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July 22, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

At the same time Massachusetts is considering significant changes to its custody law, comes this salutary editorial on child support (Boston Globe, 7/20/15). Encouragingly, it says a lot that’s right about who pays child support, who falls behind and why. By itself, that’s a breath of fresh air. It truly seems that the days are gone when the only commentary on child support consisted of new ways to denigrate “deadbeat dads.” Now, at least the basics seem to be understood.

The editorial wisely calls for change to a system that’s long been out of touch with the realities faced by non-custodial parents and child support debtors. Much of what the editorial says echoes commentary by the Office of Child Support Enforcement and this blog.

Nationwide, the bulk of people who owe child support are low-income fathers who lack the capacity to pay. Their ever-growing debt can wind up serving no one well — including the children those payments are intended to help.

Correct. The OCSE said back in 2006 that some 63% of non-custodial parents owing back child support reported earning less than $10,000 per year. Predictably, the child support system reserves its harshest treatment for those least able to meet their obligations. And of course poor fathers tend to have poor children, so the system harms them the most as well.

Unpaid debt is a sizable issue in Massachusetts, where the Department of Revenue handles about 232,000 child support cases each year. About 151,000 of those cases — 65 percent — involve parents who owe back pay. Those numbers suggest that the problem could often be structural: charges that don’t realistically match a parent’s financial means.

Yes, when 65% of parents subject to a child support order are behind on their payments, you know something’s amiss. Again, as the OCSE has told us, what’s amiss is that courts routinely set support at levels non-custodial parents can’t pay. For years now the OCSE has been pleading with courts to make reasonable orders, but to no avail. The mindset the editorial begins by criticizing – that non-custodial parents don’t care about their kids and will find any excuse to deny them support – rules in family courts and state child support guidelines. Those assumptions have never been accurate, but our culture bought into them decades ago and they still control much of the child support system, to the detriment of everyone.

Interest and penalty payments can exacerbate the problem. The DOR charges 0.5 percent interest and a 0.5 percent penalty on each month of unpaid child support; 98,000 people currently face those charges. That’s not compounded, but still, by the end of a year, a parent could be paying an interest rate of 12 percent — more, advocates note, than the best stock market investments are likely to yield.

Right again. That same mindset that assumes all non-custodial parents to be deadbeats in waiting established interest and penalties on arrears vastly higher than anyone can expect to receive on any other investment short of the junkiest of junk bonds. 12% per annum? Who in their right mind imagines a parent who can’t afford to pay the principle amount can in some way pay that plus 12%? This is an era in which U.S. Treasury debt pays less than 1%.

And of course, with support levels higher than a parent can pay plus interest and penalties higher than anyone pays, it’s no surprise that parents fall further and further behind. So how does the system respond? With assistance? With easy modifications of the original order? Hardly. It responds with still more draconian “enforcement” that’s not enforcement at all.

Jail doesn’t help anyone pay and hinders most. Recall the South Carolina man who lost “the best job I ever had” because he was behind on his payments and all the system could figure to do was toss him in the clink. Behind bars, he lost that good job and fell further behind. How did that help his child? It didn’t.

Once a parent falls behind, he/she receives little help from a system that claims to be about supporting children, but often seems only to be about punishing non-custodial parents.

To get out of this spiral, parents have limited options. They can appeal to the courts, which set child support payments in the first place, but change can take a long time to wind through the system. And a federal law, enacted with good intentions in the 1980s, limits what courts can do to modify debt that has already accrued.

Like most states, the Bay State makes downward modifications or support orders difficult to obtain. Often that requires hiring a lawyer, filing a motion, gathering evidence and hoping a judge will understand the truth. But if a parent doesn’t have the money to pay his support, what’s the likelihood he has the money to pay a lawyer? In practice, those legal obstacles mean non-custodial parents have no alternative but to fall further and further behind and hope for a good enough job to catch up. That’s a vain hope for many of those 65% of obligors who owe back support.

Another major problem with enforcement of child support orders in Massachusetts is that it’s radically sexist. As a study last year demonstrated, 98.5% of those jailed for non-payment were fathers and non-custodial fathers were eight times as likely to go to jail for non-payment as were non-custodial mothers who were behind on their payments. If someone wants to make needed changes in child support law and practice in the Bay State, that would be a good place to start. Whatever the problems, there’s no reason to visit them uniquely on fathers.

Unfortunately, the Globe’s editorial, while aware of many of the problems with the child support system, is vague about solutions. It rightly calls for reducing the rates charged for interest and penalties, but seems to suggest that 6% per year would be fair. It’s not. In this era, 1% - 2% would be reasonable.

Beyond that, it cites the State of Virginia as a model for child support reform, but, beyond calling for more job training, it’s hard to see what the Globe wants state legislators to do to mend a broken system. To fill that gap, here’s a list:

Set orders at levels parents can pay.

Make modifications of those orders easier to obtain. That means allowing non-lawyers to file the motions and present evidence. That means not charging a fee for the filing. And it means educating court clerks to help movants understand what they have to show the court.

Ensure that child support goes to the child. That could be as simple as issuing custodial parents debit cards that can only be used for certain child-related things, much like we’ve done for decades with food stamps.

Enforce visitation. Study after study shows that non-custodial parents are far more likely to pay what they owe if their access to their child isn’t blocked by the custodial parents. In practice that means the federal government should drastically increase funding for visitation enforcement that currently stands at 1/500th the amount of funding for child support enforcement.

Stop draconian methods of enforcement, particularly incarceration. That, plus suspension of drivers’ and occupational and professional licenses only make payment harder. They should be reserved for cases in which the parent is clearly capable of paying, but simply refuses to do so.

Increase job training and employment services for non-custodial parents. If the goal is what we claim it is – supporting children – then doing all we can to ensure non-custodial parents can get and retain employment should be Job 1 for the child support system. After all, unemployed parents pay no support.

Make child support enforcement gender neutral. There’s no reason why fathers who owe should be treated more harshly than mothers who do.

Change the mindset that assumes non-custodial parents are deadbeats waiting to happen. Essentially all the social science on them demonstrates that not to be the case, so we should bring enforcement into line with what we know – rather than what some would like to believe – about non-custodial parents.

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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.

#childsupport, #incarceration, #BostonGlobe, #sexism

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