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June 24, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Unfortunately, reform of child support may be becoming embroiled in presidential politics — something that’s almost completely irrelevant to the issue. Last week, I wrote this piece in response to a press release issued by various Congressional Republicans who’ve filed a bill that would block the reforms put together by Commissioner Vicki Turetsky of the Office of Child Support Enforcement. Among other things, I pointed out that these proposed reforms have been in the works for years and public commentary on them was requested last fall. I find it odd that now, just weeks before they’re to be finalized, a few Congressmen and Senators would decide to try to block them.

Now, it also seems likely that the aforesaid individuals are likely doing little but playing politics with the issue of child support. At some point, they want to be able to go to their constituents with the claim that they support single mothers and Democrats don’t - their way to counteract Democrats’ “War on Women” rhetoric. I reasoned thus because the legislators have yet to even put their bill on the committee’s calendar for debate. My guess is that they have no intention of ever doing so, much less its coming up for a vote. Again, it looks more like politics as usual than any real effort to hijack the administrative process, which would be a dubious exercise whatever the issue.

Still, I could be wrong. That’s why, on one hand, I’m glad to see this article that skewers the claims of Paul Ryan, Orrin Hatch and others (Center for American Progress, 6/18/15). Now, I’m no fan of President Obama, but I am a fan of Ms. Turetsky. She’s one of those doughty bureaucrats who work hard for what’s right and manage to move things in that direction, if only slightly. Hers is a largely thankless job and, from what I can see, she does it well. The reforms put forward under her leadership won’t move heaven and earth, but they will provide much-needed change to a child support system that abuses far too many parents and children.

On the other hand, I’m leery of the reforms becoming the center of a tug of war between the two major parties. Nothing could destroy Turetsky’s work quicker than that.

Melissa Boteach and Rebecca Vallas of the Center for American Progress rightly administer a good spanking to Ryan, Hatch, et al. They do so by citing facts and appealing to the humanity of those who know what the child support system in this country gets up to.

In fall 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child Support Enforcement — after consulting with states, law enforcement officials, employers, and other stakeholders — published and sought public comment on a set of proposed changes that would modernize the federal rules that govern the child support system. These changes would strengthen the child support system in ways that would increase regular, on-time payments to families; boost employment and earnings for noncustodial parents; and increase the amount of time that noncustodial parents spend with their children…

With more than half of all U.S. children spending at least a portion of their childhoods living apart from one of their parents, the child support system is an important tool in promoting economic security for families, as well as ensuring the well-being of children. Child support represents critical income for the children and families who receive it. In 2011, mothers who received child support from fathers depended on these payments for 17 percent of their income; for custodial parents below the poverty line who received child support, the payments accounted for more than half — 52 percent — of their income.

That last datum strikes me as questionable. The Census Bureau shows that, in 2011, custodial mothers received on average $3,862 per year in child support and custodial fathers received $3,015. Those are averages. Custodial parents living under the poverty line almost certainly have exes who are themselves none too affluent. So they likely receive a good bit less than the average, which is nowhere near 52% of their annual incomes.

Still, the point is sound; many children depend on child support. Many children would be better off if the system made more sense.

However, many low-income, noncustodial parents struggle to make payments, typically because they are unable to find work or have low-paying jobs that leave them barely able to meet their basic needs. Under current child support policies, noncustodial parents who fall behind on their child support payments — due to job loss or incarceration, for example — can accumulate substantial arrears and end up facing crushing debt. A recent study of child support arrearages in nine states found that noncustodial parents with the largest arrearages are also the ones least able to pay their child support payments. About 70 percent of past-due child support is owed by noncustodial parents with no reported income or an income of $10,000 or less per year. Furthermore, nearly one-third of the 6 million custodial mothers without formal child support awards acknowledge that the reason they do not receive one is because the father cannot afford child support.

These unfortunate realities of the child support system create the ultimate lose-lose scenario: noncustodial parents fall behind, custodial parents do not receive the help they need to support their families, and arrears pile up. Making matters even worse, noncustodial parents often end up behind bars for nonpayment of child support, setting up a modern day debtors’ prison that makes it harder for them to find employment upon release. It is this vicious cycle that led to the tragic death of Walter Scott, a South Carolina father who was pulled over for a broken tail light and then shot in the back while trying to flee law enforcement for fear of being arrested for owing child support debt.

All of that of course I’ve said on this blog many times. The system sets support levels too high, tacks on usurious interest rates, makes downward modifications too difficult and expensive and then jails those in arrears, driving up their already-unpayable debt and losing them job opportunities in the process. None of that makes sense if the goal of child support is to, well, support children.

That brings Boteach and Vallas to their main points about the reforms.

1. They build on bipartisan efforts to reform the criminal justice system

One of the most important components of the proposed regulations is the requirement that states consider noncustodial parents’ actual ability to pay when in setting child support orders. As noted above, unrealistic child support orders help no one, trapping parents in a vicious cycle of debt, nonpayment, and even incarceration. Walter Scott wasn’t alone — one in eight South Carolina inmates are behind bars due to nonpayment of child support. A related and equally important component of the proposed rules would require that states no longer treat incarceration as so-called voluntary unemployment for purposes of child support enforcement. Today, incarceration is not a permissible basis for pausing child support orders in 21 states, meaning that a noncustodial parent can accumulate significant arrears — plus interest — while behind bars, despite being unable to make payments. Given that many individuals leaving prison face significant barriers to employment, it can be difficult — if not impossible — for these parents to dig themselves out of this hole, setting them on a path to reincarceration.

2. They address barriers to employment for noncustodial parents, helping them pay more in child support

These rules address a root cause of noncustodial parents’ inability to pay child support: unemployment and underemployment. By giving state agencies new options to use federal child support funding to offer employment services to noncustodial parents who are out of work or struggling to make regular payments, the rules would help noncustodial parents find their economic footing so that they can contribute financial resources to their children. Where they have been tested, efforts to help noncustodial parents find jobs — instead jailing them for nonpayment — have resulted in parents paying more in child support, as well as making more consistent payments.

3. They promote strong and stable families

The proposed rules would allow states to incorporate discussions of visitation and parenting time into child support orders, providing greater opportunities to formalize noncustodial parents’ involvement with their children after relationships end. They would also allow states to use federal child support funding to offer education and resources to parents and to the general public on responsible parenting and co-parenting, as well as other issues such as family budgeting.

The reforms Turetsky and others have so patiently and carefully crafted aim at those targets. Every single thing mentioned by the authors urgently needs doing and the reforms will go a long way toward accomplishing those goals. Millions of children and parents will benefit from them.

This is no time for political grandstanding to get in the way of a vital opportunity to make our child support system more sensible, fair and less punitive.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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