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Maryland, Prison & Unrealistic Child Support

As lawmakers meet in Annapolis this month to examine possible reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, we hope they will take a hard look at a related issue as well: The plight of inmates who fall behind on their court-ordered child-support payments, which continue to accumulate while they’re behind bars and which leave them with crushing debts they cannot possibly pay off when they are eventually released. [“American Poverty: An American Criminal Subclass“}

That’s because inmates who are ordered by the courts to make child support payments that seem reasonable when they’re working lose those incomes — but not their obligation to pay — while they are incarcerated. The amounts in arrears can climb into the tens of thousands of dollars, and because these convicts emerge from prison saddled with a criminal record, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for them to find a job that allows them to pay off what they owe. All too easily, their involvement with the state’s child-support enforcement authorities can leave them with a lifetime of indebtedness.

The consequences for them and their children can be devastating. Sixty-five percent of the inmates in Maryland’s prisons are parents, and most of them want to participate in some way in their children’s upbringing. When they can’t, it’s likely to not only alienate them from their partners and children but also to compound the problems they face finding a job, getting an education and avoiding returning to a life of crime.

Some inmates come out of prison so overwhelmed by accumulated debt and shamed by their inability to pay that they are actually discouraged from contacting their families. Others feel the only way to meet their obligations is by selling the drugs that got them incarcerated in the first place. Both are inimical to policies aimed at enlisting the support of families in the re-entry process.

The federal government and some states, including Maryland, have explored pilot re-entry programs that match up newly released inmates with service providers, such as the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore, that offer temporary housing as well as job training and employment counseling. But such programs are small compared to the need. States must begin focusing on preparing incarcerated parents for release earlier and helping them navigate child-support issues so they don’t emerge from prison thousands of dollars in arrears with little prospect of ever paying such sums off.

In Maryland, custodial parents are entitled to collect child support even when the non-custodial parent is incarcerated. If an inmate can’t pay, and if the family is eligible for public assistance, the state pays an equivalent amount to the custodial parent, then seeks to recover the funds upon the incarcerated parent’s release.

Under a law passed in 2012, state authorities can temporarily reduce or suspend inmates’ financial obligations while they’re in prison. But they can’t alter the terms of a child support order issued by the courts to reflect an inmate’s reduced earning capacity while locked up, nor can they forgive accumulated debt that is owed directly to a custodial parent rather than to the state. [“Unemployment, Child Support & Bradley Law“; “Bradley Law and Real Justice“; “The Bradley Amendment Child Support Mess“; “New Legal Research Available on Bradley Amendment“]

Nevertheless, Maryland could significantly ease inmates’ re-entry into society if its laws allowed child support officials to modify child support orders to reflect inmates’ actual earning power on release. The state already has a debt abatement program that allows inmates have their cumulative debt reduced by half if they make their support payments on time for 12 straight months; if they continue doing so for 12 more months the state can forgive entire amount remaining in arrears.

That represents progress, but it doesn’t take into account the fact that most recently incarcerated parents still won’t earn enough to make regular payments at the same level that was set based on their earning power before they went to prison. So they fall behind on their payments again and the vicious cycle of debt accumulation resumes.

Lawmakers could address this problem by authorizing The Department of Human Resources to modify court-ordered child support payments to make them more accurately reflect the current earning power of recently released inmates. That simple change would allow many more inmates to pay off what they owe the state as reimbursement for public assistance to their families, but leave undisturbed payments owed directly to a non-custodial parent. Moreover, it would cost the state relatively little to forgive debts that, in any case, stood very little chance of ever being collected.

Critics may charge that such a plan amounts to a free ride for deadbeat dads and moms. It isn’t. Rather, it’s simply a recognition that most people in Maryland’s prisons are poor and that saddling them with mountains of debt for unpaid child support is counterproductive. Nationwide, four out of 10 single parents live below the poverty line. Nobody’s is going to get rich because of a change in the law that acknowledges that reality. It’s in everyone’s interest to bring parents recently released from prison out of the shadows so they can begin to fulfill their obligations to their families and their communities.

from the Baltimore Sun

Texas Secretly Pushing Child Support on County Offices

Wichita County Tax Collector/Assessor Tommy Smyth said more unfunded mandates pushed onto his office may be a recipe for disaster.

