Red tape ties up tax refunds

State erroneously takes man's money for child support

August 21, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Alan D. Johnson says he feels as if he was held up on the street. It's just that his $810 was taken from him by pencil-pushing bureaucrats rather than gun-wielding thugs.

The Baltimore County postal worker wants his money back. He has been saying that for nearly three years, but getting back his state income tax refunds that were seized to cover child-support payments he didn't owe has proved frustratingly difficult.

Johnson doesn't have his money, but state officials said yesterday that a check will be going out for the full amount he is owed. They said they are "embarrassed" by the trouble he has gone through.

"They don't dispute that there was a mistake, so why can't they give me my money back?" Johnson asked in an interview this week. "That's what I'd like to know. I don't think it's really that hard. You took my money. I want it back. That's all."

Teresa L. Kaiser, who heads the state's Child Support Enforcement Division, said it appears that mistakes were made in handling his child-support case.

"It's disappointing to me that he's had this bad experience," Kaiser said. "We have enough problems collecting from folks that owe child support not to cause problems for people that don't owe it."

She said that a check will be going out to him for the full $810.

Johnson has heard lots of theories since he began trying to unsnarl a problem that began in late 1996, but few satisfactory answers for what happened to his money.

The Baltimore City Office of Child Support Enforcement, run by a private contractor, told him that office never got the money from a central state collection unit that takes in tax intercepts.

He also was told that it went to his ex-wife -- who said it didn't -- and that he would have to get it back from her if there was an error. And he was told numerous times that "we'll investigate" and get back to you, he said.

Kaiser said she thinks she knows what must have happened, based on Johnson's account. When one of Johnson's two daughters reached age 18 on July 4, 1996, a caseworker apparently failed to adjust his payments, As a result, the state's computer indicated his payments were falling short.

That triggered a computer to automatically initiate procedures to seize Johnson's tax refund to cover what the computer was reading as money owed for past-due child support.

"We set the meter to run based on the court order," Kaiser said. "It runs like a clock until a human being sets it back. If I had to guess, the meter was left running."

Kaiser said there is no indication of a more widespread problem, but that errors sometimes happen in a child-support enforcement system that handles 359,000 cases.

Johnson's case also might have gone awry because of the timing of his letter. It arrived at a chaotic time, as responsibility for Baltimore's child-support collections was about to be shifted from the state to a private contractor, Lockheed Martin IMS.

Although Johnson lives in Baltimore County, he was a city resident at the time of his divorce, so the child-support case remained with the city office.

Rachmiel Tobesman, state president of Fathers United, an advocacy group for noncustodial parents, said he is not surprised that Johnson ran into trouble getting his problem fixed.

He said there have been "endemic problems" at the Baltimore office under Lockheed Martin. The company's contract ends in November, and it has decided not to bid again on providing child-support collection services.

Tobesman said mistakes are bound to occur in child-support cases but that Lockheed Martin has not been particularly receptive to correcting them when they are brought to its attention.

Charles A. Turner, who heads Lockheed Martin's Baltimore office, disputed the charge that the company has been less than receptive to solving problems brought to its attention. He noted that Lockheed Martin did not take over the Baltimore office until Nov. 1, 1996, after the tax intercept on Johnson began.

Johnson said he notified the Baltimore office about two weeks before his daughter reached 18 on July 4, 1996, and had assumed that his file was updated to show he no longer owed support for her.

He got a letter in late 1996 saying he was behind on child support and that part of his state tax refund would be seized if he didn't pay what was owed.

A caseworker at Lockheed Martin later figured out that he still was being charged for his daughter who had turned 18, Johnson said. He said he asked for a check for the $160 from his 1996 tax refund but was told it would be credited as an "overage" on his account instead.

The next year, he was due a $650 state income tax refund. For some unexplained reason, that was seized, too. So, after two years of mistakes, he was $810 in the hole.

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