Clark eighth worst in child support collection

State officials are challenging county child support agencies to improve their collection rates, setting ambitious goals in hopes of improving children’s lives and keeping Ohio competitive in seeking financial incentives from the federal government.

All 88 counties are being pushed to increase the amount of money they collect by more than 10 percent by mid-2015. The state’s average child support collection rate is 67.3 percent, but the counties vary widely, from a high of 83.7 percent in Geauga County east of Cleveland to 59 percent in Appalachian Meigs County.

Clark County officials collected just 62 percent in fiscal 2012, making it eighth-worst of the 88 Ohio counties, according to state data provided to the Springfield News-Sun.

Clark County’s collections have scarcely budged in a decade, remaining in the 61-62 percent range before and since the start of the Great Recession. While the caseloads and percentage collected for fiscal 2002 to 2012 are virtually the same, the amount collected dipped from $28.8 million in fiscal 2002 to $24.2 million in fiscal 2012.

Meanwhile, Champaign County’s rate has been consistently high, remaining at more than 74 percent in fiscal 2002 and 2012. Champaign County’s rate of 74.6 percent was 20th-best in fiscal 2012, the last year for which statistics are available. Madison County’s rate also was little changed, at 72.6 percent in fiscal 2012 and 73.6 percent in fiscal 2002.

Miami (65.97) and Montgomery (65.45) counties came in just under the state average in fiscal 2012. Both of these counties experienced a drop of 5 percentage points since 2002.

Last year, the state launched an initiative to increase dollar collections to keep Ohio competitive in receiving performance-based incentives from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Ohio, the seventh largest state, is sixth in child support caseload and fourth in collections, said Jeff Aldridge, deputy director for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

The national average for collections is 61 percent, and the feds consider 80 percent an ideal figure.

“We’re just trying to maintain our competitive edge,” said Aldridge, noting Ohio typically gets around $28 million in federal incentives through a complex formula, with 90 percent going to county agencies.

There are many factors that lead to the disparities between counties, Aldridge said.

“I think the biggest thing is the (local) economy and job opportunities,” he said. “Also, the smaller counties have much more managable caseloads.”

Other factors include out-of-wedlock birth rates, collection techniques and local courts’ aggressiveness in setting child support obligations that may be beyond noncustodial parents’ abilities to pay in tough economic times, he said.

State data show 64 of Ohio’s 88 counties had fiscal 2012 collection rates exceeding the state average of 66 percent. Smaller counties generally have the highest collection rates: The best collection rate for one of Ohio’s largest urban areas is Canton’s Stark County, No. 38 with 70.89 percent. Mahoning County, home of Youngstown, historically has had a solid collection rate at about 70 percent, Aldridge noted. But Cuyahoga and Hamilton counties were just above Meigs at the bottom of the list, with rates of 59.65 and 60.66, respectively.

Collection efforts are made more difficult by staff cuts, Aldridge said.

“We’ve lost about 25 percent of our staff on the local level, mostly in the last five years.”

Nichol Smith, attorney for Clark County Child Support Services, attributed the county’s relatively low collection rate to several factors, including the local economy and a high rate of paternity establishment.

“We tend to open more cases sooner,” also leading to a higher percentage of cases for which collection is difficult, she said.

Smith said Clark County is doing a better job of setting support payments that aren’t inflated and allow parents to meet their obligations and provide meaningful support.

“The theory in child support was, set your support as high as possible. That theory didn’t hold water,” she said.

The county also is working to connect parents to job opportunities.

“We want to help people get in positions to meet their obligations,” Smith said.

Patricia Current, administrator of the Champaign County Child Support Enforcement Agency, said her county also is continually reviewing and adjusting parents’ suppport levels to “right-size” them so parents can afford to pay them.

Current believes county income demographics are the biggest factor in determining collections.

“I don’t know if we’re any more ‘special’ than other counties,” she said of Champaign’s solid collection rate. “It depends on how many factories have closed and what’s the avilability of jobs.”

She said the statewide initiative has been useful because county officials are doing a better job of sharing best practices.

Since the project started last year, the state collection average has increased from 66.5 percent to the current 67.3, Aldridge noted. He said he understands the difficulty in collecting support, but even higher-performing counties should always be striving to improve their rates.

“Seventy-four percent is pretty good when the feds set the threshold at 80 percent, but that’s still 26 percent that’s not getting to families in the community,” he said.

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