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Published: Friday, 9/28/2001 - Updated: 2 years ago

Group suggests criminal case on withheld welfare

Jensen: ‘We are asking you to open an official investigation into this matter.' Jensen: ‘We are asking you to open an official investigation into this matter.'
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A Toledo-based child-support advocacy group embroiled in a lawsuit with the state is asking the Franklin County prosecutor's office to consider filing criminal charges against some former and current employees of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

At a public forum held yesterday at the Toledo-Lucas County Main Library by the state agency that controls child support, Geri Jensen, president of the advocacy group ACES, released a letter to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien.

In the letter, she said that state officials committed theft by purposely installing a computer system that wrongly took $38 million of child-support payments from 160,000 families.

“We are asking you to open an official investigation into this matter to determine if there is adequate evidence for criminal prosecution of current and former employees of ODJFS who are not protected under Ohio immunity laws for criminal conduct,” Ms. Jensen's letter says.

Mr. O'Brien could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Jensen's group, the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, is in the midst of a civil lawsuit against the state agency. The dispute stems from millions in past-due child-support payments that were owed to families by non-custodial parents before the families went on welfare.

After the families left the welfare system, the state, in violation of the 1996 federal welfare reform law, continued to withhold the money for itself and the federal government to offset their welfare expenditures on those families.

In an executive order, Gov. Bob Taft committed the state to spending $18 million to audit accounts in an effort to identify these families and to refund an estimated $21 million in support as well as $17 million in improperly intercepted income-tax refunds.

Settlement talks for that case broke off earlier this month.

Tom Hayes, director job and family services, said that maybe ACES feels now that it has to shop their charges in a new forum.

“Obviously I think it's inappropriate to take this course. It's unfortunate, it's inappropriate, and I hope Mr. O'Brien will see through it,” he said.

Jon Allen, spokesman for the department of job and family services, said agency workers will be in this weekend installing computer software that he thinks eventually will bring the state into compliance with regulations.

The public forum at the library was one of 10 the state agency is conducting throughout the state. One was held in Lima after the Toledo forum.

Cheri Walter, assistant director of job and family services, said the forums are being conducted to get feedback from people about child-support issues.

“We've learned some things that maybe we hadn't anticipated,” Ms. Walter said. “We've heard some things about ourselves, about our customer service, and how we approach folks, that we could do better.”

The forum allowed people who had comments to make about their cases to address leaders within the agency as well as the Lucas County Child Support Enforcement Agency.

Wendy Hughlett, who is a member of the lawsuit against the agency, expressed frustrations also vented by others in the audience who spoke. She said she has faced continual delays in getting checks due to her, which makes it difficult to meet her financial obligations. “I shouldn't have to call you people and beg,'' Ms. Hughlett said.

Maricarol Torsok, director of the Lucas County child-support enforcement agency, said she's heard the complaints of many of the people who spoke and understands their frustrations.

“I heard nothing that I didn't already know,” Ms. Torsok said. “But I thought it was especially beneficial for the state people to come here and hear this.”

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