Clark County has again fallen below state and national benchmarks for child support collection, prompting the new director to restructure the agency that has had one of the worst rates in the state for a decade.
In 2013 Clark County was the 10th worst among the state’s 88 counties, collecting 62.8 percent of the child support owed. The national average was 63.8 percent and Ohio’s overall average was 66.5 percent last year.
Champaign County, meanwhile, collected 75.5 percent of the support owed in 2013, the 15th highest in the state.
The state is pushing to get its collections higher than 70 percent by the end of 2015 and has challenged each county to increase collections by 10 percent to meet that goal.
The low collection rates have left residents frustrated, including Heather Stuckey, who has dealt with the Clark County Child Support Enforcement Agency for more than 20 years. The South Charleston mother is owed about $46,000 in child support for her son, who is now 22.
“I’ve seen maybe a total of $3,000 to $4,000,” she said. “I could have used that money for my son’s college.”
David Dombrosky, Clark County Department of Job and Family Services’ new director, said he’s heard the frustrations and that the agency has made progress.
He has tasked Clark County’s department with several goals this year: increase collections by 2 percent; use data to improve accountability; increase the staff’s technical skills; and increase usage of the state’s Web Portal for case management by 10 percent.
It is a “rethinking year and a redeveloping year” for the agency, Dombrosky said.
“It’s a slow process,” he said.
In 2006 Clark County was dead last out of 88 counties for collection rates.
Collections have remained low because of the Great Recession and a high number of people out of work, JDFS Assistant Director Virginia Martycz said
So climbing up to 79th is significant, she said. Clark County was recognized by the State Office of Child Support in December for “Most Improved Collections on Cases with Arrears” and “Most Improved Support Order Establishment” for fiscal year 2013.
“We are seeing a very promising trend,” Martycz said. “The exciting part is that we’re going to know with confidence that we’ve gotten more money to kids, because that’s what it’s about.”
Martycz was the deputy director of child support from July 2002 until February 2014 and briefly served as acting director of JDFS following former direct Bob Suver’s sudden retirement and the resignation of former assistant director Kerry Pedraza to take another job. Her former child support position is still vacant.
Dombrosky, who was hired in 2013 to replace Suver, said collections already started to improve with some restructuring of the department prior to his arrival.
No incentive to pay
The top five individuals in arrears each owe more than $100,000 for a combined 15 children. The highest debt by an individual is more than $142,450, according to Clark County records.
Mary Kaffenbarger of New Carlisle said she often has to hound the agency to get action on her case and wishes they would do more.
In March, her ex-husband had a court date for three counts of contempt. She said he made a payment of less than $150 just before that date and wasn’t given any jail time.
“I don’t really want him to go to jail because then he can’t pay,” Kaffenbarger said. “But he’s not paying anyways. I feel like they need to be more stern.”
If the court allows someone more time to pay, Martycz said, there isn’t anything CSEA can do.
“I realize that it is very frustrating,” she said.
It’s not always possible for the child enforcement staff — 46 employees, down from 85 a decade ago — to answer all of the calls during high volume hours, Dombrosky said. Clark County has more than 14,700 child support cases.
He recommended leaving a message, sending an email and using the state’s Web Portal to update case information.
It can take up to 30 days for job information to reach the office through the wage match system.
“The custodial parent is aware of job or employment information before we are,” Dombrosky said. “We can only collect against the obligation on legal employment. So if the absent parent is working under the table and the custodial parent knows this, there’s still nothing we can do. And I get that that’s frustrating for folks.”
Jail time as a last resort
Clark County’s approach is to use legal action as a last possible option, Martycz said. Most individuals, in her experience, will make some sort of payment after being threatened with the loss of their drivers license or being held in contempt.
“If you really don’t care whether you drive with or without a license, it’s not going to be effective,” she said.
Champaign County’s philosophy is similar. It has about 2,700 child support cases.
“Obviously if they are incarcerated we’re not going to get that full obligation from them,” Champaign County Child Support Administrator Patti Current said.
