Sunday, July 6, 2003

Child support fix leaves holes

Some parents still owed aid from '80s

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Tammie Imes and her daughter Torrie Coston, 14, play at the Camp Washington Pool Tuesday afternoon.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
Ohio is collecting more child support than ever and getting it out quicker to single parents who need the money to feed and clothe their children.

However, tens of thousands of parents who were on welfare at one time may still be owed past child support due as far back as 1986, according to new allegations that cast a shadow on recent improvements in Ohio's child support system.

There's a lot riding on child support efforts. More than a quarter of all children live in a household in which one parent is absent, according to the U.S. Census.

In southwest Ohio last year, there were 123,301 cases of court-ordered child support involving $280.1 million. Most of the cases were in Hamilton County - 80,770 involving $159 million worth of payments. Butler handled 22,459 cases and $57 million; Clermont, 11,485 cases and $35.7 million; and Warren, 8,587 cases and almost $28.4 million.Major problems with Ohio's child support system came to a head in 2000 and 2001.

The federal government required Ohio to centralize how counties processed child support payments into one statewide system. The transition in the fall of 2000 resulted in more than 6,700 payments a week being delayed or lost.

The contractor for payments, Bank One, also drew criticism for charging a $3 fee to cash the support checks and for printing a batch of checks on the wrong color paper, causing problems for some people who tried to cash them.

By comparison, Kentucky's switch to a statewide system in 1999 had much less trouble, in part because it has only a third as many cases.

Even as the state was wrestling with the payment headaches, the Association for Children for the Enforcement of Support (ACES) sued the state. The advocacy group alleged that the state illegally withheld child support payments from former welfare recipients between 1997 and 2000 in violation of a 1996 law. Gov. Bob Taft ordered the problem fixed, and the state estimated it owed families about $38 million.

Ohio's child support problems forced Jacqueline Romer-Sensky to quit as director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and prompted State Auditor Jim Petro to review the state child support system.

Cuyahoga County Administrator Tom Hayes replaced Romer-Sensky, and in mid-2002 Hayes said the department was taking steps to fix 90 of 98 problems Petro found.

Indeed, changes are evident. A new contractor, Affiliated Computer Services, is cutting 99.4 percent of support checks within two days of receiving payments, as required by law.

"They have done a terrific job," says Carrie Davis, the state ACES coordinator.

Two-thirds of regular child support was paid in Ohio last year - far better than neighboring Kentucky and Indiana.

Also, the state has paid more than $15 million to 66,000 families who were owed it under the 1996 law, although ACES says the amount was below estimates because officials used a flawed process to decide who was owed money.

Hamilton County realized in May that because of a computer glitch it had failed to check up to 6,000 cases that could qualify to get money back. The county is working on those cases now.

Problems re-emerge

But the cases covered by Taft's order are small potatoes compared to a lawsuit filed June 20 by five ACES members.

Mothers in Hamilton, Clermont and Lucas counties say child support agencies have actually been shortchanging former welfare recipients since 1986, when the federal government first said families should get their share of child support before government takes its share to repay welfare.

That's what happened to Tammie Imes, an Avondale mother of four. She gets regular payments for three of her children, but the father of 14-year-old Torrie Coston has fallen behind to the tune of more than $18,000. She was surprised when ACES looked at her case last year and found the father had paid $1,462 that the state kept.

"He doesn't pay consistently, so I didn't know to say, 'I didn't get my check,'" Imes says.

Imes, 34, now works as a teacher's assistant for Cincinnati Public Schools, but she spent some time on welfare when her children were babies.

The state-ordered reviews didn't uncover the errors in Imes' case because she went off of welfare before 1997, Davis said.

ACES members filed the federal class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court last week after state officials insisted there's no evidence of a statewide problem dating back 17 years.

Hamilton County Job and Family Services, however, agreed it might have a problem after looking at 10 random cases, and it is considering auditing all 18,000 cases that could be affected. In northern Ohio, Cuyahoga and Lucas counties are checking test cases to see if they have problems, too.

Priorities change

However, the director of Ohio Job and Family Services has other ideas about coming up with a more efficient, updated computer system. Hayes says he's waiting for another state to develop a computer system that would work for Ohio's county-operated, state-supervised child support structure. Ohio could then borrow it for free.

He has high hopes for a new system California is spending $801 million to develop. The first phase is scheduled to be finished in 2006, and the second phase in 2008, according to California officials.

The nation's top child support enforcement official, Commissioner Sherri Z. Heller, sees a public policy shift in how child support distribution is viewed.

"We are at a transition point in this program nationally," Heller says. "The whole program was created to say to the absent parent, 'You should have been paying, and now because you didn't you have to repay taxpayers.'"

But more recent laws - including a new Bush administration proposal that the government no longer take child support to repay welfare once the custodial parent has gone off welfare - are shifting the emphasis from repaying taxpayers to helping families, she says.

"We're not there yet," Heller says. "And that's why it's so complicated."


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