A nightmare on West Broadway
explains how a simple error by one accountant sent her through an impossible bureaucratic maze at the New York Division of Child Support Enforcement.
THE NIGHTMARE is the New York Child Support Enforcement (NYCSE) agency located at 151 W. Broadway in Manhattan. In January 2010, an accountant mistook a "Y" for a "V" in my child support account number and credited that money to another account. This began an 11-month-plus journey to hell and back.
Instead of receiving my child support every week, the error threw the account into arrears, turning my finances upside down. At the beginning of each month, NYCSE would catch up the arrears when the check came each month--and then nothing for the rest of the month.
My son's father and I had not communicated in years. He had moved away from New York when my son was only 4 months old; Luke is now 17. The last good address I had was 15 years old, and his father had relocated to two other states since that time.
My only recourse was to go to court and see if I could find him, and find out what happened with the child support. I also filed for a modification for more support since Luke is a teenager now and soon will be going to college. I was unable to find Luke's father before the first court date in April, and the case was adjourned until June.
After an exhaustive search, without any assistance from the court or child support enforcement, he was located, living and working in Florida. Both agencies refused to share any information, citing confidentiality issues, nor had either agency kept up with his whereabouts over the years.
It was the inability to find a current address that prevented me from finalizing the order for all these years. Since my son's father failed to appear in 1993, the original judge could not verify his income and could only issue a temporary order. He had already relocated to another state for work.
AFTER BEING served a summons to appear in June, my son's father responded by mail, explaining that the money was put in another person's account because of a clerical error. The account that received the money was no longer an active account, and the money was unrecoverable. Since NYSCE made the error, they would have to pay that sum to the account anyway. He assured the judge that it should be taken care of in couple of days. Simple enough it would seem, but apparently not for NYSCE.
His employer sent the proof--January's canceled check with the right account number on the front of the check and the wrong account number on the back--to the accounting department with instructions to pay the money back to my account. Instead of doing that, the person handling the issue saw the account was closed, stamped it unrecoverable and filed it away.
The agency told me that the person was new and was unaware that there was a special fund for situations like this one. The question is why this office worker didn't ask a co-worker or supervisor what to do next and why this was not included in his training.
From June until our court date in September, he thought it had been taken care of, and I was left wondering what happened. I have been fighting with NYSCE to get that money now for over six weeks. After our September court date, I got a copy of the check and proceeded to the Customer Service Center at 151 W. Broadway.
When I was called back to talk to a representative, she was only interested in getting me out of there as quickly as possible. She looked at the disbursement history, found an amount that matched and insisted that the money had been paid back to the account. When I insisted that it was the child support for August, she told me I would have to wait to speak to a supervisor.
After a phone call to my son's father, it was confirmed that the payment was for August. I waited until almost closing time. The supervisor listened to me explain each payment from him, disbursement to me, and I was finally able to convince him that the money was still missing from my account.
Then he said, "I can't help you." All he could do was refer it back to the accounting department for an audit.
Before the audit could be completed, the account was reset to the new finalized order. All the arrears from the old temporary order disappeared. Technically, the missing money, even though it appeared as arrears, was actually money not disbursed properly. He paid January's child support; they gave the money to someone else, not to me.
The problem should have been resolved in June, and had it been, the money would have been in my bank account. This has been my argument as to why part of January 2010's misappropriated child support should still be paid to me from the old order. January was a five-week month; I was disbursed two weeks plus $66 from money that was left over in the account from an earlier overpayment of arrears from 2006.
My goal was to get the remaining money credited to me under an old order instead of all of January 2010's child support being used to cover current child support.
Phone calls to the agency were getting me nowhere--at this point, I called the public advocate's office to find out where I could get some help. The public advocate was able to get me through to someone in the agency that can actually get something done--a "go to" person inside named Anna. Still, it was an ongoing fight with the accounting department of NYSCE, even with help from the inside.
NOW FOR the other half of my nightmare: Family Court.
In April, the judge discovered that the original temporary order had never been finalized. The current judge informed me it was a loose end that needed to be tied up. Since I was petitioning to modify the order to receive more money, finalizing the order would accomplish the same end.
