NO SOURCE FOR THIS RATING WAS CITED IN THE REPORT TO ALLOW EVALUATION AND AS DEMONSTRATED BELOW EVEN IF CORRECT, IT IS MEANINGLESS.
THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY SHOULD IMPROVE THE COST EFFECTIVENESS OF COLLECTIONS IN THE FAMILY SUPPORT DIVISION.
STRONGLY DISAGREE WITH ENTIRE RECOMMENDATION.
This recommendation will not be implemented. Its implementation would be counterproductive and result in the reduced service levels, lower collections, and deterioration of Santa Barbara’s strong Child Support Enforcement Program simply to achieve a meaningless rating.
Recommendation #3 was simply lifted by the Grand Jury from a statistical report. It was included in its Report without a scintilla of supporting discussion. Apparently, this low rating was supposed to speak for itself. Instead, as you will see, it spoke volumes about how little thought or research preceded its Recommendation.
Had the Grand Jury sub-committee extended the courtesy of an inquiry or conducted even minimal legitimate research into this "cost effectiveness" issue, it would have benefited from much useful information, saved itself a good deal of embarrassment, and learned of the existence of at least two State Legislative Analyst Office reports diametrically opposed to this Recommendation.
"Our research leads us to the conclusion that one way to improve program performance - with the prospect of also achieving state savings – is to increase spending for the program administratively … From the fiscal standpoint, program expenditures should be increased in each county to the point where marginal collections equal marginal costs."
This oversight is quite inexplicable for several reasons. First, the latest report was issued April 17, 1999. It was covered in the media and referenced in a News Press Editorial. Secondly, anyone even remotely familiar with this program knows that a major criticism of the current programs has been counties’ failure to invest money in local child support programs.
As critics and the LAO point out, failure to invest produces impressive "cost to collection ratios," but poor program performance, "It appears that the counties continue to under-invest in the program … In other words, counties tend to be ‘risk-adverse.’ As such, once they reach a no-net county cost position, they choose not to increase expenditures in the program, even if they believe there is a reasonably good chance of increasing collections by enough to generate sufficient revenues to cover their additional costs."
It is clear the Grand Jury sub-committee which prepared this report made no effort to research the significance, if any, of this particular statistic. They never requested information. They never sought an explanation from this Department about how this figure is reached. They never inquired about the many variables that may account for the rating. They never determined whether this particular statistic or rating was currently considered important or how it relates to program performance. In fact, the sub-committee rejected, on at least two occasions, the Department Head’s offer to have Marnie Pinsker, the Department’s Fiscal Officer, answer any fiscal or personnel related issues.
This glaring conflict between the Grand Jury’s third Recommendation and the Legislative Analyst Office Reports is compounded by their equally inexplicable failure to correctly understand and describe the program’s funding sources. It’s "OBSERVATION" section states: "Expenses for the program are reimbursed with federal funds."
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The federal government only provides for 66% of the program’s cost. The additional 34% is funded by either local county discretionary funds or by incentives earned by each county program based upon a county’s achieving certain federal and state benchmark performance measurements. State law also requires that this money be reinvested in the program and if not used within two years returned to the state.
Let me illustrate, from a historical perspective, just how this Grand Jury oversight further erodes the validity of Recommendation #3. In 1983, when I took over as District Attorney, the county was contributing nearly $450,000 to $500,000 annually in county discretionary funds to run the Child Support Program. Coincidentally, it’s "cost to collection" ratio (or administrative cost) was quite low and among the best in the state. The problem was, little investment was being exerted to expand collection efforts beyond the easy cases. So costs were low, but base collections stagnated, and the program was not growing or servicing the custodial parents and children of this county.
Largely through the support of the then Board of Supervisors’ willingness to invest in the future of the program, and our internal redirection of the county’s program priorities, our costs went up. So did our collections. So did the number of paying cases. So did a larger number of custodial parents’ children who benefited through payments. So did performance. So also did the number of unhappy absent parents now being forced to live up to their parental financial responsibilities.
By the early 1990’s, despite investing millions of dollars in a new computer system the county’s cost for the program was reduced to zero. The program no longer relied on a penny of county discretionary funds. The program was now funded through the federal 66% share and the incentive money earned by the Child Support Division’s performance, which met or exceeded benchmark performance measures.
In 1998-99 fiscal year, over $250,000 in excess revenue was earned by Santa Barbara County’s Child Support Program. We have chosen to reinvest that money in the program. While it is true that this reinvestment strategy into increased program services to the constituents of this county does drive up administrative costs, it also expands services, reduces caseloads, and creates the opportunity to earn even greater incentive performance money.
Examples of Santa Barbara’s reinvestment strategy, which are consistent with the Legislative Analyst Office’s April 1999 recommendation, are the following:
30% Increase In Family Support Officers. In the last 5 years, we have added 23 new Family Support Officer positions at no cost to the county. This represents a 30% increase in the Family Support caseworkers. As a result, caseloads that hovered around 1200 - 1000 in pre-automation days, have now been reduced to below 400 per caseworker. Incidentally, 42% of those caseworkers are bilingual.
