Thousands of Arizonans who paid off their child support debt continued to be marked as subject to property liens because of a state Department of Economic Security screwup that officials say is almost fixed.
Ticked-off customers — including some with lawyers — finally drove the agency to do something about the problem, according to insiders. Dozens of people had to be hired to help figure it out.
When asked about the snafu, DES officials acknowledged that a lengthy review of closed, past-due child support cases completed last year showed that 8,241 people should have had their liens removed. The agency also determined that 14,016 open child support cases need to be audited for liens that should be released; that review will occur sometime this year.
The state has about 321,000 active child support cases, with the state and county splitting them roughly in half. Besides typical cases, the state automatically receives cases that involve federally assisted foster care and recipients of Medicaid or welfare. Under previous rules, if someone ordered to pay child support falls more than two months behind, an administrative lien is placed on all current and future property they own. (The state recently changed that to four months.) The lien prevents the person from selling the property, typically a home, until the past-due payments are satisfied.
The problem was that "liens were not properly tracked and documented," according to information provided by Tasya Peterson, DES spokeswoman. Computer hardware from the 1980s at the agency, including a mainframe ATLAS system, "allows for user entry errors."
At terminals with green monochrome monitors, workers over the years tracked only court-ordered liens in the archaic computer system, then later switched to tracking both court-ordered and the DES administrative liens, confusing the process. The old system could only store a few cases for a limited time so older cases were constantly archived on magnetic tape.
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The agency discovered the source of the problem in April 2013 and hired the quasi-public Child Support Lien Network to complete the review. While that project took two years, the audit of the 14,016 open cases should only take about two or three months, Peterson wrote.
"The Department believes its response regarding this issue has not resulted in delay or harm for the obligated parent," she wrote. "A lien that has not been released does not affect the obligated parent’s credit report as liens are not reported, only balances."
If a parent who paid the past-due amount attempts to buy or sell and home and finds that a lien hasn't been released, a title or mortgage company can submit a request to DES' Division of Child Support Services, which sends the proper information to the companies "within 48 hours."
In the "unusual situation" in which someone believes an active lien in in place on his or her property but no child support is owed, DES asks customers to call 602-542-4045, 800-882-4151, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The agency says it will respond within two business days.