In June, the judge dropped the other shoe, the original judge failed to sign and file the "petition of filiation"--paternity had never been officially established. For 17 years, my son was in legal limbo, with no rights to inherit, and his father's parental rights were not established. If either one of us had died, my son would have been caught up in a legal mess.
In the letter, Luke's father ask the court for a postponement, stating that he needed more time to get his income information together. The case was adjourned until September.
During our September hearing, it was discovered there were problems with the docket number assigned to my out-of-state enforcement documents. In 1996, the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act was passed, making child support orders from one state enforceable in another state.
Since my son's father was living in another state, my case fell under this law. At this point, the wrong docket number was attached from an earlier dismissed case. My first case was dismissed because I was in the hospital recovering from childbirth and couldn't get the "proof of service affidavit" to the court.
When Luke was a couple weeks old, I had to go back to Family Court and start the case all over again. If my son's father had wanted to be nasty about this, he could have held up my case until my son aged out. There was so much confusion over the two different case numbers--each one being used at different times for different reasons--that it took a computer technician a couple of days to straighten out the electronic file before the new order could be entered.
Both of us were anxious to get things settled, and our court case was amicably resolved. Paternity was established, a settlement for a lump sum retro payment toward possible past underpayment was reached. Since the court now had accurate income information, a higher weekly child support rate was set by the magistrate.
For a brief moment, it seemed like everything was going to finally get back to normal. Not if NYSCE has anything to do with it.
SEVERAL THINGS went wrong from this point forward. First, they reset the account to the new order before resolving the misappropriation of January's child support in the previous temporary order. It took several faxes, 22 pages of Excel from me, and an internal audit to prove that January's child support was never paid to the account.
As a result of the internal audit, NYSCE credited the overpayment from 2006 forward to the new order. The problem is that money had already been used to cover a COLA (cost of living increase) that took a year to catch up with him and to pay me what was left over in the account in January when the child support didn't show up in the account.
Apparently, this did not matter, and the money was credited back to his employer who in turn sent it to cover current arrears. The money was disbursed to me at the beginning of November. Later I was told that because the money should have been returned in 2006, they were obligated to pay it back even though it had been incorrectly disbursed to me.
Finally, last week, NYSCE admitted that January's child support had not been disbursed to me. The account was adjusted so that it could be paid to me outside of the new order, before that could happen the scheduled weekly payment was taken out of it and disbursed to me.
I basically paid my own child support out of that money. The rest was credited to the new order. None of the money that I failed to receive from their clerical error was paid back to me from the old order; instead, all of the money was credited against the money he currently owes.
Part of the settlement was a lump-sum payment for "retro" money to cover what he may have been underpaying. I settled for an amount that was way too low, but I needed to get my finances in order and just wanted to get this over with. When the new order was reset, they entered the amount and then credited all past money paid against it.
Since he had paid more than that over the years, the account was reset to zero. Apparently, there is a problem with using "retro" instead of "arrears." In addition, the order didn't state that it was to be paid in one lump sum. First, I tried to get the judge just to amend the order, but he insisted that we have to appear again before he can make any changes.
A court date was set for early December. The worst part of this is that I could have adjourned the case and been appointed a lawyer with the possibility of getting thousands of dollars more in arrears for underpayments over the years. Because of the missing child support, I needed the money right away, so I settled for a little more that year and a half of back money.
Depending on how far back it could have been proven he was underpaying, it could have been much more. My new court date is probably around the same time as it would have been had I requested the adjournment and I still don't have any of the settlement money. I asked his father to hold on to the money until this can be straightened out in Family Court.
In the meantime, the accounting department, in spite of insisting it could not be done, added the settlement amount as arrears to be paid back weekly instead one lump sum, which will take almost a year.
My only recourse now is to appeal to the judge to rewrite the order and have the retro money paid to me directly. In spite of being left alone to raise our son when his father relocated, I trust Luke's father to pay me more than I trust NYSCE to disburse the money properly.
In all fairness, it may have taken a couple of years for him to start paying child support, but he hasn't missed a payment in over 15 years, including catching up all arrears from the years he wasn't paying.