Automation and Imaging Systems. We have invested heavily in automation. While many of the state’s counties currently flounder, because of the state’s failed SACCS automation project, and/or are operating with old, outdated systems, Santa Barbara’s program thrives. We have one of the best automation systems in the state. It is operational, productive and efficient. Yet we continue to invest and improve our automated processes. This year we invested nearly $200,000 in excess revenue to install a new imaging system. This will allow us to process payments and get money to custodial parents within a 24-48 hour time frame. If you are a custodial parent waiting for a check, you would understand the importance of this increased level of service, which has no relationship to collections. This is just one of the most obvious of many hidden service related factors that the Grand Jury did not understand and failed to discuss. It also illustrates why implementation of Recommendation #3 would be counterproductive and destructive to current program quality and high level of service established in this county.
Public Outreach Officer. We created an active public outreach program. In 1998, a "Public Outreach Officer" position was added. Since that time, this individual has been active in all areas of the community, north and south, in both in English and Spanish communities, and among organizations, agencies and individuals in our community. The quality of this outreach effort was recently the source of complimentary remarks by several members of the Board of Supervisors, who had seen the program. The state’s Family Support Counsel was so impressed with our outreach program developed by our Public Information Officer that it is currently requesting it be replicated for use by other counties in the state. Numerous informational brochures have been printed in both Spanish and English and our services are now advertised in the movie theatres. This is another investment enhancing services and program quality. True, it increases administrative costs, has no direct relationship to collections, but it provides a far better program to the constituents of Santa Barbara County. All of this at no cost to the county taxpayers.
Training Officers. In 1997 fiscal year, we added the two training officer positions mentioned earlier. Theirs was an important mission. While these individuals definitely had a role in developing manuals and training procedures, as pointed out earlier, their primary and most important mission was directed at training new Family Support Officers and to provide ongoing training for all staff.
Multiple Offices in Rented Facilities. We currently have officers in Santa Barbara, Lompoc, and Santa Maria. It is true, costs could have been lowered by closing or consolidating offices. Alternatively, our Santa Maria, Lompoc or Santa Barbara offices could have been located in remote areas, inaccessible to mass transportation, and achieve cheaper rent. Instead, we deliberately chose to select sites accessible to the public, to mass transportation, and convenient to the clients. Can anyone seriously contest that the cost of rentals in downtown Santa Barbara unfavorably impacts our administrative costs. It is totally unfair not to consider the impact of Santa Barbara’s high cost of living when comparing us to smaller or less expensive countries. Indisputably, such factors artificially drive our administrative costs up. Moreover, had the Grand Jury done a little investigation, they would have found that in many counties, Child Support Divisions are housed in county facilities. Therefore, they pay no rent at all. Obviously, the administrative costs for those counties are going to be much cheaper. This county made a deliberate decision many years ago, because of the funding mechanism and the shortage of county facilities, not to house our Child Support Division in county facilities simply to achieve an artificially lower administrative rate. By doing so, the county in turn derives the benefit of being able to focus scarce facility resources on other department’s housed in downtown areas.
The third deficiency in the Grand Jury’s approach to Recommendation #3 was its failure to ask the most basic question, "How do collections compare to outstanding amounts owed?" Had the Grand Jury asked or reviewed the most recent State performance report, it would have learned that Santa Barbara ranks fifth in the state in support collected standards. This means that we are doing an excellent job in collections compared to what outstanding amounts are owed for child support.
Lastly, if one appreciates the Legislative Analyst Office’s position, and truly understood the funding sources, it would not take a mental giant to figure out that artificially keeping costs down at the expense of program enhancements, only results in unused excess revenues being returned to the State General Fund. Now does anyone seriously contest the wisdom of not sacrificing the use of locally earned excess revenues to benefit local custodial parents and local taxpayers just to achieve a meaningless, lower administrative cost figure?
I have just touched the surface on why Recommendation #3 is not one of the Grand Jury’s better efforts at improving county government. It was obviously poorly researched. Implementing Recommendation #3 would threaten the program and be counterproductive to its current high level of performance and hamper future program successes. I believe the Board of Supervisors, by its consistent support for our program investments, shares my beliefs. These investment efforts reflect our refusal to compromise program performance, service levels and earning capacity to accomplish the meaningless goal of a lower administrative cost rating. While we will remain ever vigilant in an effort to utilize funds wisely, cutting costs merely in an attempt to improve our "cost effectiveness" ranking within the State, would be foolhardy.
After an objective examination of all of the above factors, it is our belief that "Finding #3" should be replaced. The correct "Finding" should be a recognition that the Department and County Board have invested wisely and should be praised for its foresight, leadership and courage. Recommendation #3 should be consistent with the Legislative Analyst Office’s Report to continue this investment strategy.