Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Abbott's child support statistics skewed to his favor

In my conference call with Barbara Radnofsky last week, she alluded to a developing scandal within the Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's department of child support collection. Theodore Kim of the Dallas News broke the story today.

"During my tenure as attorney general, the child support division has been elevated to the No. 1 national ranking," Abbott, a Republican, said in an interview last month in his Austin office. "And it is recognized around the country as being the top child support agency anywhere in the land."

Yet the full slate of numbers provides a more varied picture.

Texas lags in the percentage of overdue support it collects, according to an analysis of federal data by The Dallas Morning News. Delinquent cases and amounts owed are rising faster here 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. State officials deny the charge.

"This attorney general is very bent on making his numbers look as good as possible," Radnofsky said.

Abbott's signature issue -- he ran millions of dollars of television ads in his re-election campaign of 2006 about his success in the endeavor of 'bringing deadbeat dads to justice' -- employs 2600 people and has an annual budget of nearly $300 million.

But he cooks the books.

Abbott, above all, underscores Texas's top rating, which the federal Department of Health and Human Services determines by comparing amounts collected with collection costs. The federal government rewards high-ranking states with additional money.

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

Abbott credited the statistics to a streamlined corporate culture and a caring workforce.


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.

In truth, many problem-free cases are included in Texas's numbers.

Most big cities – including Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio – automatically add all child support cases, including ones involving willing payers, to the attorney general's database. Parents must opt out to avoid inclusion.

It gets worse, though.

Ginger Weatherspoon, who was fired from the attorney general's office in 2008, blamed the state for relying on a computer system that she says misinterprets state law and has generated widespread discrepancies.

"The state is collecting money that they are not owed, and they are not collecting money that is owed," said Weatherspoon, now in private practice. "There are major problems that need to be addressed."

There's also unnecessarily suspended payments to families.

Monica Attura, 44, of Plano has a different view. She and daughter Beatrice have received support for eight years.

But when a judge increased her ex-husband's biweekly payments from $600 to $750 earlier this year, Abbott's office began withholding payments as it verified the change.

Attura said she has not received child support for nearly two months, despite her attempts to resolve the matter. Her bills are adding up.

"It doesn't make sense to me, what is going on," said Attura, an interior designer who makes about $35,000 a year.

And apparently "liberal" definitions of what constitutes a father's income. From the comments there (typos left uncorrected):

(Abbott) looked at my Annul income based on a W2 form, and never consider my other child support in Oklahoma city. and Oklahoma did the same. So now I pay $975.00 a month in the State of Texas and $975.00 in the State of Oklahoma. And guess what? with the economy being the way it is overtime is scarce, and I haven't seen one bonus. Your next story should be "Those faithful fathers and mothers who pay child support in the State of Texas now living under bridges".

It seems Abbott's version of the truth leaves a lot to be desired by all parties involved in the child support matter. The big finish:

Radnofsky, Abbott's general election opponent, accused Abbott of issuing misleading numbers.

She argued 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 said.

Abbott intends to challenge the comprehensive healthcare plan passed into law earlier this year; he blustered about doing the same thing regarding legislation to cap greenhouses gases (no longer under consideration in the Congress). He wades into every fundamentalist conservative issue from gay marriage to the Ten Commandments on the state Capitol grounds.

He has a big fan club of enthusiastic freaks supporters.

Greg Abbott -- and I've been writing this since 2006 -- is the most dangerous politician in Texas.

It's long past time to elect an Attorney General who is capable of representing more than the most extreme faction of the Texas Republican party.

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