An exotic term tops Web searches: “prosopagnosia.” What is it?

Popular Web searches are predictable: celebrities, sporting events, scandals. But every once in a while, a truly exotic word rushes into the mix. Today, that term is prosopagnosia.

Prosopagnosia is a rare disorder that is informally known as “face blindness.” The word is a literal combination of the Greek prosopon, “face,” and agnosia, “the inability to recognize objects by use of the senses.”

People who suffer from this condition can’t recognize faces (or have trouble doing so) yet usually are able to identify other familiar objects.

It’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint what precisely caused the surge in interest in the sad and bizarre brain impairment, but the inspiring story of a Minnesota woman who graduated college in spite of her prosopagnosia is getting lots of attention. The student, Amanda Green, described living with the condition to the White Bear Press as being “like I’m meeting everyone for the first time every time.”

It’s no surprise that such a condition would capture the imagination of the online world. Facial recognition is vital for getting through the day. However, think about this: What’s one common activity that doesn’t rely on familiar faces? Searching and surfing the Web.

Update: Turns out that “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” featured a question on prosopagnosia today, which, if you follow Occam’s Razor, narrows down the source of the search spike.

Child support stuck in system; ‘Undistributed’ funds in millions.(PAGE ONE)(SPECIAL REPORT)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC) July 18, 2004 Byline: Cheryl Wetzstein, THE WASHINGTON TIMES In the often-contentious world of child support, it’s not uncommon for one parent to tell the other that the child-support check is “in the mail.” Sometimes, it’s just an excuse to put off a nagging ex-spouse.

But other times, as Debbie Ecker of Queens, N.Y., discovered, the check really was in the mail – it just got stuck in the state’s child-support system.

“My ex-husband missed some payments, so I called” the child-support agency, she said.

Many phone calls later, a check for about $1,000 arrived.

“They said they were holding my money because they thought I was no longer at this address,” said Mrs. Ecker, adding that that was an odd explanation because she has collected child-support checks at the same address for years.

Quite a few child-support payments go missing each year, the federal government’s watchdog agency said recently in an unprecedented report.

States had around $657 million in “undistributed” child-support collections in fiscal 2002, the General Accounting Office (GAO) said in a March report. (The agency has since been renamed the Government Accountability Office.) These payments, or “UDC” in child-support parlance, encompass everything from tax refunds that are temporarily – and legally – held by states to pay child-support debts to child-support checks mailed to custodial parents that haven’t been cashed yet.

In dollars and cents, UDC is not a huge problem – it’s roughly 3 percent of the $20 billion in child-support payments that are successfully processed each year.

Moreover, as much as 61 percent of the UDC is held for good reason, federal and state officials said in recent interviews with The Washington Times.

But the thought of state officials vacuuming money out of paychecks and failing to deliver it to families with children infuriates more than a few child-support advocates.

UDC “is one of those rare issues where custodial and noncustodial parents are probably united,” said Murray Davis, a co-founder of National Family Justice Association, an advocacy group that has been monitoring UDC scandals in Michigan and other states. this web site child support md

And there’s no doubt, according to the GAO report, that every year millions of dollars in child-support payments get caught in the system and end up being declared “undistributable” or abandoned property under state law.

“What you see in this [GAO] report is overzealous collection of money that should never have been taken” from parents, said Ron Henry, a child-advocacy lawyer in the District. Money that can’t be distributed should be returned to its rightful owner, the noncustodial parent, he said.

“Children need that money,” said Geraldine Jensen, president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support (ACES), an advocacy group for custodial parents.

“State agencies have to know who pays, how much is paid and what is owed in order to carry out any enforcement activities,” said Mrs. Jensen, who has frequently testified before Congress about parents’ anger over undistributed collections.

“It seems the least [states] can do is keep good records on who pays and which family is to receive it,” she said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, who requested the GAO study into UDC, also was dissatisfied with state performances.

The $657 million in UDC is “far too high when, for many families, child-support payments are critical to paying rent and putting food on the table,” said Mr. Grassley, who urged federal and state officials to “stop guessing and start knowing” the details of the UDC problem.

State and federal officials say they have gotten the message and are cleaning up their data and moving money faster.

“The problem isn’t complex. You’ve got somebody else’s money, and you’ve got to move it,” said Nick Young, director of child-support enforcement in Virginia, one of the states that has been recognized for getting its UDC under control.

UDC “is the kind of problem we fix on a daily basis” because “it can unfix itself in about 24 hours,” Mr. Young said.

The latest federal data released last month show that the UDC numbers are moving in the right direction: Nationally, the undistributed collections declined 19 percent, from $657 million at the end of 2002 to $532 million at the end of 2003.

Still, the data show that most states are struggling to get control of these collections.

Child-support agency directors recently “spent quite a bit of time looking at this issue, talking about best practices, how to approach this,” said Cynthia Chinnock, director of Oregon’s child-support program and president of the National Council of Child Support Directors. “It’s a concern to all of us.” On the federal side, the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) has changed its quarterly reporting form so that, as of September 2003, states are categorizing their UDC.

This allows UDC to be divided into “good” categories – where it’s being held appropriately or is literally ready to be paid out – and “not-so-good” categories, “where the money should have gone out, but it hasn’t,” said Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees the OCSE.

