Secrecy Surrounds Tennessee Child Support Program

DHS Commissioner Danielle Barnes granted the Tribune an interview but would not take questions about Child Support operations in Nashville. DHS is Tennessee’s largest social service agency.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — The Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS) is a pretty big outfit. DHS has 133 fulltime state workers and 356 contract employees. It has another 527 contract employees who work for other state agencies. Much of state business is outsourced to private companies.

DHS helps families pay for childcare, gets people with disabilities vocational training, and also provides services for the blind and deaf. DHS’s Adult Protective Services helps adults who are abused or cannot help themselves due to mental illness or old age. 

DHS administers Tennessee’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The department also runs the state’s Food Stamp program, SNAP. And DHS is in charge of the state’s child support program.

DHS has 44 child support offices around the state in thirty-one judicial districts. Those offices establish paternity, collect, and enforce child support payments. Child support is established by court-ordered parenting plans that take into account parents’ income and time spent with the children. 

Mississippi-based YoungWilliams operates the Child Support Office in Nashville. In 2017, the company managed 545,000 child support cases in 12 states, 67% of the nation’s total outsourced child support cases, according to its website. It collected $820 million in child support and disbursed $420 million, mostly to single moms. 

On its website YoungWilliams claims they are happy to answer questions. The Tribune wanted to know where the other $400 million went, so we asked them. “All media inquiries must go through the Tennessee Department of Human Services,” wrote the YoungWilliams Communications Team in Ridgeland, MS.

We asked DHS for financial information about the company. DHS Communication Director Sky Arnold said corporate financial information is not subject to the Public Record Act. So we asked him how much DHS paid to YoungWilliams in the last two years. Arnold did not get back to us by press time.

Rob Wells, Young Williams President and CEO, made about $400,000 last year and his company options are worth $2 million, according to Bloomberg L.P. 

We asked DHS about collections and administrative actions taken by DHS Child Support Services (CSS) in Davidson County and how YoungWilliams manage some 37,000 local cases. CSS/DHS review cases when one or both parents want their parenting plans changed. DHS Division of Appeals and Hearings hold hearings when one parent disputes actions taken by the department. 

If you are more than $700 behind in your child support payments, DHS can take your driver’s license, passport, IRS tax return, garnish your wages, and take money from your bank account. 

We asked DHS for information about the number of actions they have taken in Davidson County against “deadbeat dads” in the last two years. DHS did not provide the information.

Under Tennessee’s Open Records Act, DHS has seven days to comply with a request for information or explain why they can’t provide it. Arnold has been dithering for more than a month.

We also wanted to visit CSS and DHS offices to see how disputes are handled. And we wanted to know how many appeals were denied, how many were reversed, and how many case reviews DHS and CSS performed in the last two years. Arnold said the Tribune was not allowed to attend any hearings, visit and talk with DHS employees, and he released none of the child support statistics from Davidson County except the total number of cases. 

We asked for an interview with DHS Commissioner Danielle Barnes. Arnold set up an interview but told the Tribune no questions about CSS hearings and appeals would be allowed. The Tribune declined to interview Barnes under those circumstances. 

DHS is a state agency charged with providing many of Tennessee’s neediest residents services they need like food and child care and job training. The DHS website brags about the great customer service they provide.  As a newspaper, our role is to examine state programs to find out if they are effective, equitable, and not wasteful of taxpayers’ dollars. When it comes to child support, DHS is hiding behind a wall of secrecy. The question is: why? Because the tail is wagging the dog.

As a DHS contractor YoungWilliams is required to observe Tennessee’s Public Records and Open Meetings laws even though it is a private company. When it comes to disclosure of public information and access to YoungWilliams operations in Davidson County, DHS is protecting YoungWilliams’ privacy instead of the public’s right to know what they are doing with our tax dollars. 

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