Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Support payouts on hold

Parents may have months to wait

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Thousands of parents owed up to $8 million in withheld child support may have months to wait before the state hands over the money.

        Officials at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services said Monday they do not know how long it will take to craft a reliable repayment plan. In fact, they still have not stopped their computerized system from regularly subtracting funds from many families' support checks.

        While the agency promises to stop its computer by April 1, a leader of the group that revealed the problem said parents must get their money sooner instead of later.

        “It should be possible to do this within a matter of months,” said Melanie Snider, director of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support. “Any longer than six months is probably too long.”

        That statement follows a memo that agency director Jacqui Romer-Sensky sent Gov. Bob Taft, which outlines possible solutions. Ms. Romer-Sensky said the state has to return at least $3 million in withheld payments but urged a total $8 million be repaid.

        “We recommend a proactive method for reaching out to these families and repaying those who come forward,” Ms. Romer-Sensky wrote.

        At the center of the problem are thousands of Ohio parents who went on welfare because their former spouses or partners were not paying child support. When their support payments start up again, the state legally can withhold some of the money to replenish state welfare funds.

        A 1996 federal law changed this system in an effort to help families collect more money. Even though state officials knew about the law, the changes were never factored into Ohio's computers.

        Spokesman Dennis Evans said the agency did not have time to alter its program in its rush to meet an October deadline to centralize support payments.

        Now the question is, how to return the money. Mr. Evans said it won't be easy.

        “We're trying to figure out how many people there are, who they are and how they go about getting their reimbursements,” he said.

        That process could take weeks if not months, Mr. Evans added. Identifying people who unfairly lost money under the state system as far back as 1997 means the agency must look to county officials for help.

        Ohio's 88 counties used to handle all child-support payments until a federal mandate forced the state to take over on Oct. 1. Since then families across Ohio have been plagued by late or missing payments caused by problems in the system.


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