Tuesday, September 14, 1999

County dreads new software

Child support system a mandate

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Child support collection in Hamilton County could take a turn for the worse in the next few months, according to Don Thomas, the county's director of Human Services.

        Like the other 87 counties in Ohio, Hamilton is being forced by the federal government to adopt a new computer program that is supposed to help standardize child support collection throughout the nation.

        The computer system is called the Support Enforcement Tracking System (SETS), and already has been installed in 58 Ohio counties.

        Some officials, such as those in Warren County, complain about the system writing checks for the wrong amount, sending them to the wrong addresses and often failing during business hours.

        Mitch Bonham, director of the Warren County Child Support Enforcement Agency, said the county's old computer system did a better job.

        “We've had all the horror stories: not being able to process payments or look up questions,” he said. “People just don't get their money as quickly.”

        Hamilton County is scheduled to have SETS installed in February. Mr. Thomas said SETS will cost the county twice as much when processing child support payments. And, he said, it will provide only half the level of service.

        “If we were to switch the lever today, it would be a huge disruption of service,” Mr. Thomas said.

        The idea behind SETS is to allow the federal government to keep tabs on child-support shirkers. Under SETS, it will be easier to find a person who owes child support in Ohio but is working a job in Florida.

        Many states have done a poor job of collecting and tracking child support data over the years, according to Mark Birnbrich, SETS project director for the Ohio Department of Human Services.

        But Mr. Bonham said Ohio is being penalized for other states' poor performances. “SETS was passed to bring up the level of weak systems, but it's also had the effect of dumbing down the good systems,” Mr. Bonham said.

        Ohio already has missed one federal deadline to have SETS installed statewide, and is about to miss a second in October. The first missed deadline cost the state $5 million; the next one will cost $10 million.

        If Ohio misses a third deadline, in October 2000, it will cost $18 million.

        Mr. Birnbrich doesn't plan to let that happen. He said some of the criticisms are unjustified.

        “Any change you go through, things seem different and more difficult,” he said. “The bottom line is this is a federal mandate. It's the law. We don't have a choice in the matter.”

        Lora Jollis, the welfare reform executive for Hamilton County, said the county is on record as saying it won't go online with SETS until the program is improved. “We're working with the state on getting the level of service up,” Mr. Thomas said.

        Commissioner John Dowlin said many of the phone calls he gets are from people disgruntled about the current system of child support payments.

        “They are the phone calls I get about which people are most passionate about,” Mr. Dowlin said. “If we do this and it's worse, the situation will just explode.”


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