Monday, February 12, 2001

The check's in the mail

Gov. Taft due to weigh in on system's problems

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Terri Murrie is depleting her savings because her child-support checks are chronically late.

        Barbara Burns' checks are late, too, and now she's late paying bills.

        Joe Brickler is fighting over child-support payments he says he made and the state says he owes.

[photo] Terri Murrie of Cincinnati with her children, Molly, 18, and Matt, 10, are receiving support checks chronically late.
(Mike Simons photo)
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        More than four months after Ohio began a centralized system to collect and distribute child-support checks, a crisis is building in the program that's supposed to look out for kids.

        More than 6,700 payments are still being delayed or lost each week. In some cases, checks are going to the wrong people. In others, parents who have made payments are being told they have not.

        Today, Gov. Bob Taft steps in, expecting a report on the latest glitch: Problems with a computer system that has withheld as much as $10 million in child-support payments from some parents since 1997.

        “We know it's our problem to solve, and we're going to do everything we need to do to solve it,” said Jacqui Romer-Sensky, director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which oversees the program.

        “We're extremely aware of the critical nature of getting the checks to the children.”

        Troubles began almost as soon as the new system went into effect Oct. 1.

        “It's a problem in all four corners of the state,” said Kimberly Newsom, executive director of the Ohio Child Support Enforcement Agency Directors Association, an organization for county child-support directors.

[photo] Barbara Burns, who works for Butler County's child-support agency, has been receiving checks two to three weeks late.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        Nobody said it would be easy switching from a county-run system to a statewide system of collecting and distributing child-support payments.

        The change was required by the 1996 federal welfare reform law. Federal officials wanted to make sure that states could track parents as they move across state lines, ensuring that payments to kids get made.

        The law also intended to ensure that states sent along payments to custodial parents within two business days.

        But problems surfaced almost from the start. In Ohio, 846,000 cases that had been handled by the state's 88 counties suddenly came under the state's control.

        Under a system known as Child Support Payment Central, Bank One received a $125 million, five-year contract to set up a statewide banking account.

        Child-support payments come into the account either directly from paying parents or from their employers, who withhold the payments from wages. Bank One is supposed to process the payments, then send them on to parents raising kids.

        But problems that counties could resolve in hours — mistakes including missing or erroneous information from parents or employers — soon led to days and weeks of delays by the state.

        “We're familiar with the cases,” said Daniel Cade, executive director of Butler County's Child Support Enforcement Agency. “If a check didn't have a Social Security number on it, we could identify it and resolve it in the same day. It may take the state two weeks to do it.”

        Ms. Romer-Sensky describes the process this way:

        For every 1,000 checks that Bank One receives, 30 cannot be sent out because of incomplete or missing information. Of those 30, Bank One corrects and sends out 24 within two days. The remaining six go to the state agency, which resolves problems with five within two weeks. For the sixth, it takes longer.

        Jeff Lyttle, spokesman for Bank One Corp. in Columbus, said the bank is working hard to try to resolve problems. “We are meeting frequently and talking constantly,” he said.

        Yet solutions seem elusive.

        Mr. Taft has proposed increasing funding for child-support collection by $30 million, which may help pay to hire new workers at the Bank One center. But that money is proposed for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

        Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, has heard plenty from constituents. “I haven't seen any real push to get this thing resolved,” Mr. Mallory said. “I can't be the only legislator that's getting calls from all these people.”

Complaints widespread
        Officials all across the state are getting calls.

        The Hamilton County Department of Human Services is taking up to 1,000 complaints a week. And that doesn't include calls made directly to the department's 108 child-support caseworkers, agency spokeswoman Denise Winkler said.

        Butler County has counted at least 185 late or misdirected payments since Oct. 1, said that county's Mr. Cade. When the payments were handled by the county, there would be one mistake like that a month, he said.

        “In Ohio, they took something that worked well, and they broke it,” he said.

        Ms. Murrie, 44, a Cincinnati resident, could always count on receiving her child-support checks for her two kids, every week, as reliable as clockwork.

        But since October, her checks have been running three weeks behind.

        “I'm close to tears with frustration,” she said. “I've had to go through half of my savings to pay bills. The system is failing everybody.”

        Ms. Burns, 28, who lives with her 7-year-old daughter in Fairfield, has been late paying bills because her support checks are three weeks behind, too.

        “This has caused me to be charged late fees,” she said. “Is the state going to pay them?”

        Mr. Brickler, 41, of Alexandria, has spent months trying to convince Ohio that his child-support obligations ended when his daughter turned 18.

        He said he actually overpaid the system $200. Yet he said he received a letter from the state last month threatening to withhold $709 from this year's income tax refund unless he paid up.

        “It's stealing people's money,” said Mr. Brickler, a computer consultant. “I'm living in a hell. I wish they would clean up the system because it's not working.”

Collection rate up
        Despite the problems, Ohio's child-support efforts have had some success.

        The state's collection rate for current child-support money owed increased from 62.2 percent in fiscal year 1996 to 66.4 percent in fiscal year 2000. Nationally, the average collection rate for 1999 was 52 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

        The amount of child support distributed in Ohio has nearly tripled, from $666 million in fiscal year 1992 to $1.74 billion in fiscal year 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The national increase in child-support distribution over that same period more than doubled, from $8 billion to $18 billion.

        But increased collections have not come cheap.

        Setting up Ohio's centralized system has cost more than $250 million in federal and state funds for computers and personnel.

        In addition, the state has incurred $50 million in federal fines for missing deadlines for setting up the statewide system and other problems. Another $66 million fine has been threatened.

        The state won't actually pay that money, but the federal government could withhold it in future payments to the state.

        Now, new expenses loom to fix the system, and no one is sure what those costs will be.

        “I would hope that within the next couple of months, we could make some progress,” said Ms. Newsom of the Ohio Child Support Enforcement Agency Directors Association.

        “It's going to take a while to work things out.”

        Contributing: Debra Jasper and Spencer Hunt in Columbus; Sheila McLaughlin in Warren County.
- The check's in the mail
How the child-support system works in Ohio
Ky. collections rising

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