Smyth spoke at the Wichita County Commissioners meeting to provide information about a request to fill a position for a deputy collector in his office.

In the past 12 months, he said, while already wrangling changes with the one sticker-two step program for vehicle registration and inspection, tax offices were informed by the state that beginning in March, the office must deny services to people who owe back child support. [“American Poverty: An American Criminal Subclass“, “Unemployment, Child Support & Bradley Law“, “Bradley Law and Real Justice“]

Smyth said there was also talk that two more mandates might be added in the next six months.

“We had a conference in June in Lubbock and there was no mention of what was going to be dropped on us in November in San Marcos,” Smyth told the court.

“You can only push bureaucracy so far to a certain point, and then something has to be compromised,” he said, likening the situation to an employee at a restaurant who was running a register, taking orders, cooking and cleaning.

In that situation the business’ service, food and reputation could be compromised, he said.

“It’s the same thing in county government, it’s the same thing. We’re trying to provide optimum services to the citizens of Wichita County. I think we do a Cracker Jack job of it. We’ve got Cracker Jack staff, but we’re not in control,” Smyth said.

Several problems arise from the tax offices serving as a filter for child support enforcement, he said.

Smyth noted that if the state attorney general’s office had been successful in finding these people delinquent on child support, the people would have been notified already instead of pushing it onto the tax offices.

“More than likely when that somebody walks up to our window and one of our deputies says, ‘Sir/madam, we cannot do your transaction.’ They bought a $58,000 pickup, but can’t do tax and license on it, it’s going to get very contentious,” Smyth said.

Another problem could be the merging of another database and software download.

In March the office merged with the Department of Public Safety’s system.

Smyth said they have run into situations at times with the one sticker-two step system where the other entity did not do a download of their software and the system was not up to date.

He gave a possible example of someone who paid child support on a Friday, then comes in Monday to register vehicle, but the system was not up to date in showing the individual’s payment.

“When that individual comes in our office, we have to decline them. Well, the minute you decline somebody, you inherit a very contentious situation,” he said.

“The call volume that we associate with this child support, I can’t even get my arms around it. I mean, I have no idea,” Smyth said of the calls and complaints the tax office could receive about the new mandate.

from the Wichita Falls Times Record

Tennessee Struggles With Child Support Debt

justice and moneyMothers who make no effort to identify father of their children could have a cap on the number of years in which they can go back and seek child support.

“We’re asking the legislature to consider allowing a law that says you can’t go back any more than five years,” 9th Judicial District Attorney General Russell Johnson said.

Johnson said his office collected $8.173 million in child support during the 2014-15 fiscal year and led the state in establishing orders in cases.

An inability to pay is a problem many defendants run into, according to Johnson.

“What’s happening is these dads, usually dads, sometimes mothers, owe tens of thousands of dollars in child support going back 18 years at some point,” Johnson said. “They’ll never get it paid.”

To convey his point, Johnson’s office looked at the number of inmates in the Roane County Jail with child support issues as of Dec. 1.

Two were in custody on a child support hold only, and another 10 were in jail with criminal and child support holds.

The total child support arrearages for those 12 inmates was $343,210.54.

“Right now, you place a child support amount from birth until 18,” Johnson said. “In a lot of cases, most of these are not typically just people coming out of divorce with kids. They are people who have had kids out of wedlock, which is a common thing.”

Johnson’s office handles cases free of charge in Magistrate Charles Crass’ court for custodial parents who have either a divorce decree or court order requiring someone to pay child support.

“The court and the state can’t relieve you of paying the child support,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be there forever. Judge Crass just can’t say well that’s OK, don’t worry about that $20,000.”

A law that puts a cap on the number of years a person can go back to seek child support could force parents to take advantage of their rights sooner.

“You’ve got to immediately file something for paternity and get that going and get that person identified,” Johnson said. “You can’t wait until right before the child is about to turn 18 and go back and say, ‘hey, John Doe, you’re the father of my child, let’s have a DNA test and prove it, and now you’re owing 18 years of child support you didn’t know about’.”

