Tuesday, October 26, 1999

Foster parent overpay written off

Decision part PR, part money

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County has decided to write off much of the $99,000 in overpayments it has made to foster parents over the past three years.

        The county Department of Human Services (DHS) will, however, look into 19 cases where foster parents may have received more than $1,000 in overpayments over those years.

        The decision is part financial, part public relations.

        County Department of Human Services (DHS) officials estimate they have spent nearly $40,000 in staff time during the past six weeks identifying potential overpayments and pulling paper work to make sure the overpayments are real.

        And their work isn't done. DHS Director Don Thomas said Monday that his office still needs several weeks to further research the 179 cases of overpayments and detail the movements of hundreds of children, who often are moved from one home to another.

        The other thing is that officials don't want to anger any of the current 400 foster families, who they say provide a valuable service at a fraction of the cost that most people pay for a baby sitter.

        Foster care costs the county an average of $29 per day, Mr. Thomas said.

        “To me, it seems counterproductive to go after these people when the dollars are not significant,” County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus said. “My concern is that we don't create any bad blood.”

        Mr. Bedinghaus said “significant” amounts are those over $1,000.

        DHS officials estimated back in September that they had overpaid 202 foster parents to the tune of $141,000.

        But after researching the issue, they found that many of those payments were legitimate or not made at all. Among the findings:

        • The largest overpayment was $8,746, and some of that money may not have been overpayments if it was part of a program that continues to pay adoptive parents for services the child needs.

        • There also were overpayments of $5,885, two which amounted to more than $3,000 each, one at more than $2,000 and 14 cases between $1,000 and $1,900.

        Softening the blow is a $20,000 donation made to Hamilton County by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, an organization that serves underprivileged children.

        “We'll take a look at the cases and collect the present or larger debts,” Mr. Thomas said. “We'll just have to see what makes sense.”

        But county officials won't try to recoup any of the money until early next year, when an updated computer system will allow them to withdraw overpayment amounts from foster parents' monthly checks.

        Commissioner John Dowlin agreed with the approach.

        “We don't want to go after the small amounts, and we particularly want to act kindly to these people who are foster parents because they are not doing it for the money,” Mr. Dowlin said.

        “They are providing a public service,” he said. “And if we upset them to the point where they don't want to be foster parents anymore, it will cost taxpayers a lot more money in the long run.”

        The overpayments happened because paper work often lags when a child is moved from one home to another.

        Paul Cohen, section chief for the DHS Division of Children's Services, said caseworkers are instructed to make child safety and mandatory court appearances priorities over paper work.

        Compounding the problem was the department switching to a computer system that would not allow DHS caseworkers to deduct overpayments from the next month's checks.

        “The system is not what we want it to be,” Mr. Cohen said.


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