Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Judge supports welfare recipients

By Dan Horn
Enquirer staff writer

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Ohio officials have wrongly withheld millions of dollars in child support payments that should have gone to families.

U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott's ruling challenges a practice that the state has relied upon for years to collect money it mistakenly overpaid to welfare recipients.

To correct the payment errors, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services sends the recipients letters seeking repayment. If the recipient does not respond, the department begins garnishing child support payments until the money is repaid to the state.

In her decision Tuesday, Judge Dlott said that practice is wrong because it creates an "undue hardship" on financially strapped families that rely on child support payments to survive.

Dlott did not dispute that the state is entitled to recover the money, but said the system of collecting the overpayment is unfair and confusing.

"When the government misallocates monies and then recoups them without consent, families suffer," Dlott wrote.

The judge's decision comes one year after five women, including one from Hamilton County, sued the Department of Job and Family Services to stop the collection practice. The suit claimed custodial parents were denied hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars in child support payments.

Dlott's decision bars the state from continuing to dock their support payments while the lawsuit goes forward.

If the women win their case, the judge's order would apply to all child support recipients and would force the state to change its collection methods.

State officials concede the overpayments are the state's error, but they argue the government is nonetheless entitled to get the money back. They say taking money from child support payments is the best way to collect.

Otherwise, they say, it would be virtually impossible to get consent from each recipient or to file the hundreds of lawsuits necessary to collect the money.

Officials in the state's Department of Job and Family Services could not be reached Tuesday.


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