The next session of the Tennessee General Assembly starts in January.

“That’s something the legislature is going to look at,” Johnson said.

If that happens, Johnson said it could also cause the legislature to look at some of the problems the court system is having with defendants who can’t pay their fines and court costs in criminal cases.

original article at Roane County News

While states struggle with their child support issues, the federal government takes support from any available source, including social security and tax offices. Men continue to be cut down by unconstitutional and cruel law like the Bradley Amendment, which prohibits any retroactive change in child support.

Data Shows NJ Child Support Administrators Lied To Lawmakers About Effectiveness Of Collections

child support shacklesA law suit challenging New Jersey’s automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for child support arrears says that the Division of Family Development misled lawmakers to convince them that the program is a success.

The Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development (DFD) administers the child support computer system. In reports to the Legislature from 2006-08, the DFD said an average of $33 million in additional child support was collected annually under a program which provides for automatic suspensions of driver’s licenses. They said, on average, they collected of $1,737 per suspension.

However, changes to the child support computer system which allowed for more accurate tracking, show that from 2010 through 2014 the state averaged each year about 20,000 suspensions and collected only $5.3 million or an average of $259 per license suspension, according to reports obtained through discovery.

Rather than reconciling the 600% inflation of the numbers, annual reports on the progress of the license suspension program mysteriously stopped. From 2009 through 2013 no reports exist and in 2014 the drastically lower numbers were noted as due to a “change in data collection.”

The New Jersey Child Support Program Improvement Act, signed into law in 1998, requires annual reports to the Legislature about the program’s operation. [“Child Support: Is Losing Your License Legal?“, “Oppressive Government: Licenses & Child Support“]

In Kavadas v. Martinez, a law suit challenging the state’s practice of suspending driver’s licenses without conducting a hearing for nonpayment of child support, David Perry Davis, a New Jersey lawyer who represents the plaintiffs says the suspension of a driver’s license in such cases is “self-defeating” because it may prevent a parent from going to work, applying for jobs or seeing his or her children. [“American Poverty: An American Criminal Subclass“, “Unemployment, Child Support & Bradley Law“]

Davis also stresses the point that there is no way to determine what collections are attributable to license suspensions when they occur automatically upon the issuance of an arrest warrant. “Obviously, an arrested obligor’s interest is in getting out of jail – the idea that they are more motivated to do this because their license has been suspended is absurd,” Davis told the Bergen Dispatch.

In essence, the Division of Family Development claims that 100% of the money collected as a result of an arrest warrant is due solely to the automatic suspension of a driver’s license and arrests and incarceration have no impact on the money collected by the state.

“The suit does not seek to stop the suspension of driver’s licenses to force parties to pay child support, instead it attempts to limit the practice to cases where a hearing is conducted and a judge determines that it would be appropriate,” Davis said. The suit claims that the state’s practice of automatic suspensions is “unconstitutional and is contrary to the intent of the Legislature.”

“The 2014 Report still dramatically misrepresents the process, failing to inform the legislature that 99.429% of suspensions are done without a contemporaneous hearing,” Davis added.

Named as defendants in the suit are Raymond Martinez, chief administrator of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission; the State of New Jersey; the Motor Vehicle Commission; acting Attorney General John Hoffman; and Natasha Johnson, director of the Office of Child Support Services in the state Department of Human Services.

The program stems from a 1996 federal law requiring states to toughen their child support procedures in order to qualify for certain types of federal aid. The federal Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) called for states to develop legislation to increase ways in which compliance with child support orders could be increased.

PRWORA also requires New Jersey residents receiving benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to sign over any right to child support to their respective County. In those cases, monies collected through child support enforcement are used to reimburse the counties for TANF benefits and do not go directly to the families.

The 2014 report states, “Clearly the implementation of this program has positively impacted families that rely upon receiving support and, as an indirect benefit, has resulted in an additional revenue stream for the Motor Vehicle Commission.”

In order for a suspended license to be restored the Motor Vehicle Commission charges a $100 restoration fee.

In state fiscal year 2014 a total of 20,498 drivers’ licenses were suspended under the program, resulting in support collections of $4,333,543 or just $211 per suspension – plus $2,049,800 in additional fees to the MVC.

