Hennepin County's closed cases on child support to be re-examined

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON
  • Star Tribune
  • February 13, 2012 - 8:36 PM

The state of Minnesota is telling Hennepin County and others to reopen child-support enforcement cases that they closed inappropriately, in a review of cases involving millions of dollars in unpaid debts to child-rearing parents.

The state action centers on Hennepin County, which had a policy of closing cases in which payments hadn't been made in five years and were considered uncollectible. But a state review has found similar cases in Ramsey County and other counties as well.

"Just because a payment hasn't been made in five years doesn't mean that an obligation isn't going to be fulfilled," said Anne Barry, deputy commissioner of the Department of Human Services. "None of us should be comfortable with that."

Hennepin County will comply, but county officials said it's unlikely that any parents awaiting payments in the re-opened cases will see more money.

The recession of 2008-09 left a backlog of parents who lost stable employment and the means to make child support payments, county officials say. Instead of seeking to amend their child-support arrangements and make them more affordable, some parents just quit paying, said Barry Bloomgren, a manager in Hennepin's program.

"A lot of people use the term deadbeat" to describe delinquent parents, he said. "But what a lot of them are is just dead broke."

Counties work with a variety of government agencies to see whether parents who owe child support have taxable income. Bloomgren said there were no signs in the closed cases of parents making money other than public welfare, which doesn't qualify.

Federal penalties

The inquiry started after a media report about one Hennepin County woman whose child support case was closed even though her child's father still owed more than $38,000. An initial review found more than 200 other cases that were closed inappropriately -- with a collective total of $5.9 million still owed.

County officials said these cases not only involved debts that were more than five years old, but also involved children who were grown.

"If we thought there was money out there that could be used for the support of a child, we'd be going for it," said Deborah Huskins, a county human services director. "These are cases where we don't think that is going to be the result."

The state has since identified another 333 cases in Hennepin County that were closed without adequate justification.

Letters were sent to affected parents in Hennepin County and will be sent to parents in other counties whose cases shouldn't have been closed. In some cases, however, it appears that workers in those counties merely entered the wrong codes in their computer systems for closing the cases.

The specter behind the dispute is the prospect of losing federal funds. Hennepin County is judged by the federal government on the percent of cases in which payments are made, Huskins said. Leaving dormant cases open makes the county look inefficient.

Barry countered that federal penalties could be worse if a federal audit found that the county wasn't following the law and was closing cases prematurely.

Huskins said the county might ask for changes in state law on cases considered hopeless.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744

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