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Ohio counts on U.S. for funds to fix child-support error

COLUMBUS - Ohio's expensive plan to track down families owed $21 million in improperly withheld child support counts on the federal government spending millions to help correct a state error.

“We're going to ask them for every dollar we can ask them for,” said Greg Moody, interim director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

The federal government slapped Ohio with $43 million in fines for missing deadlines for having a statewide, automated child-support system in place. At the same time, it accepted millions in child-support funds diverted by Ohio that should, under its own rules, have gone to poor families.

Now Ohio figures it is time to get some of that money back as it prepares to implement a $56 million, 18-month plan to find as many as 165,000 affected families and send them the money they are owed.

Families in northwest Ohio who believe they may have been affected by the withholdings may attend two forums to be held Sept. 27, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library and 6 to 8 p.m. at the Lima Public Library.

Of the $56 million, Ohio has asked the federal government to pay $21.9 million. That would cover $11.9 million, or 66 percent, of the total $18 million it would reportedly take to recover child-support data in county courthouses across the state. It would include the $10 million federal share of $17 million in state income-tax refunds improperly withheld from those delinquent in child-support payments.

The plan hopes for, but does not bank on, the federal government assisting in the actual payments to families once they've been located. The state, in an executive order signed this week by Gov. Bob Taft, committed itself to repaying the $21 million.

“The federal government has made no final determination as to whether this particular item will be covered,” said David Siegel, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Child Support Enforcement.

The controversy surrounds the practice of Ohio and some other states of intercepting past-due child-support payments owed by noncustodial parents to families as a means of recouping welfare costs.

The 1996 federal welfare reform law placed the interests of families ahead of that of states once those families leave the welfare rolls. Ohio never informed county agencies to stop the withholdings in those cases and, in its rush to avoid more federal fines, decided not to stop to reprogram the statewide collection system that went fully online in October, 2000.

It appears likely the federal government will come through with the administrative support. States also have the right to return to the federal government and reconcile their income-tax figures; so it's likely the federal government will help there too.

“If [the federal government pays] 66 percent of the tab for counties to do the work, that's pretty generous,” said Geraldine Jensen of Toledo, president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support. “It's [the state's] mistake.''

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