Sunday, June 17, 2001

Parents ask for refund


Child support checks reimbursed welfare

By Travis James Tritten
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        When her daughter Lynne was an infant, Deloris Hale used the $50 or so she received each week in child support to buy essentials like milk and diapers.

        In 1997, when Lynne was 17 years old and had a baby of her own, the money was needed even more. But one year later, the money stopped coming for months at a time. When it did arrive, she said, it was a fraction of what she was owed.

        Ms. Hale, who lives in downtown Cincinnati, and her daughter were not dealing with a deadbeat dad; he had been making full child support payments on time. Instead, the state withheld the money, some say illegally.

AT ISSUE
    Since the 1970s, Ohio and most other states withheld child support payments to recoup money spent on welfare assistance. Following national reforms in 1996, the U.S. government said states could no longer keep child support payments from parents who had been on welfare.
    While the federal law directed states to begin changing their systems in 1997, Ohio did not change its system until 2000, claiming it had the right to delay the switch under the new child support guidelines.
    That claim has sparked widespread criticism that the state shortchanged parents in need. A pending federal lawsuit is prompting the state to look into ways of repaying money withheld during the three-year period between October 1997 and October 2000, before Ohio's support system changed.
        Over three years, the state withheld more than $6 million in support from thousands of Ohioans like Ms. Hale. The checks were held as reimbursement for welfare payments that had previously been made to the families when non-custodial parents failed to pay the child support they owed.

        Those families are asking to have that money returned, saying the state should not have withheld the money under federal law.

        Gov. Bob Taft agrees that money should be given back, but counties say that would be difficult, if not impossible.

        Officials in 68 of the 77 responding Ohio counties — including Hamilton, Clermont, Butler and Warren — say it would be possible to return support money if the state ordered them to find parents who had money withheld from October 1997 to October 2000.

        Officials in most of those 68 counties, however, have balked at the prospect of paying back withholdings collected during that time. They say it would cost more than what was withheld — nearly $10 million — and take a total of more than 350,000 hours to determine who is owed how much.

        Nine counties have told the state the task of recovering names of individuals owed support money would be impossible because they lack the time and money, or no longer have the records. The counties are Adams, Cuyahoga, Hocking, Jackson, Lucas, Madison, Mahoning, Meigs and Summit. Eleven counties did not respond to the informal survey.

        In a survey of counties this spring by the state's Department of Jobs and Family Services, Hamilton County officials said the task of compiling the information would cost more than $250,000 and require 17,450 hours to complete.

        “The real hardship would be finding the staff power to do this. Case work would suffer,” said Mindy L. Good, spokeswoman for the Hamilton County Department of Human Services.

        Butler and Warren county officials say the project would cost more than $300,000 and an estimated 15,000 hours of work for each county.

        Compounding the problem, many counties did not keep electronic records of support payments and would have to go through documents by hand to determine who was owed money, Ms. Good said.

        In October, the state took control of tracking child support, and counties are no longer responsible for keeping records of payments.

        Despite the costs, some lawmakers say the state should not back out of its responsibility to pay parents what they are owed.

        “We put a lot of effort into finding who owes the state money. The state should put just as much effort into finding who it owes money,” said Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati.

        Meanwhile, the state, child support enforcement advocates and families are locked in a protracted legal battle over the issue.

        The state could face a federal class action lawsuit representing about 1 million Ohio families who had support money withheld.

        The suit is the latest move by the Association for Children for the Enforcement of Support Inc. (ACES), which wants the state to pay back millions of dollars in support they say it continues to withhold illegally.

        If the state loses the suit, it could be ordered to work with county officials to find parents owed child support and refund all money withheld since 1997.

        A federal court has yet to decide whether the case can qualify as a class action. No date for that decision has been set.
       



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