Aid from state turns to debt for single mom

She owes $3,000 after agency mistakenly pays child care subsidy

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When Vancouver single mother Sarah Remington turned to the state Department of Social and Health Services for help in paying for her 2-year-old son’s child care, the final outcome was worse than a rejection; it was a bill for nearly $3,000.

Things started out well. After a long job search, the 24-year-old was thrilled when she was hired in December as a case manager for a nonprofit mental health clinic. Before her hiring date, she had been receiving a state child care subsidy for nearly five months to help pay for her son, Jacob’s, child care at Wendy’s Teddy Bear Day Care and Preschool in Vancouver while Remington volunteered at the mental health clinic. After she found out her wage in her paid position, she submitted that information to her social worker and was approved to continue receiving the subsidy through June 30 to help pay for Jacob’s care while Remington was at work.

In late May, she was due for an eligibility review by the state.

“I was on my lunch break,” Remington said. “I thought it wouldn’t take long so I went for the review.”

During the review, the caseworker told her she was ineligible to receive the subsidy because she earns $197 more per month than the maximum. The state apparently had approved her in error. Her subsidy would be revoked within days.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I was not expecting that because nothing had changed with my income.”

The news was distressing because Remington said she couldn’t afford to pay for Jacob to stay in day care five days a week. The only option appeared to be quitting her job.

Her family members, her boyfriend and the owner of the day care center, Wendy Patterson, helped her work out a solution. Family members and her boyfriend agreed to keep Jacob with them for three days a week while Remington was at work. On the other two days, Jacob was allowed to stay at the day care center in exchange for a combination of cash and Remington’s cleaning services. She cleans the center’s four bathrooms twice per month.

But that wasn’t the end of the matter.

In July, she received a letter from the state informing her that she is responsible for paying back the nearly $3,000 in child care subsidies used to pay for Jacob’s care between December and June.

“Currently, I’m trying to fight the state,” Remington said. “It was their mistake.”

She will appeal the department’s decision at a hearing with an administrative judge Dec. 5.

Kathy Spears, department spokesperson, said she could not comment on Remington’s specific case due to confidentiality requirements.

Spears said the department seeks to prevent errors by auditing 1 percent of child care subsidy cases. Caseworkers also share cases, providing opportunities to crosscheck each other’s work each time the department acts on a case. Staff members who are authorized to determine eligibility are trained specifically for that, and they also receive additional training when policies change or when supervisors identify a pattern of error, she said.

Onus on consumer

Remington is one of 1,354 cases of overpayment to child care subsidy recipients as of Oct. 4, according to the Office of Financial Recovery at the Department of Social and Health Services. Combined, the clients owe the state about $2.5 million in overpaid subsidies due to fraud, consumer mistakes in reporting financial information or department error. That doesn’t include what child care providers owe for incorrect billing.

Regardless of whether the error was the state’s or the consumer’s, the onus is on the consumer to pay the money back, according to state policy.

Parents and guardians “are required to repay any benefits paid by DSHS that they were not eligible to receive,” the policy states. “If an overpayment was made through departmental error, the consumer is still required to repay that amount.”

The policy is on page 77 of the Working Connections Child Care Policy Manual at http://www.del.wa.gov/publications/subsidy/docs/WCCC_PolicyManual.pdf.

Catching errors and repayment of the misused money are important to preserving the integrity of the program, said Brice Montgomery, acting chief of the Office of Financial Recovery. The program receives federal dollars, and the state is accountable for the proper use of that money, Montgomery said.

When a parent receives a bill for overpayment, they may file a request for a hearing before an administrative judge. Anecdotally, judges tend to confirm the department’s decision, Montgomery said

It’s unclear how many of the overpayment cases are the result of department error, Montgomery said. The department’s data system doesn’t track how many of the cases result from department error versus parent error or fraud, he said.

In general, parents who earn 175 percent or less of poverty level are eligible for the child care subsidy program, but the number has fluctuated between 150 percent to 200 percent during the past two years due to the state budget shortfalls.

Remington earns about $13.41 per hour, or nearly $27,900 per year. For a family of two to be eligible, the family can have an annual income of no more than $25,743.

Recouping overpayments has been especially valued during the state’s budget deficit.

The state last week approved the Office of Financial Recovery to hire two more employees to collect overpayments, Montgomery said.

But to parents, who were overpaid without their fault or knowledge, the charge seems unfair.

“I wish they would have just told me I was not approved from the beginning,” Remington said. “Then, I would’ve known I couldn’t afford it.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com