Native households grapple with ‘insufficient’ assets from division of well being, together with youngster help
Note: The individuals quoted in this story have asked to remain anonymous, under the fear of reprisal from the legal system of the fathers of their children. After repeated calls to the Department of Human Services, The Pine Belt News was either told a supervisor was unavailable to comment on the following matters, or phone calls simply went unreturned.
Over the past several months and years, the Mississippi Department of Human Services has found itself in statewide and national headlines over a muti-million-dollar welfare scandal regarding the University of Southern Mississippi’s misuse of funds – particularly in the form of the construction of a new volleyball stadium paid for by way of money that was initially given to a non-profit agency from the department’s Temporary Assistance for Needly Families programs, which is meant to help underserved people throughout the state.
But while the scrabble over those millions of dollars continues, mothers throughout the state are wondering where their next hundreds of dollars will come from in the form of child support.
In the case of one Forrest County mother, who began receiving her child support benefits from MDHS In August 2021 – after five years of receiving those benefits in cash from the father of her child per an earlier agreement made when the child was born – the department has allegedly, according to supporting documents provided to The Pine Belt News, shortchanged her steadily on child support payments.
MDHS child support payments are issued on what’s informally known as a “Mississippi Card,” properly known as the Economic Assistance Eligibility TANF Way2GoCard. Child supports can be made by person-to-person agreement without the involvement of DHS unless the custodial parent is enrolled in other government programs, such as non-TANF Medicaid, IV-E foster care or SNAP (food stamps).
“Since the department (recently) took over management of the payments, it has resulted in regular delays in those payments, which can vary anywhere from one to 15 days to be deposited to my Mississippi card, a Forrest County mother said. “It’s not a regular set thing; you never know when it’s going to show up on the account.
“Before DHS was involved, I regularly received payments on the first of every month from the biological father of my child. Since DHS came into the picture, the money comes out of his account on the first of every month; they take out a $20 fee from him in addition to the $300 that he is supposed to pay me in child support. But most times, the payment doesn’t come to me until the ninth of the month, and sometimes it’s even later than that, depending on holidays and weekends.”
On top of that are the fees – which the mother considers exorbitant – that are charged by MDHS for services such as simple cash withdrawals. Such fees include:
- ATM cash withdrawal $1.75 each time;
- ATM balance inquiry: 75 cents each time;
- Card replacement: $5;
- Expedited card delivery: $15;
- ATM denial for insufficient funds: 50 cents after the third request (each call, each calendar month);
- Calling customer service: 50 cents after the fifth call (each call, each calendar month); and
- ATM surcharges: Some bank ATMS will apply a fee called a surcharge to use their ATM. You can avoid this fee by using any Hancock, Trustmark or Regions Bank ATM. If any other ATM besides those are used, various other fees are charged by the owners of those ATM’s, sometimes up to $3 or more.
“Mothers who are receiving child support through the department of human services are obviously in need of financial support; otherwise they would not be enrolled in the service to begin with,” the Forrest County mother of one said. “These fees, however small they may seem, can make the difference between whether any given child is able to have a proper meal.
“This could literally cause a child their next meal in some cases. Also, that ($20) that is tacked to the non-custodial parent’s payment to cover the cost of the legal expenses that were initiated by the department of human services in the first place, could be given to the child or the custodial parent to further assist with the cost of care, but instead, it’s used to pay the agency for their involvement for their efforts to collect payments on behalf of the custodial parent.”
As an example of how those nickel-and-dime fees can cause a serious strain on a person’s wallet: from the year-long period from August 2021 to August 2022, the fees from the above measures added up to $116.95 for the Forrest County mother – for simply utilizing the method of payment provided to her by the agency.
“I feel like that amount of money ($116.95) could have gone to pay my water bill or my electric bill – to provide basic needs that come along with providing a roof over my child’s head,” she said.
Back in 2016, MDHS contracted with Ridgeland-based YoungWilliams to operate child support services. According to Mississippi Today, over the past six years the state has paid that firm $153 million to operate the program; in October 2021 YoungWilliams was paid another $135 million to run the program for an additional five years.
Mississippi Today states the program reaches almost 800,000 parents and kids throughout Mississippi, which has the highest case rate of any state in the nation.
