Tanya Forbes received a letter last November from the State of Hawaii notifying her that she owed $7,500 in back child support payments.
The only time her children had been in someone else's custody was for three months when her mother cared for her kids in 1989. The state government had the name of Tanya's mother in the database, but her mother has been dead for five years, so she could hardly be claiming back child support.
This was the first time Tanya had heard about this issue.
The explanation was complicated: the original child support alleged to be in arrears was a small amount from a time she lived in Ventura County , California , with twenty-one years of interest tacked on. The Hawaii government was attempting to grab Tanya's federal tax refund for as many years as it took to recoup the money they said she owed.
"I called and asked about all that interest, and they said it took them this long to find me," says the Medford single mother of three. "But I've been paying taxes every year, and I had the same job forever, so it couldn't have been that hard to find me."
"I called California and they could not find me in their records, nothing." says Tanya. "I was freaking out, I don't have that kind of money, and I need it for my daughter's surgery."
The property manager for the house that Tanya rents suggested a call to Help Now!
Advocate Chris Hince answered Tanya's call at Help Now! and dove right in.
"I called Ventura County, and they couldn't find anything," says Hince. "The Hawaii people kept referring me back to a letter and a website. They didn't know anything more. The California people said they couldn't write a letter about a case that didn't exist. The Hawaii people wouldn't close the case until the California people told them there was no claim."
To cut through this classic catch-22, Hince applied one of the first rules of advocacy: don't settle for a "no" from the first person you reach. Ask for a supervisor, and keep going up the chain of command until you get an answer that makes sense, and an answer that hopefully solves the matter for the client.
After many go-between calls to supervisors in both states, she got two supervisors talking to each other. The tax garnishment process appeared to be finished, though no correspondence ever reached Tanya.
"It turned out they zeroed it out, but didn't close out the records," says Hince. "I just had to stay on it until we were certain that it was 'case closed'."
Tanya got that letter several weeks ago from Hawaii. It showed zero balance owing, just in case there is another bureaucratic snafu!