The latest data show that 61 percent of the undistributed collections are in the “good” categories, said Mr. Horn. These include payments held because of pending court decisions or because they are joint tax refunds that need to be properly divided between a noncustodial parent’s new spouse and a child-support debt.

“Good” UDC also includes the millions of dollars of payments that are ready to go to the custodial parent, but have to wait for a due date.

“For example, Alaska doesn’t pay any ‘future’ amounts,” said John Mallonee, director of that state’s child-support services agency.

If a noncustodial parent writes a check for three months of payments, the agency will send out one payment one month and hold the other two, said Mr. Mallonee. “We never distribute money in advance – too many things can change, so we only distribute it when it’s due.” The new data show, however, that 39 percent of UDC is in the “not-so-good” categories, Mr. Horn said. go to site child support md

This includes money that has come in with missing information from employers and noncustodial parents, and payments sent to custodial parents that either are returned to the state or never cashed.

These cases “mean we have to do some work,” said Pauline Burton, director of child-support enforcement in Colorado. “We have to pick up the phone and work it a little,” Mr. Young, the Virginia child-support director, said his agency “made [UDC] everybody’s problem to solve, and that way, nobody could escape responsibility for it.” In addition, he said, “I have seven people here who do nothing but search for people, find addresses and find out why checks are coming back,” he said.

“We have also set up what I call a ‘John Smith’ database, for people who want to do it their way,” said Mr. Young.

“We ask people to ‘Please put your case number and your Social Security number on your check.’ But ‘John Smith’ goes to the 7-Eleven every Friday night, gets a money order for $47.12 and sends it in as ‘John Smith.’” “Because he’s in the file, we know who he is, and who it goes to,” said Mr. Young.

Another solution is to enroll custodial parents for direct deposit or other electronic means to receive child-support payments.

Iowa officials told the GAO that 95 percent of their custodial parents are receiving child-support payments electronically, which means there are far fewer checks to get lost in the mail.

Maryland started a program in January 2003 to allow custodial parents to receive their child support either by direct deposit or a “CashPay” debit card. Already 22,000 custodial parents have signed up for one of these services, said Brian Shea, executive director of Maryland’s child-support enforcement administration.

Still, because many parents in Maryland are transient, “we had to learn that part of our work was to locate custodial parents, to find out where they’ve gone to, and cultivate new addresses,” Mr. Shea said.

The Maryland agency made an important change when it began allowing the U.S. Postal Service to forward child-support checks if they were undeliverable as addressed. That way, instead of checks “kicking back” to the agency, “the post office could tell us when they forwarded it and to where,” Mr. Shea said.

In Texas, officials changed many internal policies to reduce their UDC, which was $21 million in 1999. Innovations included holding tax-refund checks for only 60 days instead of the maximum 180 days, and finding ways to pay “future” payments instead of holding them.

“We used to rarely distribute money until it was due. We would wait for obligations to come due, and then we would dole it out to them,” said Tom Wallace, a child-support official in Texas.

Now if a noncustodial parent pays $1,000 ahead, “we pass it through and keep track of it,” Mr. Wallace said. If the parent stops paying, “we know that too,” he said, adding that fewer than 1 percent of Texas collections are UDC now.

Texas, which runs its child-support enforcement from the state Attorney General’s Office, also started using new computer programs and special enforcement officers to locate custodial parents or missing information on the payments.

“You have to be as good an investigator to solve the undistributed [collections] problems as you do to find people who owe the money,” said Richard “Casey” Hoffman, deputy attorney general for families and children in Texas.

The Texas program won an HHS award for “high-impact problem solving.” Other state improvements include password-protected Internet sites that show parents whether their child-support payments have been made or received.

But what about the money that ends up as abandoned property? State officials say that that is always a last resort, and that payments, even if declared abandoned, can be recovered.

“We’re not in any rush to send [payments] to unclaimed property,” said Michael Adams, a child-support official in Tennessee. “This is not a funding source in any way for our program. Even if it’s sent to unclaimed property, if the customer comes forward, we can make the payment to them,” he said.

In Alaska, Mr. Mallonee said, child-support checks are considered “stale-dated” and nonnegotiable 90 days after they are issued. “But because it’s a state check, banks will cash them, I don’t care if they are three years old,” he said, adding that his agency tries to find the money’s owners for three years before declaring it abandoned.

All in all, states are taking the UDC problem seriously, especially because they’ve only recently had the tools to measure it and tackle it, said Vicky Turetsky, who tracks child-support issues for the Center for Law and Social Policy, a liberal think tank in the District.

In the 1990s, Congress has required states to create centralized disbursement units, to handle child-support collections, she said.

Many states ran into computer problems during this transition, and they hadn’t cleaned up their data “so it was ‘garbage in, garbage out,’” Ms. Turetsky said.

Once their collection systems were online, states took on “massive data-cleanup projects,” which means “they have more accurate data now than they have ever had before,” she said.

They are also processing record amounts of collections each year, with “the bulk of identified collections going out in two days.” But this quantum leap in technology also exposed a problem with undistributed collections that had probably been hidden there all along, Ms. Turetsky said.

With the intense focus on undistributed collections and new tools to track it, “the next step is for states to invest enough staff and resources to clean the problem up,” Ms. Turetsky said.

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