A year after YoungWilliams took over, a consultant determined compared to state-run offices, that firm performed worse in almost every measurable metric.
In November, The Pine Belt News obtained a copy of a letter sent to various MDHS clients who are receiving their services or seeking removal from YoungWilliams services and that letter states that an annual fee of $35 will be assessed to any recipient who receives $550 or more in support during any federal fiscal year. Clients also may be required to pay certain costs related to future actions of clients’ behalf.
“You need to be aware that your case may be closed if you fail to cooperate,” the letter states. “You may be exempt from cooperating, under any circumstances.
“We want to hear any concerns you have about your safety or the safety of your children that may be caused by your cooperation with your office.”
Recently, MDHS received an additional $200 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill issued by the federal government to speed up the United States’ recovery from the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Although they’ve received an excessive amount of money from ARPA, rather than using that money to lift the burden off parents by implementing new, updated systems and regulations that are user-friendly and beneficial, they are currently still operating under outdated software and methods that are clearly ineffective,” the Forrest County mother said. “They are clearly neglecting to do what they are there to do, at the detriment of families and children, despite having the funds to do it.”
The state is currently in the midst of an expansive welfare scandal, including the recent finding that the University of Southern Mississippi – under the machinations of former NFL quarterback Brett Favre and former Gov. Phil Bryant – that has resulted in the alleged misspending of $954 million in welfare funds throughout the state. That includes:
- A state-of-the art volleyball stadium that could have paid for a year’s worth of child care for 920 families;
- Retired wrestle motivations self-help training that could have paid for 22,704 electricity bills;
- Famed quarterback endorsements that could have paid for a year’s worth of diapers for 1,145 mothers;
- Three luxury vehicles that could have paid for a year’s worth of transportation stipends for 55 low-wage workers;
- Rent on a Flora house ranch that could have paid 494 monthly rent payments;
- A fitness boot camp that could have given cash assistance for 138,234 people ($170 a month for a family of three for a full year).
Favre has come under fire in recent months for pressuring Bryant to build the volleyball facility, known as the “Wellness Center,” on the USM campus. After it came to light the center was paid for with TANF funds, the debate has raged on how to settle the matter of repayment.
USM has offered to let MDHS use that facility, along with others on campus, for needy families, but MDHS officials say that procedure is against the law, as those funds are not allowed to be used for the construction of brick-and-mortar facilities.
As such, MDHS has rejected USM’s offer. In the time since, Tommy Duff – who serves as president of the Institutions for Higher Learning board of trustees – has expressed his belief that USM should pay back the funds
“I think that child support payments should not solely be based on the non-custodial parent’s income, but rather, in addition to that income, funds from the department of human services should be allocated to those child support payments, to make up for the cost of living,” the Forrest County resident said. “Most people are living in poverty anyway, and a large sum of the funding given to these agencies are supposed to be given to families in the form of cash-based incentives anyway.
“But Mississippi only gives a very small percent, and the rest just sits idle. I’ve read research that says as far as cash welfare is concerned, Mississippi, along with other states like Texas, is giving only about 5 percent of their unspent funds to needy families.”
According to the Senate Study Group on Women, Children and Families conducted in September, the following annual costs are necessary to support one adult and two children:
- Food: $6,644
- Child care: $3,783
- Medical: $7,127
- Housing: $9,009
- Transportation: $9,905
- Other: $5,099
- Total before taxes: $41,657
- Annual taxes: $7,750
- Total: $49,401
According to the study group, $36.62 per hour would be needed to meet these expenses; currently, the minimum wage in Mississippi in $7.25 per hour. The group states that access to items such as childcare vouchers or Medicaid can determine whether a working family sinks or floats.
Another mother, also from Forrest County, who is currently married to a man who has a child from another marriage, said although the man’s child support was being garnished from his paycheck, those funds were not being sent to the child’s mother for up to two to three months at first.
“(The child’s mother) got an attorney and was getting warrants signed to get him picked up when we found out about it,” she said. “I had to take copies of his paycheck stubs to her lawyer’s office to prove where it had been paid.
“During that time, there was lots of tension and she wasn’t bringing the child (to visit the father). That’s why he told (the mother) he’d pay it, but it would have to go through the chancery courts, but he was done with DHS.”
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