Unrealistic child support orders hurt rather than help

Unrealistic child support orders don't help anyone, least of all the children.

Raising a child takes a lot of love, time and money — and doing it alone is tough. Children need and deserve support from both their parents. The goal of an effective child support enforcement system should therefore be to ensure that both parents are responsible for supporting their children as they grow into adulthood. Unfortunately, for parents struggling on the economic brink, the system too often fails them and their children.

We'll start off by stipulating that noncustodial parents (usually the father) who refuse to pay support to their children even though they are able to pay should have the full force of the law brought against them to collect payment. But often, it's more complicated than that. About 70 percent of uncollected child support is owed by parents with no reported income or reported income of less than $10,000 a year. While some of these debtors may have unreported income, many are poor themselves. Moreover, when a parent is incarcerated, arrears can continue to pile up to the degree that they will never be paid back, especially with diminished job prospects facing workers with a criminal record.

Unrealistic support orders don't help anyone. The mother and child don't see the payments, and the father, too poor to pay, can end up in a vicious cycle with the criminal justice system that amounts to a modern day debtor's prison.

No one knows this better than some of the families who come to the Center for Urban Families (CFUF) in Baltimore. One of our clients, Kevin, is the father of a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter. While he's no longer partnered with the mother of his children, he strives to be a responsible and engaged dad, enrolling in the Baltimore Responsible Fatherhood Project (BRFP) and completing job training to try to get a job and support his children. Unfortunately, due to some unresolved legal issues, he was sentenced to two years in prison in December of 2012. During this time, his child support case was constantly accumulating arrears.

Upon Kevin's release from prison in July 2014, he returned to us for services to address his child support. His case began to reach up to $15,000 in arrears, with no way to pay this money as he was unemployed. After completing our program in November, he is now working for an electric company and paying what he can pay a month, but not enough to address his arrears.

There is a better way forward for Kevin's family and the millions of families like his. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Child Support Enforcement recently published a proposed rule that would update the nation's child support system. Among other things, the rule would ensure that states take into account the noncustodial parent's ability to pay in setting child support orders, including stopping the practice of treating incarceration as "voluntary unemployment." This is a critical component of bipartisan efforts to reform our criminal justice system as it would help stop the vicious cycle of debt and incarceration that fills our prisons with men who are too poor to pay, helping neither the men, nor the families they owe support to.

The rule would also enable states to provide job services, so that out-of-work parents can more quickly get on track to take financial responsibility for their children. Kevin's enrollment in such services through the CFUF enabled him to secure a job and get back to supporting his kids.

Unfortunately, some members of Congress are trying to block the implementation of these modernization efforts, claiming that they are "letting delinquent parents off the hook." That is simply not the case.

The National Women's Law Center supports many of the proposals by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement to improve our nation's child support program. Improving the fairness of the program for low-income noncustodial parents doesn't mean that custodial parents and children will lose. In fact, research shows that the proposals would likely increase the support that low-income custodial parents and children receive. Some states are already taking steps to ensure that orders are set at realistic levels, to prevent arrears from building up when parents are incarcerated and to offer employment services to noncustodial parents who face many of the same barriers to employment that custodial parents do. By preventing the buildup of impossible levels of child support debt — creating additional barriers to employment and the ability to pay support — these policies have increased child support payments for low-income families.

These proposed regulations would extend these proven policies to all states. They've been supported by advocates for noncustodial parents, custodial parents and children, researchers, state child support administrators and other stakeholders. Members of Congress should stop trying to block regulations that would improve the effectiveness of the child support program — and start supporting programs that help low-income parents and children succeed, instead of slashing them.

Joe Jones (jjones@cfuf.org) is the founder of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore and Joan Entmacher (jentmacher@nwlc.org) is the vice president for Family Economic Security at the National Women's Law Center.

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