Monday, 12 March 2012

Parents in limbo as backlog plagues Child Support Agency.

In 2011 the Australian Child Support Agency implemented a new process for Change of Assessment (COA) applications which they hoped would speed up lengthy processing times.

Prior to this change, COA applications were generally processed within 75-90 days of being allocated to a Senior Case Officer (SCO). By implementing the new system, it was anticipated that waiting times would be cut to 35-50 days from the date of allocation to a SCO. That was the plan.

A COA application can be lodged for a variety of reasons. This allows adjustments to be made to the amount of Child Support a parent pays. The changes can go both ways, either increasing or decreasing the amount paid to the receiving parent.

Once a COA application is lodged with Child Support Agency it is, according to a source at Child Support Agency, scanned into the computer where it awaits allocation to a SCO.

In early January of 2012 Child Support Agency advised via their website that:

“A decision maker will contact you to discuss your application approximately five to six weeks after it is received. We appreciate your patience during a time of higher than usual Change of Assessment Applications and look forward to speaking with you soon.”

Five to six weeks is not the time from lodgment to closure of the application, but the time ‘customers’ must wait before their applications are even addressed.

There is no way that in private enterprise the general public would put up with that sort of service. Can you imagine crashing your car and lodging a claim with your insurance company only to be told, ‘Yes it has been received, we’ll call you in five to six weeks to have a chat about it’.

After becoming aware of this I contacted Child Support Agency and was advised that the backlog had further blown out to up to eight weeks, with one source claiming the number of applications sitting scanned into the system and awaiting delegation was into the thousands.

Child Support Agency falls under the portfolio of the Hon. Brendan O’Connor Minister for Human Services. He replaced the Hon. Tanya Plibersek after PM Julia Gillard’s cabinet reshuffle in late 2011.

Minister O’Connor’s office advised that two intakes of staff in mid and late 2011 had been put in place to combat the increased amount of applications and that Child Support Agency are working as hard as possible to get on top of the backlog.

Speaking on behalf of Minister O’Connor, Jim McMahon, National Manager of Specialised Assessment Services with the Department of Human Services, said although more staff have been recruited he was happy overall with their competence of processing;

“A SCO (Senior Case Officer) requires a good understanding and knowledge of child support legislation, policies, guidelines and precedent case law. While any new SCO will obviously require a period of training and adjustment, I am quite satisfied that the recently appointed SCO’s are experienced and highly trained officers capable of quickly adapting to their new roles.”

When questioned regarding outstanding applications numbering in the thousands and how quickly the backlog will be cleared, Jim McMahon did not deny this number, preferring to take the easy path of response;

“The number of applications awaiting allocation varies from week to week. We are working hard to reduce the backlog and ensure that all applications are allocated and determined as quickly as possible.”

With the speed at which applications can be processed not appearing to be an issue, the spotlight now turns to the applications themselves. Jim McMahon briefly touched on this issue;

“It is not uncommon for us to receive a certain number of incomplete or ineligible COA (Change of Assessment) applications from customers. As you can appreciate, responding to these applications can be time consuming and impact on our capacity to respond to eligible and complete applications.”

When questioned about exactly what types of issues are holding up the applications and what customers can do to help cut down the extensive backlog, Jim McMahon declined to comment.

After making enquiries with Child Support Agency and the Minister’s Office, plus lodging a ministerial complaint regarding how long my own application was going to take, the Child Support website was quickly updated to remove any advice of waiting times, stating:

“If you have already lodged a Change of Assessment application and are waiting for us to contact you, we are currently experiencing a higher than usual volume of Change of Assessment applications. Thank you for your patience. A decision maker will contact you as soon as possible to discuss your application.”

On this note, whilst I didn’t expect to be pushed ahead of everyone else, lodging a complaint with the Minister’s Office without a doubt saw my application get delegated with priority, and finalised within three weeks of it being received in early January 2011.

Even though the COA is backdated to the original date of lodgment, waiting customers are left in limbo not knowing what is happening or what the outcome of their application will be.

Child Support Agency advises that people who are going to lodge applications should contact Child Support Agency first, with their website now stating:

“This option is only suitable for a small number of customer circumstances. You may have a quicker, simpler option than applying for a Change of Assessment. It is important that you call us on 131 141 to find out more before you use this form.”

If you have lodged an application and are still unhappy with how long your application is taking to be assigned to a SCO, it is advised that you contact the Child Support Agency Complaints area in the first instance. If you are still unsatisfied, it is amazing what a ministerial complaint can do.

With the backlog still remaining, I do not for one second believe that SCO’s are sitting around relaxing and having a coffee and chat. I am sure they are working hard. It would be nice to put further staff on, however with Child Support Agency being Tax payer funded, this would not be the ideal option for the Tax payer.

Child Support Agency has seen COA Applications received from July 2011 to January 2012 increase by 11.5% compared to the same period in 2010/2011.

In a recent Department of Human Services internal memo, it was stated that:

“Customers who have lodged COA applications from early December 2011 up to the week of 6 February 2012 will be progressively contacted during the period 13 February 2012 through to mid March 2012.”

Let’s hope valuable information similar to this will be made publically available on the Child Support Agency website shortly. It appears that the backlog will not be cleared any time soon, so the least they can do is be honest with their customers regarding application processing times.

Customers of Child Support Agency are already faced with massive levels of stress and do not need these levels being pushed any higher by an out of touch Government Department.

Hopefully more compassion and understanding from the department towards customers needs can help end the stigma that Child Support Agency is an Australian mental health liability.