Saturday, May 10, 2003

Number of audits likely to grow

County might look into 18,000 cases of child support

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hamilton County might audit as many as 18,000 child-support cases to see whether the county improperly withheld money as alleged by a child-support advocacy group.

"Ultimately, we're here to ensure that consumers get the money that's due them," Suzanne Burke, director of the county's Department of Job and Family Services, said Friday. "We want to ensure people receive their child support."

Burke will meet with the county commissioners May 19 to decide whether to audit 18,000 of the county's 88,000 cases or write letters giving parents the option to have their case audited. The cases could take three to four days each to audit and require extra spending on overtime both this year and in 2004.

"I think the new administration at the Department of Job and Family Services and the county commissioners are demonstrating a new and refreshing mode of behavior in this county," said Carrie Davis of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES). "They are doing what is morally and legally responsible."

The cases, dating from 1986 to 2000, all involve custodial parents who have been on welfare. State law requires that child support be used to reimburse the state and federal governments for welfare payments, but only after the parent gets back child support. ACES says an average of $1,533 was wrongly withheld from parents in 18 of 22 county cases audited by the group.

"If a corporation had done this to families, people would be going to jail for a long time," Davis said.

Burke, who took over in 2002, said sample cases suggest that caseworker error and problems getting accurate welfare information caused some underpayments.

The state paid out about $15 million to custodial parents for similar problems that occurred between 1997 and 2000, after child support agencies switched to a new computer system. Those problems, too, were uncovered by ACES.

The state denies the problems are systemic, saying it had proper policies in place and any errors were made at the county level. Still, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services is sending someone to review sample cases here, spokesman Jon Allen said Friday.

If an audit shows a parent received too much money, it will have to be repaid, Burke said.


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