According to the Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development, on average, there are about 35,000 active child support warrants at any given time.

original article at Bergen Dispatch

Oklahoma Could Owe Millions in Child Support Overcharges

justice and money

  • Some parents have been overcharged for back child support.
  • A judge ruled Monday that the state has to pay millions in repayment.
  • If his ruling is upheld, a search of paper records will decide who is owed refunds.

A judge’s decision against the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in a class-action lawsuit could cost the state millions of dollars if upheld on appeal.

The Oklahoman reports that Oklahoma County District Judge Barbara Swinton ruled that for years, the state agency has charged fathers in paternity cases too much in interest for back child support judgments.

Four men filed the lawsuit in 2011. They claimed they were wrongfully charged 10 percent interest rather than a fluctuating rate determined by the prime rate set by banks.

Department of Human Services records dating to 2000 show that more than 26,000 men could be due refunds. If the decision is upheld, a search of paper records that date back to 1993 will be necessary to determine who is owed refunds.

Bob Robinson, an attorney for the four men, estimates the state will have to reimburse fathers $130 million or more.

Oklahoma Department of Human Services attorney Richard Freeman said in reference to Robinson’s estimate that “It could be in the millions for sure, potentially. I don’t think it will be that much.”

Freeman also said that the reimbursement funds could come from insurance.

The agency says the way it computes, assesses and collects interest on child support judgments is proper under Oklahoma law.

After the lawsuit was filed, the law was rewritten to make clear that the human services department can charge 10 percent interest on back child support in paternity cases. The new law went into effect on Nov. 1, 2012.

—–

Of course, using a little magical thinking, the state insists on making no error despite their mistake. Those that have paid child support and kept up won’t see any benefit. However, those that have paid a penalty for late support payments can expect to see a refund in a few years, at least if the attorney doesn’t grab all the loot for “fees and expenses”. This should also force Oklahoma to compute all back support amounts for all child support from 1993 to 2012. – MJR

 

Some States Are Cutting Poor Dads A Deal On Unpaid Child Support

child support shacklesMany states have opted for oppression when it comes down to child support debt. A few wiser minds are prevailing in a few places. When the state of Maryland wanted to reach dads who were behind on their child support payments, it started in the boarded-up blocks of West Baltimore, in neighborhoods marked by drugs, violence and unemployment.

In just four zip code areas, the state identified 4,642 people who owed more than $30 million in back child support. Most of that was “state-owed,” meaning that rather than going to the child through the custodial parent, it’s supposed to reimburse taxpayers for welfare paid to the child’s mother.

This is a source of great resentment for many men, who say they want their money to go to their children. But most who owe it can’t pay anyway, as they earn less than $10,000 a year.

slavery to children“So even if we use taxpayer dollars to chase ’em down, and we catch ’em, right, and we go into their pockets, there’s nothing in there,” says Joe Jones of Baltimore’s Center for Urban Families.

Are they deadbeat?

Joseph DiPrimio, head of Maryland’s child support enforcement office, doesn’t like that expression. “I think that’s vulgar. I don’t use it,” he says. DiPrimio prefers “dead broke.”

“We’re talking about individuals that are economically challenged, they’re underemployed, but they want to do the right thing,” he says.

Unpaid child support in the U.S. has climbed to $113 billion, and enforcement agencies have given up on collecting much of it. They say too many men simply don’t have the money.

What’s more, research shows that high child-support debt can leave parents feeling so hopeless that they give up trying to pay it.

Breaking Through The Distrust

ecard father bradley amdLike a growing number of state government officials, Maryland’s DiPrimio wanted to make parents an offer. But he needed their trust, and that was a problem.

Research shows high child support debt can leave parents feeling so hopeless that they give up trying to pay it.

And sting operations to round up parents who owed child support have happened all over the country, including Baltimore. In a typical ruse, agencies have sent fake letters telling parents they won tickets to a football bowl game, for instance — but when they showed up to collect, they were arrested instead.

father-sonTo break through years of distrust, Maryland sent letters to parents with the logo of the Center for Urban Families, a nonprofit in West Baltimore that provides job training and other help to poor families.

