COLUMBUS - The long-awaited process of returning $38 million in child support improperly withheld by the state from some former welfare families is about to begin.
Without fanfare, Gov. Bob Taft yesterday signed into law a bill designed to correct what has perhaps been the biggest snafu of his administration.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, in its rush to avoid federal fines for failing to have its statewide support tracking computer on line, decided not to stop to reprogram the system to reflect changes in the 1996 federal welfare reform law.
Those changes required states such as Ohio to give families leaving the welfare system top priority when it came to distributing payments on past-due child support owed by noncustodial parents before the families joined the system. Ohio, however, continued to withhold those amounts to help recoup government's welfare costs without advising the affected families it was doing so.
The state withheld an estimated $21 million in direct support and improperly intercepted another $17 million in income tax refunds that should have gone to the families.
“Now we have the opportunity to work cooperatively with county child-support enforcement agencies to put money, with interest, into the hands of mothers and children,” said Tom Hayes, the department's new director.
The process to locate, and issue checks to, affected families who entered and left the welfare system since October, 1997, could take as long as 18 months to complete.
Yesterday the department announced it had apparently fixed the latest problems with its Support Enforcement Tracking System that had prevented counties from entering some court orders affecting support payments. Those problems were a side-effect of programming changes the department made at the end of September in a last-ditch effort to bring SETS into compliance with the 1996 law.
Despite the apparent progress, Geri Jensen of Toledo, president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, said lawsuits filed against the state in federal and Ohio courts will continue.
She also is not convinced the problems that have plagued the system since it went on line on Oct. 1, 2000, are over.
“Last weekend they were uploading more software that they will use for the first time in month-end processing in October,” she said. “Every single time they've uploaded any new software, there's been a whole new set of problems. I don't think we're through the storm yet.”