Sunday, July 6, 2003

County's child support undergoing changes

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Change is coming to Hamilton County's child support enforcement division.

A call center was created in June to answer parents' inquiries, and officials are testing new ways of more aggressively pursuing deadbeats.

The changes are long overdue, parents and child support advocates say.

Ohio's three largest counties - Hamilton, Cuyahoga and Franklin - have had the worst problems with child support, said Geraldine Jensen, director of the national Association for Children for Enforcement of Support.

That's partly because they've got the highest number of cases, she said. "But they also have a history of bad management. It's like no one's been watching the store."

Hamilton County has a new chance in the form of Suzanne Burke. In early 2002, the former assistant Hamilton County administrator took over as director of Job and Family Services, the agency that handles child support in addition to children's services, Medicaid and welfare.

ACES credits Burke for owning up to child support problems and moving quickly to address them.

"She's demonstrated a different attitude," said Carrie Davis, Ohio coordinator for ACES.

County Commissioner Todd Portune said he's hopeful Burke can straighten out the child support division, although it's a formidable job. "It's very difficult to change a department as big as that," Portune said.

Burke's toughest sell is going to be convincing parents the agency is changing.

"I can't get a straight answer from anybody about anything," said George "Kenny" Wilson of Covington.

Wilson, 42, said he thought years ago that he was paying Hamilton County too much for his two kids but didn't pursue it after getting the brush-off from a caseworker.

When he visited the agency on another matter last year, his latest caseworker said the county had money for Wilson.

With ACES's help, Wilson got back $1,419.

Caseworkers who don't return calls are a frequent complaint.

Job and Family Services reports a turnover rate of 6.1 percent in child support, but officials say they have the most trouble keeping caseworkers.

"When you have lousy customer service, people have the perception that child support is a mess," acknowledges Laurie Petrie, Job and Family Services spokeswoman.

On June 2, child support began routing most calls to 14 workers newly assigned to do nothing but answer the phone. The first week, they answered 1,800 calls and returned 502 of 803 voice mails, Petrie said. Based on demand, five more employees were assigned to the call center.

The call center will free up others to concentrate on casework, including finding deadbeats and getting them to pay.

Job and Family Services officials say one new tool is having a driver's license suspended. It's an enforcement tool Ohio gave counties about 11/2 years ago, and the results have been good so far.

Hamilton County suspended 299 deadbeats' licenses in April and collected $47,352 from parents who wanted their licenses reinstated.

Child support usually doesn't physically track down people because of the expense, but will soon start doing so in some cases, according to Job and Family Services Assistant Director Rick Roberts. The agency also is trying out an Internet service for locating people.

Davis would like the county to be more aggressive with another enforcement tool: seizing deadbeats' bank accounts.

Hamilton will drain their savings accounts and take all but $2,000 out of their checking accounts, but other counties have more power - Butler County can take every cent.

"We seem to be more concerned about deadbeat dads having their rights than children having food and shelter," Davis said.


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