Monday, November 05, 2001

Child support slowed by new law


Withheld benefits will take time to quantify

By Kate Macek
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Hamilton County caseworkers may have to spend as much as 63,000 hours reviewing child support cases by hand in the coming months in order to comply with a new state law.

        The law requires counties to figure out how much money the state wrongfully withheld from parents' child support payments in the last five years.

        Because the process is so complicated, it may be a while before those checks are in the mail.

        The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services is required to pay Ohio families $44.6 million, including $6 million in interest, to correct an error it made in 1997 when it installed a new computer system.
       

A big mistake
               The new system was programmed to withhold money in return for welfare payments some families received — a move state officials acknowledge was a big mistake.

        State officials estimate that 160,000 Ohio families are due back payments, including as many as 18,000 in Hamilton County alone. They say the process for figuring out who is owed could take as long as 18 months.

        Geraldine Jensen, president of the statewide Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, says she is happy the state is finally moving to return the money but says parents are confused over who will benefit.

        “The top issue right now is, "Am I going to get some of that $44 million?'” Ms. Jensen said.

        She said some families can't afford to wait another year and a half. “The concern is that some families have been waiting since 1997. If it takes 18 months, it'll be seven years (total),” Ms. Jensen said.
       

County's three options
               Under the new law, Ohio's counties will receive $18 million to review local cases to determine the amount due in each case.

        Hamilton County officials say they have three options for spending that state money. They can pay overtime for current workers, hire and train new caseworkers or implement an automated system to audit cases.

        While county agencies try to review cases as quickly as possible, state officials are still working out the kinks in their computers.

        The system, called the Support Enforcement Tracking System, was offline for several days last month while the program was updated to comply with 1996 federal welfare-reform legislation.

        Some payments were delayed because of the temporary shutdown, but “we are back up to speed now,” said Dennis Evans, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

        ACES estimates that at least 127,000 families were adversely affected last month because of the system changes. Ms. Jensen saidcounty agencies have been unable to function properly this month because of problems with the new system.
       

Lawsuits pending
               Lawsuits filed against the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services by ACES and a group of independent families are pending in state and federal courts.

        Ms. Jensen added that the agency remains out of compliance with parts of the 1996 federal welfare-reform legislation.

        “We're working on ways to get the system completely corrected so all the kids get the money they deserve,” Ms. Jensen said.

       



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