They made this offer: If the parent takes the center’s month-long employment training course and lands a job, the state will forgive 10 percent of his or her child support debt. If they complete a Responsible Fatherhood program, the state will write off another 15 percent. One of the first persons to sign up was a mother, though the vast majority of noncustodial parents are men.

In a separate “debt compromise” program, Maryland will also write off 50 percent of a parent’s child support debt if they maintain monthly payments for a year.

fathersrightsResponse has been slow. In two years, slightly more than 100 parents have signed on. Many of them attend fatherhood meetings like one held on a recent Wednesday night. Two dozen men — 20-something to middle age, in sweats and in suits — sit in a large square.

Some complain their exes won’t let them see their child if they haven’t paid child support. Others don’t understand why it doesn’t count as support when they take their kids out to eat, or buy them clothes — or say they would do those sorts of things for their kids if their child support obligation wasn’t so heavy.

Mostly, like 30-year-old Lee Ford, they say it’s so hard to find work

“You telling me no matter what, I gotta pay. But I can’t get a job to work to save my soul,” he says.

Group leader Eddie White cuts no slack. “If you know you got a criminal record, sure it’s gonna be hard for you to get a job. But it don’t mean you can’t work,” White says.

A big part of this class is also educational. White asks the men what a person who is paying child support should do if he gets laid off or loses his job.

“There you go, that’s the word. Immediately,” White says. “Immediately ask the court for an adjustment.”

Other Approaches To Debt Relief

Maryland’s program is part of a larger effort to keep impoverished parents from racking up child support debt in the first place.

baby moneySome states are trying to speed up the cumbersome process of adjusting an order when a parent loses a job. Ohio has experimented with sending simple reminders — by phone, mail or text — to parents who need to send in monthly payments. Texas has reached out to newly incarcerated parents, to let them know they can apply to have their payments reduced while in prison — something not all states allow.

“We sent out a teaser postcard trying to combat the ostrich effect,” says Emily Schmidt, a research analyst with the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, who helped with the Texas effort.

Schmidt says there was concern that someone going through the emotional transition of incarceration wouldn’t likely be thinking about child support, and may not even open a letter from the state. So they printed the postcard on blue paper to stand out, and, taking a cue from marketers, it said, “Four easy steps to lowering your child support.”

After 100 days, the response rate among parents was up 11 percent, “a very low-cost intervention for a fairly dramatic effect,” Schmidt says.

barack obamaThe Obama administration wants to “right size” child support orders from the start, and has proposed regulations to make sure they are set according to what parents actually earn. Officials say some jurisdictions base orders on a full-time minimum wage, even if a parent earns far less. They say this can backfire, leaving so little money after a parent’s wages are garnished that he or she quits and works underground instead.

The White House’s proposals also would provide more job training for parents with child support debt — something Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution says is a good investment.

“More fathers will get a job, more fathers will have earnings, and more fathers will use those earnings to pay child support,” he says.

So far, that’s what’s happened in Baltimore. The numbers are small. But the amount of child support that’s been paid is more than double the amount of debt written off.

Maryland wants to expand its child support debt forgiveness program, hoping to help more parents to pay what they can.

How America’s Child Support System Failed To Keep Up With The Times

clinton-child-support-celebration
When the U.S. child support collection system was set up in 1975 under President Gerald Ford — a child of divorce whose father failed to pay court-ordered child support — the country, and the typical family, looked very different from today.

And as the nation’s social, economic and demographic landscape has shifted, the system has struggled to keep up. Cynthia Osborne, director of the Child and Family Research Partnership and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, explains how these changes have outpaced the decades-old system — and left the country with more than $113 billion in unpaid child support.

Walk us through what the child support collection system looked like in 1975. What issues was it designed to address? What did the typical family look like?

It was officially launched in 1975, which is when the government established Section IV-D of the Social Security Act. No-fault divorce had recently been passed, and there was a rapid increase in divorce.

In 1975, this system would try to ensure that after a divorce, we would try to replicate what the household looked like prior to the divorce with regards to the children’s well-being. So the father would continue to provide income to the child, and the mother normally would get the child following a divorce in terms of physical custody, and she would use the resources from the father.