As for the money still owed to me from September 2010, Anna was told not to talk to me anymore. I was also told that I would have to take it up with the judge in December, since they can't waste any more time on my case. There was no justice in my case, and I ended up being penalized for someone else's mistake, nor was there any apology for either the mistake in January or the one in June.
In September, when I brought up the fact that January's child support issue was still unresolved, the judge told me it was not the court's problem, and I would have to clear it up with the child support unit. My only hope is that Luke's father, once I explain the situation in court, will offer to allow that amount to be included in any current arrears to be cleared up when the order is amended in December. At this point, I have pretty much written the money off.
ACCORDING TO everyone I talked to in Family Court, situations like mine are common and very difficult to resolve on your own. Even with the advocacy of Anna and her supervisor Marvin, I still ended up empty-handed at the end of a six-week struggle. All I wanted was the small amount of money that would have been paid in September if the mistake had been corrected in June.
The agency that is supposed to advocate in behalf of the children and the custodial parent is set up to prevent clients from being able to get to anyone with the power or the willingness to correct the problem. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Custodial parents place their trust in the agency to make sure they receive their child support; non-custodial parents trust that the money they pay will get to their children. This is a trust that I no longer have in them. From now until my son ages out at 21, I will be monitoring every payment and every disbursement and have no intention of letting the agency anywhere near the lump sum retro payment.
NYSCE is an example of "broken bureaucracy" at the highest possible level. Throughout the process, the right hand never seemed to know what the left hand was doing. The accounting department could rival Enron or the banking industry in creative bookkeeping.
When I was told a full audit of the account was being done, it only took was a couple of hours and Microsoft Excel to reconcile all payments from him with disbursements to me. I did all the work and faxed it to them, and the accountants apparently ignored it.
More than a month and half later, NYSCE's accounting department finally finished their audit, and in the end they cheated me out of money. I requested a copy of the audit but instead sent the payment information from September 24, 2010 when the new order went into effect.
At times, the amount of arrears or overpayment to the account appearing on the NYSCE Web site has changed daily. Even with the help of Excel, it's difficult at times to know what money was owed to me on any given day. No wonder they lose clients child support. Someone needs to come in and assess the way the accounting department operates and improve upon the way mistakes are corrected or in this case not corrected properly.
The customer service department is anything but service oriented. The first person I talked to was rude, uninterested and couldn't wait to get rid of me. Her supervisor was more helpful, but didn't really have any power to do anything. This department seems to only exist as a wall or buffer between the client and the agency.
The NYSCE hotline is even less helpful. Often the information is incorrect. After the court date in June, I called to verify that January's child support had indeed been put in someone else's account. The hotline insisted that the mistake was on his end, and I would have to take it up in court.
When I asked why the money couldn't just be taken out of the other account as soon as there was money in it, I was told the account was closed. When I asked about the account, I was told that all information and any payment history were no longer available. A supervisor confirmed what the hotline worker had told me almost word for word.
When I was at the customer service center, I asked about the other account and was told a name came up but no other information. The fact that any trace of the money was deleted seemed unreal to me. Was this actually an innocent case of human error or a possible case of fraud? This is a question that still haunts me.
Fortunately, I have a decent-paying job; it covers the rent and most of the bills. I mostly use the child support to feed and clothe my child. The missing child support threw my account into arrears for months. My child support is still not coming on a weekly basis due to all of the resets and adjustments. Most of the money I have received since September 24, 2010, has been from the money put into the account from the audit.
For most of this year, it was very difficult to stay above water, having to choose whether to buy food or pay a bill. Still we have a roof over our heads and are not starving. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if it were someone with a part-time or minimum-wage job--or even worse, no job at all. These types of mistakes could have much more devastating consequences than just getting behind on the bills.
After my phone call in June, I filed a public integrity complaint with the state attorney general's office, but they are not allowed to confirm whether they are even investigating or share any information as to the result of any investigation.
Because of this secrecy, I will never know the outcome of that complaint. Is the state attorney general's office set up to find and prevent fraud or to cover it up? If Andrew Cuomo is serious about cleaning up Albany, he should start with the Division of Child Support Enforcement.