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The Bucks Stopped There 

How the county's child-support agency failed the bonus round.

A delay in county paperwork cost Sheila Foster a - bundle. - WANDA  SANTOS-BRAY
It was nearing the end of January, and as the winter days multiplied, so too did Sheila Foster's dread. Electricity and phone bills were mounting, and Christmas charges had come due. Every winter for the past two years, the unemployed single mother from Cleveland Heights had received an extra child-support check that helped her scrape through the year's leanest time: It was money to buy shoes for her 11-year-old son and help pay for her 17-year-old daughter's basketball camp.

John Jordan, the father of Foster's daughter, had earned a year-end bonus from his employer. Foster thought it would be applied to $2,900 he owed her in back child-support payments. The Child Support Enforcement Agency, a county-run outfit in charge of collecting and disbursing child-support checks, was to act as the intermediary.

The check was supposed to be electronically deposited into her account. But January turned into February, then into March -- and no check. Foster called the agency weekly. "When will my money arrive?"

"Not yet, Ms. Foster," the response repeatedly came.

By the second week of April, she went down to the CSEA office. The desk clerk peeked into Foster's file. Her face turned ashen.

"Oh my God," Foster was told. "The money was sent back to the dad."

The money Foster had been counting on was gone.

In Ohio, all employers are required to notify their county child-support enforcement agencies when a lump-sum payment of more than $150 is issued to an employee who pays child support. If the employee is behind on support payments, the agency has 30 days to get an order signed by a judge from either juvenile court or domestic relations to put a hold on the employee's money. It's an easy procedure -- as simple as placing a hold on a pair of shoes at Dillard's. But if the order is not signed in time, the money is released to the employee.

For years, John Jordan has been a bus driver for the Regional Transit Authority, and he earns an annual bonus for employees with more than five years of service. Though he makes his current child-support payments, he still owed Foster from a previous year; the $2,900 she was expecting in January would have cleared his slate.

As in years past, the CSEA was notified of his impending bonus.

"We received the papers on December 9, 2004. A lot of people were aware of it," says CSEA spokeswoman Mary Denihan, reading notes from Foster's file. "The lump-sum referral was forwarded to the court on January 14, 2005. The money was released back to the employer."

She pauses, then her voice turns apologetic.

"We missed the time frame. It more than likely had to do with the case-load size. We process over 8,000 a year."

In the background, a male voice can be heard arguing with Denihan.

"Look -- when we're wrong, we're wrong," she says to him. "We were wrong."

They appear to have been wrong more than once. According to an RTA source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the CSEA failed to file paperwork on time for many RTA employees whose bonuses were supposed to be reallocated for child support, leaving dozens of mothers without the money due them this winter.

Denihan refused to comment on the number of missed deadlines and whether the agency's paperwork problems were limited to RTA employees. Social security numbers, she said, were necessary to pull the files of any other mothers who claim to have missed their checks.

At the request of Scene, Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Judge Joseph Russo, who signs the holding orders for the CSEA, looked up the cases of Foster and two other mothers whose names were provided by the RTA source. All three believed they were entitled to part of an RTA bonus earned by the fathers of their children last year.

According to Russo, all three requests were reviewed by juvenile court justices in February -- more than a month past the deadline for ordering a hold on the checks. (One of those women, Opal Green, was not due any bonus money from the father of her child, the court ruled. Neither Green nor Robbie Stafford, the third mother, could be reached for comment.)

"Clearly, we were given these requests in January or February, after the [bonus] checks already went out," Russo says. "CSEA should have known this.

"Why didn't [the agency] send them over earlier? I don't know."

"The laws were designed for a small county, not taking into account large-volume counties like Cuyahoga," says Denihan. "For a 30-day time frame, to get everything done from start to finish is pretty remarkable. We do that in most cases."

Sheila Foster has since saved money by moving to an East Side duplex, where a row of purple flowers spill over the sides of their pots like overfilled glasses of wine. On the front of the pots, Foster has inscribed the words "Please don't steal," underlining the phrase twice in black marker. She steps inside and sinks into her couch, a carton of partially unpacked moving boxes resting next to her.

"I try hard to support my family," she says. "When I fall short, it bothers me. Bottom line: The money was there, but I don't have it, because the people at child services were too lazy to get off their butt and go to the fax machine."

Just before this story went to press, Denihan told Scene that the $2,900 figure is in dispute. When Foster learned of this, she called the CSEA and spoke to financial administrator Tom Lempke, who said that an internal audit had been done on her account. "You shouldn't have gone to the media," she was told.

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