Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Child support fix promised

Ohio plans to re-examine flawed system

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The state is going to stick with its troubled child support payment system and make it work, JoAnn Davidson, former Ohio House speaker and interim director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said Monday.

        The plan: Examine every aspect of the system — from budgets to computers — and figure out how to fix the problems.

        The Support Enforcement Tracking System (SETS) is a statewide means of collecting and tracking child support payments. All states were required by the federal government to begin using SETS last year, or face losing millions in federal dollars.

        But the system has proven slower at turning around child support payments than when individual counties ran the system. Almost all of Hamilton County's 51,000 cases in which a parent regularly pays into the system have experienced at least one problem.

        The state says it might owe parents about $6 million in back child support. However, a child advocacy group said the amount could be as much as $13 million.

        Ms. Davidson was appointed March 2 by Gov. Bob Taft as an interim replacement for Jacqueline Romer-Sensky, who abruptly resigned under mounting questions about the system. Ms. Davidson will leave May 1.

        She and other members of the state Department of Job and Family Services visited several newspaper editorial boards around the state on Monday.

        “This is a work in progress, and we want to correct things as we go along,” Ms. Davidson said. “In the short term, my energies are much better spent looking forward and figuring out how we get the money out.”

        But Don Thomas, director of the Hamilton County Department of Human Services, says the system may be beyond repair. He said a centralized system doesn't make sense for big states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and California.

        Mr. Thomas also said he's not sure there is the “political will” in Columbus to solve the problem — especially when the complaints start dropping off. That happens, he said, because people grow tried of complaining, not because the problems have been solved.

        “There is all kinds of budget competition, from Medicaid to education,” Mr. Thomas said. “For the state to make a commitment to child support, they would have to say it's more important than something else.

        “I'm not convinced at this point that there is the cash available.”

        Ms. Davidson said the state has hired more people to examine case files when payments are rejected by the computer system. That will help find mistakes — and get checks to needy parents — more quickly, she said.

        The state also is renegotiating its contract with Bank One, which distributes about 991,000 checks statewide each month. Every aspect of the contract is being reconsidered, including the controversial practice of Bank One charging a $3 surcharge when it cashes one of its own checks for people without accounts.

        That practice was halted last week until the contract is renegotiated.

        “We don't even know how many checks Bank One is cashing (for non-customers),” Ms. Davidson said. “If you're negotiating something into a contract, it's nice to know how much money you're talking about.

        “I'd like to look at how that's handled in other contracts. But my guess is that it will be resolved.”


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