Cassandra Welchlin, a representative of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, believes a controversial finger-scanning program is harmful to children and families.
Photo by Courtesy Cassandra Welchlin
After weeks of offering up generalities about why it instituted a controversial new program, the Mississippi Department of Human Services finally outlined its rationale for requiring some poor parents to submit to finger scanning when retrieving their children from day care.
As part of a court order that stemmed from an ongoing disagreement between child-care providers that participate in the federal child-care voucher program and the DHS, the department published an economic-impact statement on the benefits of its $12.7 million biometric finger-scan program now in effect at about 20 locations in central Mississippi.
Affiliated Computer Systems Inc., a division of Xerox Corp., holds the contract to run the program, which tracks child attendance and pays providers. According to the document, the scanners could "reduce improper payments, reduce fraud, improve overall efficiency and increase the number of children being served." Specifically, the report states that the finger scanners could save between $1.6 million and $2.2 million in administrative costs, and $15 million to $18 million in false child-attendance claims.
Until recently, DHS officials had only said that the finger-scanning program would increase efficiency in the federally funded program that subsidizes child care for low-income families and help cut down on the program's 8,000 child-long waiting list.
DHS' suggestion that as much as $20 million worth of fraud could be taking place in the federal child-care assistance program incensed some providers.
Jane Boykin of Delta Licensed Providers accused DHS of not acting in good faith by not providing any documentation of the alleged abuse. Boykin called out Jill Dent, DHS' office for children and youth director, for saying the finger-scan system would not be connected to any other computer database even though the department's economic impact statement touts the scanner software's ability to work with the Electronic Benefits Transfer, or food stamp, system.
Dent, speaking with reporters after the Nov. 16 public hearing at Mississippi Public Broadcasting auditorium, responded to a question from the Jackson Free Press about the prevalence of fraud in the certificate program by referring to 2007 recommendation by the office of then-Auditor Phil Bryant to improve the program's efficiency.
"We just want to make sure we have accountability in our system," Dent said.
Dent also said the Division of Child Care and Development, which DHS oversees, has issued more than 1,000 new certificates since launching the pilot program in September and plans to send more letters to parents on the waiting list.
In September, the Mississippi Department of Human Services, which oversees several programs for low-income families, launched a pilot program at about 20 child-care centers in the Jackson metro area. DHS said the new system would increase efficiency and ultimately help enroll more children whose families can't afford to pay the full cost of child-care out of their pockets.
More centers were scheduled to go online Nov. 1, but a firestorm of complaints came in from child-care-center directors who said the system is prone to glitches and that the costs of having a staff member monitor the machines bit into revenues. They also had concerns about personal-information security and privacy with the system.
In a statement, Xerox said its scanner program "uplifts the whole childcare ecosystem--with providers, taxpayers and children reaping some of the most significant benefits."
"In every state where we've put this program into place, states have saved money by eliminating overpayments and cutting administrative costs from the processing of paper claims and ledgers. Oklahoma has saved more than $135 million since the system rolled out statewide in November 2003," wrote Xerox spokeswoman Jennifer Wasmer in a statement to the JFP.
In addition to the potential cost burden the scanners represent, many child-care-center operators have asked why DHS spent $12.7 million for new scanners and moved so quickly away from its previous e-Ledger tracking system, implemented in February 2012. Some centers have threatened to drop out of the certificate program if DHS widens the scanners to all day-care centers in the state who accept the subsidy.
Petra Kay, who owns Northtown Child Development Center in Jackson, and other providers have questioned the wisdom of spending millions of dollars on scanners, software and support instead of funneling the money toward early child care, an area in which Mississippi lags the rest of the country.
"We are developing a child-care beef plant," Kay said, referring to a failed meat-processing plant that put taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars in loans when the project went belly up. "We have spent millions of dollars (on scanners) that could go to the care of children."