Ohio child support obligor Matt Dunlop, with assistance from our good friends at the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, has filed a class action lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services for knowingly overcharging child support obligors and deceiving them about the status of their accounts.
Specifically, the suit claims that Ohio has overcharged 114,000 non-custodial parents some $176 million. In addition, when a non-custodial parent overpays, the ODJFS reports the balance as zero.
ACFC Executive Director Mike McCormick described Ohio’s practices this way:
“Overzealous and erroneous child support collection efforts affect all citizens. This case is not about parents who don’t, or can’t, pay child support. ODJFS is literally taking money it is not entitled to from tens of thousands of good support paying mothers and fathers who could use those funds for food, shelter, and education for their children when they are with them.”
McCormick adds: “The state should not be misleading parents that their child support balance is zero when they are, in fact, overpaid and should have an account credit. Parents are told they cannot recover the overpayment until the child support case is finished. For many parents that’s ten, twelve or fifteen years down the road.
“Ohio regularly incarcerates poor parents who fall behind on their support obligations sentencing them to what are in effect ‘debtor prisons.’ Now it’s alleged the state has, for years, been pilfering from parents who have fully paid their obligations. There’s more going on than can be justified by the typically forthcoming ‘computer glitch’ excuse. It appears there are problems in the agency across the spectrum of payers,” said McCormick.
The press release notes that this is not the first time Ohio’s child support system has been sued.
A decade ago Ohio was sued for wrongly withholding collected child support money from custodial parents. Millions of dollars were paid to affected children and parents.
You’d think that getting sued and paying out huge judgments would encourage ODJFS to start behaving legally, and maybe this will help. What it will certainly do is force the matter onto center stage of public awareness. And since countless Ohioans are victims of the system, maybe the suit will spur change.
It wouldn’t be the first time civil suits have done just that. Enacting legislation requires effort by elected officials; criminal prosecution requires action by other elected state officials, i.e. District Attorneys. But civil suits take nothing more than a single wronged individual and a lawyer who’s willing to take the case.
So Brown vs. Board of Education led to civil rights legislation. Suits against manufacturers of consumer products led to products liability statutes and deceptive trade practices laws. Suits against cigarette manufacturers led to tobacco legislation.
Civil suits can raise public awareness and the cost of big judgments can promote changes in laws and the behavior of public agencies like ODJFS. They’re a vital part of our ability to correct the behavior of public and private power.
I can’t begin to guess the outcome of the latest suit against Ohio’s child support agency, but every little bit helps when it comes to pulling down the edifice of unfair and counterproductive child support laws and practices.
So good for ACFC. We’ll watch this case closely and see what transpires.
Thanks to Mike for the heads-up.