OCSE Tries to Improve Child Support Orders

In the blog post “Office of Child Support Enforcement – 70% of Debt Owed by those Earning Under $10k,” I wrote about a little-known report done by the federal OCSE that made some commonsense recommendations for how to establish and enforce child support orders. In addition to finding that the vast majority of child support debtors in arrears earn less than $10,000 per year, the report said this:

“The best way to reduce the total national child support debt is to avoid accumulating arrears in the first place. The best ways to avoid the accumulation of arrears are to set appropriate orders initially, modify orders via simple procedures promptly when family circumstances change and immediately intervene when current support is not paid.”

So the OCSE was advocating one thing I’ve been arguing for – simple procedures to modify child support orders when “family circumstances change.” As we all know, family circumstances have been changing with a vengence these past six months or so with over half a million job losses per month. Unfortunately, many family courts have ignored the advice of the OCSE, so arrearages are stacking up.

Now it turns out the OCSE has addressed the first of its recommendations quoted above – setting “appropriate orders initially.” According to this report, that seems to be a novel concept. The report is directed at, among others, family courts and the personnel who run them. Reading the report, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the OCSE is talking about people who don’t understand the basics of what they’re doing.

The concepts the report deals with strike me as elementary. For example, it takes pains to explain that an “appropriate” support order is (a) “realistic (based on accurate and complete income information)” and (b) “can be enforced with reasonable expectation of collection of current support without amassing arrears.” In other words, the OCSE is telling courts that it doesn’t make sense to order unrealistic levels of child support when all that will do is accumulate arrearages. I’d have thought that would be obvious, but apparently not.

The report goes on to point out other simple concepts. For one example, imputing income to a non-custodial parent based on little evidence doesn’t make a lot of sense. For another, non-custodial parents should receive actual notice of hearings. (As an aside, let’s remember, that in the law, notice is one of two bedrock concepts of due process. Without it, there can be no due process.) And for another, the notice should be understandable by the person to whom it’s directed. So, for example, if that person doesn’t speak english, it doesn’t do much good to send him a notice in english. And finally, at hearings, non-custodial parents should be present, at least by telephone.

We’ve been dealing with child support orders for decades. The incidence of divorce and child custody disputes has been high for many years. One would think that courts would understand these basic concepts and not need a federal agency to explain them. And yet the OCSE report is dated 2007. The people who wrote it obviously didn’t think the people who are meant to read it have a firm grasp on important aspects of the process.

In their defense, the report also acknowledges that there are too many cases and too few resources to handle them. So it’s not just incompetence or callousness on the part of courts and staff that’s at fault.

Still, it’s 2009 and, according to the OCSE, family courts have to be instructed in the simple basics of how to set orders with which people can comply. That fact alone speaks volumes about our disdain for non-custodial parents, 84% of whom as we all know, are fathers.

Thanks to John Maquire and Ron for the heads-up.

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