Monday, August 13, 2001

Group may settle suit if Ohio repays for support




By Travis James Tritten
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — A child support advocacy group suing the state for withholding child support payments says it may settle now that Gov. Bob Taft has ordered $38 million of that money be repaid.

        No meeting has been scheduled with state attorneys, but the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support hopes to discuss a settlement as early as today.

        The group first filed suit in February when it discovered the state illegally had been withholding child-support payments from families who had previously been on welfare.

        But, fulfilling a six-month-old promise, Mr. Taft last week ordered the state to begin repayment of support money withheld since 1997. The refund — $33 million more than earlier state estimates on withholdings — will cost $18 million to return.

        “It's a real victory for the children,” said Geraldine Jensen, president of the advocacy group.

        The group says nearly a million Ohio families since 1997 had their child support checks held as reimbursement for welfare assistance they received in the past. The state did not comply with parts of a 1996 federal welfare-reform law that made the practice illegal.

        A few concerns must be worked out before the lawsuit can be settled. The group wants the child support system to be better monitored; assurance families will receive the correct refund; and the state to fix its computer system, which is still programmed to with hold money, Ms. Jensen said.

        Families might not see any refund checks this year, however.

        Developing a plan and running case audits to decide who gets money and how much could take until winter, said China Widener, head of the child support division in the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family services.

        The state will be working with many counties who said earlier this year the task of returning the money would be difficult, cost too much or be impossible.

        Ms. Widener said the department will be working closely with counties to provide support. In some counties that no longer have records of child support payments, the state will consider paying a flat fee to families who have had money withheld.

        Although officials admit some counties are going to grumble over the work required for the refund, help from the state might lessen the workload for Hamilton County.

        The Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services initially will spend about one week verifying the state's list of child support cases, said Laurie Petrie, director of communications.

        “It may not be as huge a project to identify cases as we thought,” Ms. Petrie said.

       



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