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Wednesday, May 31, 2000

Child-support suit
plaintiffs want
late-payment interest

By Pat Gee


Lawyers representing families who are not receiving child-support checks are happy that Circuit Judge Sabrina McKenna did not throw their case out yesterday. McKenna did not rule on a request by the state attorney general's office to dismiss the case against the state Child Support Enforcement Agency. She will rule later.

Attorney Tim Cohelan, a class-action consultant from San Diego, said, "The fact that we didn't get knocked out today is a good sign. Sometimes victory is the absence of defeat."

Some 10,000 children are represented in the lawsuit filed by local attorneys Christopher Ferrara and Francis O'Brien, who contend the agency should be paying the $867,000 in interest earned on late payments to families.

The agency's poor record keeping and late payments to children have been called "outrageous" by state auditors for several years, including a "blistering" report done this year, said Isam Khoury, Cohelan's partner. Both are acting as consultants on the case.

Diane K. Taira, deputy attorney general, said the state is immune to some of the claims against it, but even if it were not, the claims are invalid because a state statute clearly says that "interest is not property belonging to the plaintiff."

The 1999 Legislature amended the statute to allow interest to be used to improve the agency's ability to provide the "prompt disposal of payments. Clearly, the legislators were aware of the various problems," Taira said.

Linda Chock, a single mother of two children who has been owed more than $17,000 in late child-support payments since 1995, watched the hearing in support of the suit. Any additional income she would receive through the dispersal of interest would be welcome because she is always short of money to buy food for her children, she said.

In comments made outside the courtroom, Chock said the checks are always late and most of the time she receives only one of two payments per month.

Chock, a full-time security guard from Mililani, said she has given up on calling the agency about late payments because "I never have been able to get through" on the phone. When she went down to the agency's office to complain, she found the staff to be "ignorant" and uncaring.

"I asked them, 'what does it take for you to do something? Have the kids go hungry?' ... I left that day in tears. It's just been a nightmare," Chock said, wiping away tears.

Ferrara said the Child Support Enforcement Agency has claimed its staff is undermanned and overworked, but that problems have been corrected. But "it isn't happening; they're still way behind. I still get one or two calls a week" from disgruntled custodial parents, he said.

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