Updated: 04/09/2015 2:55 PM
Created: 04/05/2012 5:13 PM KSTP.com
By: Mark Albert
A statewide audit conducted by the Minnesota Department of Human Services has concluded that counties wrongly closed one out of every three child support cases reviewed - $24 million worth - erasing the amounts owed to families in their government accounts.
The 34.5 percent error rate is, "very high, certainly unacceptable," Chuck Johnson, DHS's chief financial and operating officer, told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS in an interview Thursday.
The department conducted the review after a Hennepin County mother contacted KSTP-TV last fall.
The county had zeroed out her account, which at the time listed more than $38,000 in back child support from a non-custodial parent. A county case worker sent the mother a letter stating that the case was being closed because, "any arrears on this case are paid in full or total less than $500." The county later admitted that was not accurate.
When the mother contested the closure she was sent another letter, contained in a portion of the case file obtained by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, stating that the closure was, "an administrative decision," and that it was "due to no payments in over 5 years."
DHS says that is not a legal reason to close the case and that errors such as that, if discovered in a federal audit and not corrected, could jeopardize about $12 million in annual federal incentive funding.
"You can't close the case and give up," Johnson said. "We're working now with the counties to get these cases fixed and also making sure that it doesn't continue in the future."
DHS is sending the families of all 846 wrongly closed cases letters stating the files are being re-opened and the amounts owed restored. In addition, DHS plans additional training for county case workers and to conduct a subsequent audit next year.
In a November 2011 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation, Case Closed, a Hennepin County spokesperson admitted, "we made a mistake," and pledged to correct the errors and retrain its staff.
On Thursday, after being informed of its 32.9 percent error rate in DHS's final review, Ramsey County's director of the Human Services Division, Mark Ponsolle, made no such apologies.
"I believe Ramsey county closed those cases appropriately," Ponsolle said in an interview.
Ponsolle thinks the re-opened cases will now give families false hope, since, he said, his county has already determined the cases were un-collectable, a decision which led to their closure.
In February, Ponsolle sent a letter to DHS stating that the county had "broadly interpreted" federal regulations on case closure criteria so that his staff could "focus time and resources" on other cases.
When asked directly if DHS's order to re-open 261 cases in Ramsey county that his staff determined had a low probability of leading to a collection is a waste of taxpayer money, Ponsolle answered, "yes."
"There is some taxpayer money going toward maintaining those cases open," he said, "that I think could be better spent focusing on the cases that are collectable."
Click here for the rest of our Case Closed investigation and for web elements related to this story.