Tuesday, March 4, 2003

State says it's returned $14M to poor families

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - The state says it's on track to meet its self-set deadline of the end of the month for paying back thousands of dollars in child support it improperly withheld from poor families.

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services has reviewed 95 percent of the cases and returned about $14 million so far to 61,885 former welfare recipients, an average of $226 per case. Counties found that money was not owed in the other 35,717 cases they have reviewed.

The state had set aside $38 million plus $6 million in interest for the payments. Any undistributed money will be returned to Ohio's general revenue fund.

Agency Director Tom Hayes said 81 of 88 counties have completed or are nearly finished auditing cases. Cuyahoga County, which had the most cases to review, is the only one that might not be done by the end of March.

However, a national child support advocacy group based in Toledo questioned the accuracy of the reviews.

"There is a real unequal application of the law that allowed the state to pay back the money," said Geraldine Jensen, executive director of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES). "The counties have really botched these reviews."

Hayes said the state spent months ensuring that counties were using the same criteria to examine cases. He said hearings to appeal county findings have been requested in only 500 of the 100,000 cases audited.

Of the 39 hearings held so far, 33 decisions have backed up counties' findings. Most of the hearings had not yet been held, or were canceled when those who requested them did not show up, said Jon Allen, an agency spokesman.

"Our job is to be responsible stewards of public money. This is an audit. It isn't just a giveaway," Hayes said.

The agency admitted two years ago that it illegally withheld millions in overdue child support payments and income tax refunds from former welfare recipients as reimbursements for aid they received.

The mistake was made because the agency failed to reprogram its child support computer system, which calculates and distributes payments, in accordance with a 1996 federal welfare reform law.

In August 2001, Gov. Bob Taft ordered counties to audit more than 100,000 cases from October 1997 through September 2000 to determine which former welfare recipients were owed money. The Legislature authorized the audits in October 2001.

Vickie Adkins-Marcum of Cardington in Morrow County was told she wasn't owed any money and asked ACES to audit her case. A hearing was held in July, and she now is expecting a $900 check from the state.

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