The whole system was set up in a way to try to bring back what the nuclear family looked like prior to a divorce, and nearly everyone who entered into the child support system was a product of divorce. There were very few nonmarital births at that time.

During that time period, divorce was one of the single greatest predictors that a woman, especially a woman with children, would fall into poverty. The research indicated that fathers typically gained financially following a divorce, even though they were ordered to pay child support, and mothers typically lost financially, they had both the children and reduced income. And so the child support system was hoping to try to offset some of that.

The 1970s and ’80s saw profound social, economic and demographic changes. What sort of shifts were occurring, and how did they affect child support?

There was this huge increase in divorce, and a beginning rise in nonmarital childbearing that was nearly nonexistent in the early 1970s — then becoming, by the mid-1980s, up into the 20 percent of all children.

Those were big changes that were occurring in the family, and simultaneously there were gains and losses in the labor market. There were more and more women who were starting to enter into the labor market during both the 1970s and ’80s. And the question about what women’s role was, vis-a-vis caring for their child and working and so forth, was starting to be really front and center in the discussion of women’s place within the family and the economy.

Still, though, the majority of women, when they became mothers, were the primary caretakers and not the primary breadwinners. The single mothers also were not very likely to work. So married moms were staying at home to take care of the kid. Single moms were on welfare, and our welfare rolls were expanding quite rapidly.

The 1980s [also] saw a huge boom in the return to college education, and this is especially true for men. And those who got this education— with higher skills and higher-wage jobs — were starting to really pull away from men who had lower levels of education or moderate levels of education. And men at the very bottom, who had no high school education especially, were starting to lose in real terms of their value of earnings. And that’s really a trend that’s continued until today.

And when we think about who those men are partnered with, often they’re partnered with the same women who are more and more likely to be dependent on welfare rolls — during this time there was a huge increase in welfare rolls — and also mostly among less educated women.

So you now had a growing number of women who were either divorced or not married who were seeking public assistance, and a growing number of less educated men who had very few prospects in the labor market, and declining prospects at that.

It really can’t be overstated how important in the whole welfare reform debate [it] was that one of the fastest entrants into the labor market were women with children under the ages of 5. And it became harder and harder to justify that we should have a system that would support one group of women to stay at home with their children while this other group of women was choosing to enter into the labor market.

And all this set the stage for welfare reform?

Yes, with that kind of backdrop — with two earners becoming necessary, women making this conscious decision to enter into the labor market and the general dismay about the existing welfare reforms system — we started really to think seriously about how we should do this differently, and what should we expect of moms and so forth, and I think that’s why the work requirements became so steep in the welfare reform debate.

And with child support, by the mid-1990s when all of these reforms were being put into place, nonmarital childbearing had risen from being something that was not very pervasive to nearly one-third of all births, 25 to 28 percent. Now, it’s at 41 to 42 percent.

What were the hallmarks of the 1996 welfare reform?

Welfare reform really did punctuate this idea that fathers should be responsible for providing for their children, that the state will do it in limited circumstances, but that we want the fathers to be the ones who are responsible for this. And there was a very strong notion at that point that men who weren’t paying for their child support were not involved in their children’s lives, were just deadbeat and avoiding the system.

The Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) made it so that the guidelines had to be more specific, and that the states had to enforce them more carefully. It changed what the performance measures were for states — basically, if you set an order, you have to collect on it and there could be penalties if you didn’t. And it really punctuated the idea that child support is a direct link with welfare, that there really isn’t a way for a mom who’s going to go on public assistance to avoid seeking child support.

In 1994 our rolls on welfare were some of the largest that they had been; they had really ballooned up to the point where upwards of 7 percent of kids were on welfare rolls. There was no end in sight because of the increase in nonmarital childbearing and who was now coming into the system was a different family type than what the system was initially set up to accommodate. And that, I think, remains one of the biggest challenges of our system.

And so the initial system was set up to replicate the nuclear family of dad as breadwinner, mom as homemaker, and now you have families in which mom and dad may have never lived together. They may have lived together when the child was born for a short period of time. They may or may not have shared resources. The father may have been contributing or not contributing.

And that gets us to the massive amount of unpaid child support — $113 billion and counting.