Champaign County will file civil contempt charges, Current said, but hasn’t filed any felony contempt cases for a while.
Some counties have had success using incarceration as motivation to pay up. Butler County has consistently topped the state in the number of parents imprisoned for not paying child support and has consistently been a top performer in terms of collection rates. In 2013 they collected 69.5 percent of support owed on more than 25,000 cases, according to state data.
The Clark County Domestic Relations Court has seen an average of 13 people come before the court each week so far in 2014 on charges of civil contempt or failure to pay child support.
Those that are jailed are often released before serving their full 30 days as Judge Thomas Capper must closely monitor how many inmates are incarcerated from his court, according to court liaison Gay Minette. Each person sentenced by Capper also is automatically approved for various work details that allow them to work inside or outside the jail and help reduce their sentence.
Martycz said instead of heading to court, technology is allowing for more seizures to be made from bank accounts and other untapped sources.
“We attach tax returns now,” Martycz said. “The state just recently hooked us up within the last year with a nationwide insurance notification system, so if individuals are getting lump sum payments from, say, a car accident or something, we’re starting to get money through that.”
Language in Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s budget review bill introduced in March would allow CSEAs more ability to detect and seize lottery and casino winnings to pay back child support.
And Clark County has put a system in place with Ohio Means Jobs to do job readiness assessments and help individuals find employment.
“So far it’s been moderately successful,” Dombrosky said. “From March of last year to this year, we’ve had 65 individuals gain employment through that program, which then translates into increased payment of child support, which then translates into, obviously, increased collections.”
Another strategy is to focus on getting out in front of cases, Martycz said, before the first payment is missed.
“We’re trying to put more of an initial focus on keeping cases from starting arrears. Because it seems like once that hole gets dug it’s very easy for it to get deeper,” she said.
Brandon Denney, 38, of Springfield, said he wished he’d gotten more help in understanding his child support obligations up front when he got divorced in 2009.
“I was new to the whole thing,” he said. He pays $127 out of each paycheck, but accidentally missed payments when he changed jobs and the money wasn’t automatically being deducted.
Trying to get someone on the phone at the CSEA to help him, he said, was like “trying to call the president.”
Accountability through data
One of Dombrosky’s goals is to increase transparency and and accountability through data analysis.
A performance management unit is being created within the next quarter with two new staff positions to report to Martycz at a cost of about $51,000.
“That unit will be responsible full time for analyzing the data across all of our systems, including child support,” Dombrosky said. “When we make tweaks in the system we should be able to see direct results.”
Having solid numbers to work with will hold the agency more accountable to taxpayers, he said.
“Are our providers providing services in a way that I can comfortably go back to a taxpayer and say, ‘Here’s what I paid for, this is why I paid for it and here’s the outcome we were hoping to achieve,’” he said.
In his previous position as deputy director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services, Dombrosky implemented a similar system that targeted staff performance down to the unit level.
“It was no longer valid to say, ‘Hey, Children and Family Services is ineffective in this,’ because I could drive it down to this one supervisory unit is the one that’s driving this number down,” he said.
The system saved resources, time and money, he said.
“Rather than trying to train a staff of 525, that’s pointless when you can see the issue resides with five or six,” Dombrosky said. “So that’s where we got the biggest bang for our buck there, and that is eventually where we want to get here.”
Champaign County has been using a database they created in house for case management since 2006 and have shared access to it with other counties, including Clark.
The state-provided Support Enforcement Tracking System — known as SETS — is antiquated, said Current of Champaign County, and doesn’t output some of the data the county finds most useful.
Her system allows the county to, “pull out something that is a little more logical to us.”
Current also said the state’s recent push to improve collections, dubbed the I-70 project because of it’s 70 percent collection goal, has led to a lot more data being shared between counties.
“We’re working statewide to create some consistency,” she said.
Springfield News-Sun reporter Katie Wedell interviewed local families and officials and reviewing a decade’s worth of state data to assess the current state of child support enforcement in Clark County.