Child Support Commissioner: ‘Current System Adds Up to Debt and Discouragement’

July 19, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Back in 2006, the Office of Child Support Enforcement issued a brief report on child support obligors and related topics. It was notable for its honesty and clarity. Gone was the typical bureaucratic obfuscation of the realities of child support debt and the process of collecting it. What replaced it were not only some hard facts, but also a rather plaintive tone. “We’re destroying people’s lives; maybe we should reconsider,” is a fair summary of the gently-delivered message.

That document informed readers that some 63% of child support debtors reported earning less than $10,000 in the previous year. The plaintive voice came at the end when the report gave the opinion that maybe, just maybe, there’d be fewer non-custodial parents behind on their payments if family courts would in the first place issue orders they could actually pay. That struck me the first time I read it. After all, wouldn’t you think state courts would know that? Shouldn’t we take for granted that they don’t tag non-custodial fathers with child support bills they can’t pay?

Of course we should be able to take that for granted, but we can’t, as the OCSE document made clear. Many of those unpayable orders come about from the practice of imputing income. So, if a man’s out of a job, his income is zero, but courts ignore the fact. They look back at what he was making when he had a job, or at his work experience or what “he looks like on paper,” i.e. his education, licenses, etc. So, never mind that he has no income; if he made $40,000 as a truck driver three years ago, the court may use that as his imputed income and set child support accordingly.

The problem is that the courts impute income, but they don’t impute payments. A father’s income may be imaginary, but his payments have to be the real thing. In the real world, i.e. the place not occupied by family court judges, it takes real money to make real payments, and, whatever the fantasies of the judge, a man without income is a man who’ll fall behind on his payments.

Now it seems the OCSE is making renewed efforts to correct some of the stupider child support enforcement practices we’ve come to know and loathe over the past 30 years or so. Here’s a good article about that effort (Governing, 7/16/13). Reading it and the remarks of the OCSE commissioner, Vicki Turetsky, made me slap my face in disbelief. Most of what she says is so commonsensical. I didn’t think that was possible when the subject is child support.

Turetsky’s basic point is that we should start taking a sane approach to setting child support orders and to enforcing them.

Also important is getting income right, Turetsky adds. Using an individual’s "real income" vs. "computed income" will also encourage compliance. "The current system," she says, "just adds up to debt and discouragement."  

Those of us battling for sanity in child support have been saying the same for decades, so it’s good to see a federal decision-maker finally get the message. As Turetsky said, imputation of income has but one result – “debt and discouragement.”

At least as absurd and non-productive as imputing income is the practice of jailing fathers who can’t pay, taking away their passports, driver’s licenses, professional licenses, etc. Anyone with above dull-normal intellectual functioning understands that none of those punishments can possibly help a father earn the money to pay what he owes. Of course, they do the opposite; they deprive him of the necessary means to do so.

If child support enforcement authorities were serious about getting money to kids, they’d long ago have begun helping fathers find and keep jobs, but, incomprehensibly, they’ve never considered that as part of their brief. Until now, that is.

Throwing someone in jail for not paying their bills has never proved to be very effective at getting anyone to pay what they owe. After all, if you’re in jail, you certainly aren’t making any money. Yet for those who fail to come up with child support, holding them in contempt and tossing them into jail is still the standard avenue of recourse.

But there’s good news: Some in the human services field are starting to pursue a more enlightened course when it comes to dealing with so-called "deadbeat dads." Vicki Turetsky, commissioner at the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), is pushing for more programs that help noncustodial parents find jobs, hang on to them and ultimately meet their child support obligations. Last fall, the OCSE launched demonstration projects in eight states that Turetsky hopes will encourage parents’ "ability and willingness to pay."…

The idea behind these demonstration projects, Turetsky says, is to go from punishing nonpaying, noncustodial parents to working to get them back into the family fold — at least financially — through a "more cooperative and holistic approach," which includes much closer coordination between child support enforcement offices and children and family services agencies…

Overall, though, the focus of these projects remains on employing a softer approach. "The routine use of contempt hearings is no substitute for a job," says Turetsky. The goal of the pilot sites is to significantly reduce contempt hearings and increase creative and positive strategies for engaging fathers in the hope that such engagement may even move beyond just finances. Essentially, argues Turetsky, child support shouldn’t be a strictly law enforcement issue,"but rather should follow other trends in children and family services and swing around to a softer, more engagement and employment-oriented approach…

Not that hauling a deadbeat dad into court isn’t sometimes necessary, but even in those cases it appears that a softer, more common-sense tack works better than jail time. Take Wake County, N.C. Those ordered by the court into a work program increased their child support payments over time, while those ordered straight to jail didn’t, according to the OCSE report.

But it’s more than just about employment, Turetsky emphasized in her June speech. In launching the eight site demonstration project, the director emphasized that "chase and enforce" will be the option of last resort, "early, customized engagement" will be the first.

What a concept. To date, the underlying assumption about non-custodial fathers has been frankly, factually wrong. From the outset, states have assumed that, in accordance with the rest of our endemic cultural misandry, fathers don’t want to have anything to do with their kids and will do anything in their power to avoid supporting them. Heaps of social science shows those to be false assumptions, but, like so much else in family courts, the truth about fathers has been ignored.

So essentially everything we do assumes fathers to be irresponsible and uncaring. The predictable result is that, the brutal child support system being what it is, many fathers act that way. After all, when you’re tagged with an order you can’t pay and face jail, the loss of licenses, etc., one sensible approach is to do what you can to avoid the entire awful system. So fathers go into hiding, work in the cash economy, etc. With incentives like the ones every state provides, it just makes sense. The only remarkable thing is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Of course lawyers whose job is to enforce child support obligations will tell you that the threat of jail often is exactly the thing that makes a dad cough up what he owes. What they don’t tell you is that often, that last-minute payment doesn’t come from him, but from a relative, a friend, a neighbor who, unlike the court, doesn’t want to see the guy behind bars. The system effectively recruits people who have no obligation to- or responsibility for- the children, to support them.

While Turetsky’s at it, she might take a stab at lowering the interest rates on child support indebtedness. Virtually all states charge interest on the amount of child support owed. Usually it begins to accrue one month after it comes due. And, in keeping with the other draconian aspects of child support, the rates are higher than anything anyone could hope to receive in any market for any investment.

California, for example, charges 10% per annum on child support arrears. Many states charged as much as 12% until recently when voices of reason, like the National Parents Organization, convinced them to halve their rates. Most states now seem to fall around 6% per year.

But still, try to get 6% from a bond with any but junk a bond rating. No one, and I mean no one, is getting anything like that return on their investment. So what makes states think they can get it from guys earning under $10,000 a year?

Turetsky’s on the right track, but there’s a lot to be done before the child support system dons even a thin veil of reasonableness.

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