Decades of state and federal policy for setting high child support orders — and using tough enforcement tools to collect payments — has done more harm than good for low-income Maryland families, destabilized communities and trapped many men in a cycle of debt they cannot escape, a report by the Abell Foundation released Tuesday shows.
The report, written by the top child support enforcement officer for former President Barack Obama, said the state should ensure orders are set by the court based on a parent’s ability to pay, using their actual income rather than their potential earnings.
Among a dozen other recommendations, the report calls on lawmakers to eliminate some of the more than $1 billion of old child support debt on the books and stop intercepting payments when parents are on welfare assistance.
In total, the recommendations should help the parents least likely to meet their child support requirements pay a greater share of their obligation, the report argued.
“Child support orders set beyond the ability of noncustodial parents to comply push them out of low-wage jobs, drown them in debt, hound them into the underground economy, and chase them out of their children’s lives,” Vicki Turetsky wrote in the 55-page report. Much of the analysis is rooted in research by the Ruth H. Young Center for Families and Children at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Maryland’s child support system distributes more than $550 million a year for the 200,000 cases it manages, including 55,000 in Baltimore. Nearly all noncustodial parents are men and the majority are African American. And when they fall behind on payments, they can lose their driver’s licenses and professional licenses, go to jail and have up to 65 percent of wages garnished and bank balances and tax returns seized.
The enforcement tactics can make it hard for them to catch back up on payments.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, called unrealistic orders “a recipe for disaster for low-income African American fathers, their children and Baltimore.” Evidence shows fathers who get into deep debt are less engaged with their kids, contributing to greater rates of depression, alcohol use, poor health and progressively worse behavior by the children.
“This report offers concrete recommendations that can improve outcomes for Maryland’s children and families,” Embry said. “It is imperative that we talk about this.”
Laure Ruth, legal director for the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, agreed that changes should be made. When noncustodial parents have orders they cannot realistically pay, she said, custodial parents do not receive the money they should be getting and the whole family pays the consequences.
“It is the children who suffer,” Ruth said.
Many of the Abell recommendations mirror legislation that was introduced — but did not pass — during this year’s legislative session that ended in April. The bills were filed at the guidance of a state Department of Human Services work group made up of advocates, private attorneys and policymakers who studied the system. The state is required to make some of the changes under 2016 rules adopted by the outgoing Obama administration, and stakeholders expect some of the proposals will be reintroduced when lawmakers return to Annapolis in January.
The system largely has been designed over time to crack down on so-called “deadbeat dads,” but modern thinking is shifting to find ways to treat appropriately both fathers who do not pay because they have little or no money and fathers who are looking to dodge their responsibilities.
Katherine Morris, a spokeswoman for the human services department, said the “Child Support Administration continually explores strategies that will enhance our services and programs that serve Maryland families. The Abell Foundation’s report provides us the opportunity to hear other voices and suggestions.”
The agency assisted Abell in producing the report, providing interviews and data.
In the report, Turetsky said that if a parent is not paying their child support because they’re poor, evidence disproves the notion that higher orders and tougher enforcement will increase collections.
The best predictor of whether a parent will pay their order is how much money they have. In Maryland, parents who were current on their child support orders had an average income of $44,000. Parents who did not pay earned an average of $7,350 a year.
What also happens as parents earn more money is that their support orders tend to make up a smaller share of their income. Of those who paid their full orders, the payments made up 18 percent of their earnings. By comparison, those who paid the least amount were expected to pay more than 70 percent of their income.
The nonprofit also is urging lawmakers to limit the use of potential — or “imputed” — income as a basis for writing orders. When noncustodial parents are unemployed or underemployed, courts routinely base payments on a fictitious income the parent would have the potential of earning if they found full-time work.
Advocates say such a practice does not account for criminal history, disability or transportation challenges that can affect the ability to find and keep a job. Data shows parents whose orders were based on imputed income actually earned 72 percent less money than was used to come up with their monthly payment orders.
Courts should consider how much money a noncustodial parent needs to pay for basic necessities before determining how much he or she should pay in child support. The state also should enact a policy so that child support payments are automatically suspended when a noncustodial parent is sent to prison for a significant amount of time.
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Another issue is the amount of back child support that continues to accumulate and will likely never be paid. As of last year, more than $1 billion in child support debt had been accrued in Maryland over four decades, including $350 million in Baltimore. Old debt on the books lasts long after children are grown and interferes “with noncustodial parent employment and burden[s] taxpayers with costly and unsuccessful collection activities,” the report concludes.
This report offers concrete recommendations that can improve outcomes for Maryland’s children and families. It is imperative that we talk about this.— Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation
Some of the debt should be written off and noncustodial parents should be given more access to employment and debt-forgiveness programs, according to the recommendations.
Turetsky also said Maryland — as some other states have done — should stop withholding any child support paid when the custodial parent is on welfare benefits known as Temporary Cash Assistance. Parents must sign over their child support while receiving the public assistance as a way for the noncustodial parent to repay the government for the benefits. The child support is split between the state and the federal government.
In 2017, the amount withheld from custodial parents was more than $16 million.
Beginning on July 1, the state will allow custodial parents to receive money from their child support payments while on welfare. The state will send $100 for one child and $200 for two or more children.
Turetsky said the national child support system, established in 1975, is built around the broad consensus that both parents should contribute financially to their children’s needs. With improvements, the system can do a better job of that, she said.
“Falling behind on child support payments can exacerbate family hardship and tensions, driving a wedge between the parents and pushing noncustodial parents away from their children — the exact opposite of what the child support program is set up to do,” Turetsky wrote. “The hard reality is that sometimes there just is not enough money to go around.”
A previous version of this article included an incorrect amount of money custodial parents could receive from their child support payments while on welfare. The amount has been $0. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.