Wednesday, December 22, 1999

Child-support system in rough transition

Thousands complain about errors

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Child support checks never made it to Joyce Mills' mailbox during the first three years of her divorce. Her ex-husband was unemployed and couldn't afford the $113 a week for their three children.

        Ms. Mills thought the problem was solved when her former husband landed a good job and started having the money taken directly out of his paycheck.

        But during the past six months, Ms. Mills has been holding her breath every Tuesday when she opens her mailbox — sometimes the check is there, sometimes it's not.

        Ms. Mills of Reading says the system, not her ex-husband, is the deadbeat.

        One of 11,000 people in Hamilton County whose child support cases have been switched over to a statewide computer program, Ms. Mills said receiving child support has been spotty ever since.

        The federal government is forcing all states to switch to the centralized program called the Support Enhanced Tracking System by October. Hamilton County, with 67,500 cases still to be converted, is scheduled to be completely on SETS by April.

        “It's the difference between going to the grocery story on Sunday or the following Friday,” Ms. Mills said of the uncertain payments. “Before they put me on the new system, I would know within a day or two when the check would arrive. I could count on it. Then all of a sudden, they're not coming.”

        The idea behind the new program, required by Congress as part of the federal welfare reform in 1996, sounds like a good one.

        A centralized system will allow officials to track people who do not pay their child support across county or even state lines.

        The national database can match names, birth dates and Social Security numbers with similar databases from the Bu reau of Motor Vehicles, Social Security and Internal Revenue Service records, to name a few.

        But the system, in Ohio and elsewhere, has had a rocky start.

        In Ohio, 69 counties totaling about half of the 800,000 child support cases have been switched to SETS. There have been thousands of complaints about checks arriving late, or being sent to the wrong address, or in the wrong amounts.

        Among the other problems with SETS:

        All customers will have to wait 24 hours to get payment histories. This is the most common request, which the county can provide to non-SETS customers immediately.

        SETS doesn't operate on weekends, and the computer often goes down for maintenance during business hours. The county's system is rarely down and it offers extended hours Wednesday evenings and two Saturdays every month.

        The current computer system generates information and forms used by the courts in day-to-day business. This information will not be available upon demand under SETS.

        Counties could face liability if child support records do not reconcile with bank records, but will have no control or ability to track payments and disbursements for accuracy.

        Child support checks sent from Columbus, picked because it is the state capital where the state Department of Human Services is located, under SETS will not be forwarded if the recipient has moved. Instead, the checks are returned to Columbus.

        In addition, Hamilton County officials are upset because they will spend an estimated $100,000 in tax dollars mailing letters to inform child support recipients the program they're switching to doesn't work as well.

        Lora Jollis, the county's welfare reform executive, said it could be 2001 before all the bugs are worked out of the SETS program. And she said even more delays are likely in store for people leading up to the county's full conversion to SETS.

        “It will not be a graceful transition,” Ms. Jollis said.

        For example, an employer might have dozens or even hundreds of people with child support deductions from their payroll. Now, the employer writes one check for the county, which then writes individual checks and disperses the money.

        With the county's old system, it was a single keystroke on a computer to process the payments. But with SETS, a cashier has to process each payment individually.

        That takes time and can mean delay, Ms. Jollis said. “It causes the whole system to slow down,” she said.

        But whatever the short-term problems, the end result will be a huge benefit for everyone in the system, according to Geraldine Jensen, president of a nationwide advocacy group called the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES).

        Ms. Jensen said states such as Ohio, California, Pennsylvania and Texas do a terrible job of collecting money from parents who skip out on their child support.

        SETS will help solve that problem, she said.

        “Hamilton County feels like its computer system is a Cadillac and SETS is a Chevy,” said Ms. Jensen, whose group started in Toledo in 1984.

        Without the centralized computer, millions of people will have no way to track down former spouses who owe their children money, she said.

        “The people who need that collection will take the Chevy because it will get them there,” Ms. Jensen said.

        But in the meantime, a lot of people will be frustrated when the Chevy breaks down, said county Department of Human Services spokeswoman Mindy Good.

        “About one-third of noncustodial parents pay all the time, one-third pay some of the time and one-third never pay,” Ms. Good said. “SETS will catch some of that one-third who never pay, but it will be frustrating and irritating to everyone in the system.”

        Ohio just signed a contract for more than $100 million with Bank One, which will begin processing all child support collections and payments in October.

        The bank also will be able to provide direct deposit of child support checks. State officials say once Bank One takes over payments it will speed along the process.

        U.S. Reps. Rob Portman and Steve Chabot both share the county's concerns. Mr. Portman helped get Ohio an extension on the deadline for signing a bank to handle the centralized collection and disbursement of child support payments.

        He said another deadline extension beyond October for all Ohio counties to be converted to SETS may be in order if the system causes too many problems.

        “If we can't guarantee we'll take care of people, we may need another extension or change the whole thing,” Mr. Portman said.

        But that's not very comforting to Mary Ann White of Wyoming, who is worried about her case being switched over to SETS.

        Ms. White said the money is too important to her family to be stuck in a bureaucratic paper jam.

        “There are a lot of dads out there not doing what they're supposed to,” Ms. White said. “Why can't the good parents get their money to their kids?”

        Ms. Mills' advice to newcomers to SETS is to keep all paperwork, keep a tight reign on the finances and have no fear of speaking out when the payments don't arrive on time.

        “Have a voice,” said Ms. Mills. “Because it's the kids that suffer.”


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