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Law calls for audit of child support cases

New legislation ordering Ohio to pay back millions in accidentally withheld child support payments will cause local officials to audit hundreds of cases.

Tuesday, October 09, 2001

New legislation ordering Ohio to pay back millions in accidentally withheld child support payments will cause local officials to audit hundreds of cases.

"It’s not affecting us yet, because the process they’re going through won’t be ready until early to mid-November," said Buddy Martin, director of Lawrence County Department of Job and Family Services, which oversees the county’s child support office.

Martin estimates about 1,100 local cases will have to be reviewed – to determine whether money is owed by the state and to reimburse families the amounts plus interest.

The public will see little effect from that process, but it will take staff time, Martin said.

The problem – and the state’s new legislation – stems from a computer change about five years ago.

The state admitted in February that it did not reprogram the statewide child support computer system, which calculates and distributes payments, in accordance with a 1996 federal welfare reform law.

As a result, the state wrongly withheld millions in overdue child support payments and income tax refunds over three years from former welfare recipients.

China Widener, deputy director for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Office of Child Support, told lawmakers last week that the state will pay back money it withheld between Oct. 1, 1997, and Sept. 30, 2000.

It will cost $18 million for counties to audit all of the cases. The state will pay back a total of $38 million in withheld funds ($21 million in back child support payments and $17 million in state income tax refunds that were illegally intercepted. And, the interest, which was set at 6.5 percent based on last month’s prime rate, is expected to cost the state about $6 million.

While there will likely be some refunds in Lawrence County, few people have been asking about the situation in the local child support office, Martin said.

Legislation that would let Ohio return millions withheld from child support recipients would require the interest be paid on all refunds of more than $10.

"This is significant to ensure that families (especially the children) receive what they are entitled," Sen. Bill Harris, an Ashland Republican who sponsored the bill, said last Wednesday, while testifying before the Senate Finance Committee. "We believe this is a fair and accurate solution."

The bill puts into effect Gov. Bob Taft’s executive order requiring counties to audit up to 160,000 child support cases.

Of the $38 million in expected refunds, the state has asked the federal government to pay $22 million.

A special child support payment fund will be created to disperse the money after the audits. Once all money is paid back, the remainder of the fund will be put into the state’s general revenue fund. The entire process is expected to take about 18 months.

The Association for Children for the Enforcement of Support, a Toledo-based national advocacy group that has sued the state, will ask lawmakers this week to include in the bill a deadline by which all the money must be paid back.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.