D.C. agency headed by alumna wins top award
Under the direction of an alumna of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, a public agency in Washington, D.C., will receive a major award this summer for helping children.
The District of Columbia’s Child Support Services Division will be honored by the National Child Support Enforcement Association at its conference in August. Benidia Rice, a 1984 graduate of the College of Law, is the division’s director, as well as a district deputy attorney general. Her office will receive the association’s 2007 Most Improved Program Award, primarily for its progress in identifying neglectful fathers and securing new child-support orders.
Rice said the Most Improved Program Award is gratifying because when she came to the agency nearly four years ago its successes were non-existent.
“At that time, it was failing every federal performance measure in child support enforcement,” said Rice, who was brought in to reengineer the office. “But we have increased collections by more than 15 percent in about 3-½ years.”
By working with D.C. Superior Court to establish new child-support orders, the division was able to increase the number of referrals to the court by 47 percent in 2006. It employed innovative approaches to improve its services, including using a generous policy for the treatment of child support for families on temporary assistance grants. The office also used a new earned tax credit law to help those paying child support, and a new grant to help incarcerated parents modify their child-support orders when returning to their families.
“We still have a long way to go, but just to be able to meet the measurements and stand tall with the other jurisdictions is great,” Rice said. “Our success means that more families in the district are getting the financial and medical support that they deserve. We’ve set ambitious targets for overall collections, and we’re really going to push hard to meet them.”
Professor Alan Matheson, who was Dean of the College of Law while Rice was a student, remembers her as a “wonderful student (whose) engaging and caring personality attracted many friends. “After her graduation, she became active in the Law Alumni group and made significant contributions,” Matheson said. “I am delighted that her work is being recognized.”
For the first few years after graduating from law school, Rice worked in tax law. “After a couple of years it was apparent that was not what I wanted to do,” she said. “I like contact with people, and my position as deputy attorney general and director are the best of both worlds. I still get to practice law … at the same time I can manage and pool resources together in order to achieve certain goals, which I find exciting.
“You see that you have a real impact on families, especially when you can get financial support to them and actually reconnect parents to their children, both mothers and fathers,” said Rice, who also spent 10 years in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. “When I first started, I never thought I would be there that long. But it’s one of those things that get in your blood.
Rice said her staff tries to problem solve, rather than just enforce the law.
“One of the challenges for us in child services is medical support enforcement,” Rice said. “It’s a good feeling when you can help children with medical insurance, instill a sense of responsibility in their parents, and as a citizen, help your country by directing resources to those who really need them.”
She encouraged law students or lawyers searching for a new calling to consider public services.
“I know it sounds trite, but I truly believe there is a higher calling for lawyers, and such a need for lawyers and their talents,” Rice said. “I have put lawyers into non-lawyer positions because what they bring to the table are legal and analytical skills that we really need to achieve our goals.”