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Child support reform bills gain momentum in Maryland legislature: ‘This is the year for action’

Joe Jones, founder and CEO of the Center for Urban Families, visits Annapolis to testify before the House Health and Government Operations Committee in 2019. The bills he lobbied for last year did not pass, and he and others are pushing again this year for reforms to Maryland's child support system.
Joe Jones, founder and CEO of the Center for Urban Families, visits Annapolis to testify before the House Health and Government Operations Committee in 2019. The bills he lobbied for last year did not pass, and he and others are pushing again this year for reforms to Maryland's child support system.(Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun)

New momentum in the General Assembly is bolstering efforts to address some longstanding problems in Maryland’s child support system.

Legislation advancing in the Assembly would require that a parent’s job prospects, educational background and criminal history be considered before a judge sets the child support the parent must pay, often the father to the mother. The bill also would discourage judges from assigning fictitious income to unemployed parents without considering their individual circumstances. And a child support order must leave the noncustodial parent money to live on.

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Another proposal moving in the legislature seeks to address the mountain of child support debt that can build up while a parent is incarcerated. That legislation would give more inmates the chance to have their child support orders frozen while they are behind bars; inmates serving a six-month sentence could have their orders frozen, down from the current standard of 18 months.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, says the measures represent significant steps toward making the child support system work better for Maryland’s poorest families.

“It will be a great relief to the families, so we don’t have people who are going further and further into debt and not being able to support their families,” said McIntosh, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

A nine-month investigation by The Baltimore Sun published this month found the child support system sets up poor parents to fail — and is hurting whole communities. Unrealistic child support orders are saddling many poor fathers with massive debt, sometimes driving them from their children and sending many into an underground, sometimes illicit, economy.

For unemployed parents, the orders are routinely calculated using imaginary, or imputed, income that the parent could earn if he had a job. And the required payments often do not stop when a parent is incarcerated and unable to pay — resulting in many parents leaving prison tens of thousands of dollars behind.

The unpaid child support triggers the system’s aggressive enforcement machinery, including the suspension of driver’s and professional licenses. The Sun’s analysis showed debt is heavily concentrated in 10 Baltimore ZIP codes, where 15,000 parents collectively owe $233 million. In one Northwest Baltimore community alone, parents owe an astonishing $33 million, debt that is often very old and owed by people who cannot pay what the government has decided is due.

In Baltimore, the vast majority of child support cases involve African American men.

Sen. William C. Smith Jr., chairman of the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, said The Sun’s coverage drew much-needed attention to the issue.

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“That type of exposure creates a sense of urgency,” Smith said. “This is the year for action.”

Smith said lawmakers have studied how to bring reform to the troubled child support system for years, but he is hopeful legislation will advance before the 90-day General Assembly session ends next month. He said his committee would be voting on reform bills in the next few days.

“We’re looking to take action this year to tackle some of these structural inequities,” Smith said.

The bill to discourage judges from using imputed, or fictitious income, passed the House this month and is before Smith’s Senate committee. It would update for the first time in a decade a complex economic formula that is used to determine how much a parent must pay. The calculation, spelled out in guidelines used by the courts, is based on the cost of raising a child and the combined income of the separated parents.

The judicial branch declined, through a spokeswoman, to comment on the legislation or the practice of using imputed income.

Legislation to expand the number of prisoners who can get their child support orders suspended while they are behind bars was approved Wednesday in the House of Delegates, 102-34, and goes now to the Senate. Federal regulations issued in 2016 require such a change.

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The state’s child support administration, a division of the Department of Human Services, supports both measures.

In written testimony, Kevin Guistwite, Maryland’s child support director, said legislation making clear that child support orders must be based on a parent’s actual income could bring the state in compliance with federal rules. And he said such legislation would “lead to more fair and equitable child support orders."

The child support system that is set up to help children is also having a negative impact on poor families in Baltimore.

His agency also supports suspending child support orders for incarcerated parents after six months. Guistwite said incarcerated parents often do not understand the child support process, or how their debt can build up while they are in prison. The accumulation of uncollectible debt, he said, “only serves to reduce overall compliance and ultimately harm the children dependent on the support."

Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, said the legislation to grant more prisoners reprieve is long overdue. The debt that can pile up when a parent is behind bars is often a barrier when they try to reestablish themselves and rebuild relationships after they have served their sentences.

“It is really a small thing to ask, in my opinion,” Carter said. “We are beginning to have a greater recognition of poverty and the criminalization of poverty on many fronts. This will help a lot of people.”

While the state has had provisions on the books since 2012 to allow prisoners with sentences of at least 18 months to freeze their orders, The Sun’s investigation showed that often has not happened. Carter said the child support administration should take a more assertive role in ensuring prisoners’ orders are suspended when they qualify.

Oversight of the agency will be key to ensure that any legislation passed this year is fully implemented, said Del. Shaneka Henson, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who sponsored the House bill on freezing orders for prisoners. She said making sure legislation is successful would include outreach to prisoners and coordination with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Henson said creating a debt that noncustodial parents cannot pay does not benefit their children or their ex-spouses or partners.

At the Center for Urban Families in West Baltimore, founder Joe Jones and his team work every day with fathers, mothers and kids dealing with child support issues and the fallout from orders that are set higher than a parent’s ability to pay. Jones said the bills before the legislature are a start, but he wants to see Maryland lawmakers take on more of the issues facing these families.

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Jones and other advocates say the state ought to do much more to provide job training and placement services to parents trying to find work. These advocates also say the state should take a hard look at how suspending driver’s and professional licenses can be counterproductive, making it much harder for parents to get and keep a job.

“It just doesn’t make sense," