Child-support mistake costly

Saturday, December 1, 2001

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- In a $1.2 million mistake over the Thanksgiving break, the state double-issued about 7,500 child-support checks that it is now scrambling to get back.

The state, in a letter sent Friday and obtained by The Associated Press, is asking parents to voluntarily pay back the money or allow the government to deduct the overpayment from future checks.

But state officials acknowledge that some of the money is unlikely to ever be recouped.

"We're still doing an investigation to determine how it happened," said Michael Shortridge, chief legal counsel for Division of Child Support Enforcement. "Right now, our first priority is instituting procedures to make sure it cannot happen again. Our second step is to try to recover the money."

A spokesman in the Cape Girardeau office of the division declined to comment and referred a reporter to the Jefferson City office.

Late Thursday, the state reclaimed about $232,000 that had been electronically deposited into the bank accounts of 1,239 child-support recipients. Another 120 checks, totaling about $12,000, had been returned to the state as of Friday by people who noticed the mistake.

A great number of parents, however, may not have realized that the second check was an error. That's because child support checks often are issued sporadically.

And after all, it was the holiday season -- and conceivably possible that a noncustodial parent had sent a bit more to help with Christmas presents.

Not only did the holiday add to the confusion, but it might also have played a role in the reason for the mistake, said Ron Coleman, project director for the state's child support contractor, Systems and Methods Inc., based in Carrollton, Ga.

The company, known as SMI, collects payments from noncustodial parents or their employers, then notifies the state. The state, in turn, provides the company with the amount owed to each custodial parent. SMI sends that list to Jefferson City-based Central Bank, which cuts the checks.

The state sent a list of payment recipients to SMI on Nov. 21, the day before Thanksgiving. Later that day, SMI directed Central Bank to issue $1.2 million in child-support checks. Then on Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving, SMI sent the same list of check recipients to the bank, which issued another $1.2 million in checks.

State employees were off the day after Thanksgiving and so had not sent another list to SMI, Shortridge said.

Unsure what happened

The contractor said it was unsure how the mistake occurred, but was reviewing whether there could have been a computer glitch.

"It is a little confusing to me," Coleman said Friday. "We're going to have to get to the bottom of it."

Officials at Central Bank did not immediately return telephone messages.

The $1.2 million mistake comes as the state is experiencing budget problems and has prompted an investigation by State Auditor Claire McCaskill.

"Our role will be to come in within the next few weeks and see how well they are doing in reclaiming the money," said auditor spokesman Glenn Campbell. "We'll also be looking at the breakdown and what led to that."

During the state fiscal year that ended June 30, the state paid SMI nearly $7.2 million for handling child support checks, Shortridge said. Because the contract is based on the number of checks processed, the payment is expected to be slightly higher this year, he said.

If the state finds SMI to blame, the company could be penalized but probably would not lose its contract, Shortridge said.

Since SMI started working for the state in October 1999, "we've been very happy with this contractor -- they've been very good and they work with us very closely," Shortridge said.

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