Right. Each state does it differently, but Texas will determine what a noncustodial parent’s income is. If he says zero, well, there isn’t zero child support, there will often be a presumption that he should be working full time, full year at at least minimum wage. So the judge will often set what’s called a minimum wage order, and it’s about $215 a month in Texas, which is about 20 percent of your net income of that. So here is a father who is now going to owe $215 a month plus about $50 a month in medical support. And he did not disclose that he had any income at the time that he established those awards.

It could be even worse, it could be — and this happens very often — that that man comes in, but his child is 2 years old. And now, either he’s been evading for two years, or he didn’t know he had this child, or they were together for almost all that time, but now they’ve separated. There could be lots of different reasons, but the child’s now 2 years old. The judge could order at that time that not only does he owe $200 each month moving forward, but he owes $200 a month for those two years …

Even if they were together but not married?

That’s right. And so this back child support is something that’s very real. A lot of the men start off in this hole that they just simply cannot dig themselves out of. For some of these guys, having a $5,000 arrears payment, it would be like a middle income person having a $50,000 debt that they’re just supposed to somehow work their way out of. It feels almost impossible.

What about the people who argue that this just doesn’t make sense?

I think it is actually not a simple answer. We do need to feel like men are being held accountable for their children, or noncustodial parents are supporting their children in some way. I do think that it’s reasonable for people to say somehow men have to demonstrate that they are going to provide for their children. Even if it is $200 a month and even if they don’t have a job, we are going to hold them accountable.

That just ignores, though, the fact that we can say that, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be able to pay it. We often know that if they’re not able to pay their child support formally, that they’re less likely to be able to contribute informally. They’re going to stay away from the child; they’re going to be less involved.

So although it makes sense on some level that we want to find a way to hold these dads accountable, in fact, what we’re doing is making it less likely that he’s going to be engaged in his child’s life by providing informally or being involved in other sorts of ways, and it’s going to cause difficulties in the co-parenting relationship between the mom and the father.

And for those reasons, there are proposals by the Obama administration — and other folks have been advocating this for quite a while — that say, let’s set what we call right-sized orders, that we actually take into account what he actually has the ability to pay when we establish these child support orders, and that we’re hoping that if he pays $25 a month now, that we can modify that order later when he gets more income and he’ll pay a little more and so forth.

This applies also to fathers who are incarcerated. We have a huge number of fathers who are incarcerated at some point in their child’s life. But it has not been a material reason to alter your child support award amount. So that’s another change proposed by the Obama administration, that if you are incarcerated, that we modify the child support order in some way to reflect that you cannot earn an income during that time.

In Texas, the average arrears payment that a father owes who’s been incarcerated coming out of prison is $8,000. When he comes out with high levels of arrears, he’s less likely to enter into the formal labor market and have his wages immediately garnished, so it just sends him back to the underground economy and the chances of recidivism and incarceration are really high.

Ultimately, then, what’s the purpose of child support system?

The states’ incentives really are to set amounts that can be collected on that make it look like they are reaching collection goals. But the performance measures at the federal level are based on the proportion that you collect based on the proportion that’s established.

So the states could benefit if they move to this more right-sized orders approach. But we have to be careful that that big dollar amount out there of what we’re collecting doesn’t become the driving force of how to maintain our child support enforcement system.

To be perfectly honest, I think if I could be queen for the day, in today’s families, I would change the presumption that there is an equal division of time and an equal division of responsibility for providing for that child. That’s not going to work for every family. Some of them have never been contributing, some have both been contributing but at disproportionate amounts.

But if we started with the 50-50 presumption, then the judge could work with the families to say, well, how do we get to some form of equality that works for you guys?

If we really started with this presumption that we’re going to jointly care for our children, even though the parents are not married to each other, and then let’s work out a system that seems fair in both the amount of time that we’re spending and the amount of resources that we’re spending, that it costs to raise this particular child, it’s a lot more work on the part of the state to figure out what that is, but it just feels like that would be more fair.

For our low-income guys who can’t afford anything, the moms are having to work, why don’t they provide the child care? We’re not ready to go that way with our families, but our families have changed so much, we need a system that starts to keep up with them some way.

from NPR

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