A sweeping package of bills being considered by the General Assembly would change how child support payments are determined by Maryland courts.
The legislation would affect “hundreds of thousands” of people who depend on the child support system when parents split up and must reach agreements on custody, visitation and how to split the costs of the children they share, House Majority Leader Del. Kathleen Dumais said.
Among the proposals, courts could consider whether a parent has an ability to earn a paycheck and makes enough money to live on when writing child support orders. The bills also would update a formula to determine how much a separated parent pays to reflect how much it costs to raise a child.
The handful of bills, heard this week by House and Senate committees that are expected to vote in the coming days, were recommended by a work group made up of child advocates, family law attorneys and public stakeholders.
Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and a family law attorney, sponsored the bills. She was among about 30 members of the state Department of Human Services work group that spent a year and a half coming up with ways they think mothers and fathers can more fairly support their children financially.
The legislative package includes a bill that would adjust child support payments to reflect how much time a child sleeps at each parent’s house. Dumais said under the existing formula, whether a child spends more or fewer than 128 nights with the noncustodial parent means a difference of hundreds of dollars a month. That often creates a tug-of-war between parents arguing for or against that number of overnight visits.
“We want the access plans to focus on what’s best for the children and not negotiating who gets a better child support award,” Dumais said.
Another bill would allow courts to consider how many children a parent is raising with different partners when setting up child support orders so that income could be more evenly divided. As it stands now, orders established for the oldest children to one partner are often higher than orders for children born later to other partners.
“First to the courthouse gets the bigger child support order,” Dumais said.
Testifying Wednesday, Gregory P. Bradford Jr. of Catonsville asked the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to make sure they consider the best interest of not only children and mothers, but also fathers, when revamping the child support system.
He said he pays about $500 a month to his ex-wife to help support their 4-year-old daughter. The system, including courts and judges, is skewed to benefit mothers, he said.
“Fathers have rights, too,” Bradford, a delivery driver, told the Senate panel. “A lot of this should be based upon the child — not dollars and cents.”
Laure Ruth, legal director for the Women’s Law Center of Maryland and a member of the legislative work group, said the proposals were based on what it takes to support a child and what is minimally necessary for a parent to live on.
“We owe it to children to update the guidelines to reflect today’s costs,” Ruth said.
Under the proposed guidelines for parents who earned a combined income of $3,500 a month, the child support order would be set at about $673 a month, up from $644. The orders are then split in proportion to each parent’s earnings.
For mothers and fathers with a combined income of $10,000 a month, the child support order under the proposed guidelines would be set at about $1,345, up from $1,271.
The current guidelines are based on 2008 economic data, while the ones proposed are based on 2018 numbers.
Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, said she has not decided whether she will support the bills. She believes the state’s child support enforcement administration should have done more to get public input.
“It’s the children we are here to serve and to help them have the most full and equal relationship with each parent,” Carter said. “We shouldn’t be treating one parent like the victor and one like a visitor.”
She said the legislation would make some improvements, including encouraging courts to consider the factors that can cause a parent not to pay child support when writing orders. One such factor is whether criminal history or literacy skills make it difficult to get a job. For parents who can’t afford to pay their child support, Carter said, their lives can deteriorate when they face the consequences, such as the suspension of driving privileges or professional licenses tied to their livelihoods.
The proposed guidelines advise courts when setting child support orders to consider whether a parent has enough money to live on. The formula would factor in about $1,145 a month, or 110 percent of the federal poverty line, for a parent to support himself or herself before determining how much money the parent’s income leaves for child support.
The legislation also asks the courts to consider a parent’s work history, the job market and his or her qualifications or disabilities when setting child support. If a parent has a long-term prison sentence or if he or she is institutionalized, courts could decide not to require child support payments.
For the poorest parents with monthly incomes of $1,200 or less, the order requires the court to set an order at $50 for one child. The current guidelines let judges set the orders from $20 to $150.
On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee also considered a bill to require the Department of Human Services to study its child support collection practices, especially as they affect poor families. The bill, filed by Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, would require the agency to develop a report by December with the help of advocacy groups for the legislature to review.
Rosenberg said the goal is to find policies that encourage families to stay together and help low-income families pay their child support obligations.
Joseph T. Jones Jr., director of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore, said many of the state’s child support collection efforts harm noncustodial parents’ ability to support themselves and sometimes contribute to splitting up unmarried couples. For example, Jones said, when couples are not married and do not live together, the state goes after the noncustodial parent for child support when the custodial parent applies for public benefits. Jones was also a member of the advisory group that researched the legislative package on child support rates and the factors courts should consider when writing orders.
“How do we strengthen low-income families in Baltimore?” Jones asked the committee.