Friday, February 23, 2001

Child support

Everybody wants a piece of it

        You would think that a program designed to take care of the most vulnerable among us would generate a little respect among our government and business leaders. Don't count on it.

        Child support is a fat cash cow and there are a lot of hyenas out there trying to sink their teeth into its haunches.

        The result is that millions of dollars that are supposed to be going to feed, clothe and shelter children are getting peeled off to support the system instead of the children.

        Those scavenging from the system range from Bank One, which has a five-year, $125 million contract with Ohio to collect the payments and issue the checks, to the state government, which has improperly withheld millions of dollars that should have been distributed to custodial parents and their children.

        The federal government tried to improve child support collection and payments by forcing states to centralize their operations last year, rather than letting individual counties handle things. The goal of the program was laudable: Federal involvement would allow deadbeats to be tracked across state lines so that their wages, and sometimes their very persons, could be attached and squeezed for the support they owe.

        So far, so good. I've got no quarrel with making parents live up to their financial duties. I have a low threshold of tolerance for parents, usually fathers, who call up and complain that they have to pay support but don't get to see enough of their kids. It's not a quid pro quo. The money is for the kid. It isn't supposed to be the purchase price of visitation. If you've got trouble with your ex about visiting hours go see the judge, but don't stop the checks.

        The problem with our new system is that it doesn't work as well as the old system. The centralized computers don't work, checks are late and people who pay on time are getting dunned anyway.

        “The state can't get the computers up, the bank can't get the checks out on time and the children go to bed hungry,” said Geraldine Jensen, president of ACES (Association for Children for Enforcement for Support). She testified before Congress that the distribution of collected support was one part of the system that wasn't broken. Congress decided to “fix” it anyway.

        Some of the smaller abuses already have been reported. For instance, Bank One charges an extra $3 to anyone who asks them to cash one of the checks but doesn't have an account there.

        But that is petty cash in ACES' litany of abuses. Federal regulations say the bank can hold the money for two days. The regulations said interest generated by that money could either go to the state or be passed on to those receiving the support. In Ohio it is used to fund the state's contract with the bank. But there have been many, many cases of payments being held at the bank for weeks before being paid out. The accumulated interest in those cases goes back to the state — sort of a bonus for inefficiency.

        Ohio also is accused of using the system to improperly hold on to millions of dollars in tax refunds. The federal regulations said the state could snag refunds from those who were behind in their support payments. Those accused of being in arrears then have six months to appeal. After that the money is supposed to go to those owed the support. As of October there was $12 million in withheld refunds that should have been distributed, Ms. Jensen said. Even after being ordered to distribute it, $6 million was still being held as of January, she said. The state has withheld millions more to cover the costs of people who went on welfare because their support payments were late. Ohio recently acknowledged it shouldn't have done that either.

        I don't know why the state is taking so long to distribute money it knows is supposed to go to poor women and children. I do know that the interest on all that withheld money has not been going to those in need of it. I don't know why a rich corporation like Bank One squeezes an extra $3 a check out of every person they can.

        I do know that Geraldine Jensen seems to have a point when she says that in the world of child support “everybody takes a fee out of it and the kids get the crumbs.”

        It is time to reslice this loaf so it feeds those who need it.

        Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells.

Wrong checks add to agency's support payment troubles

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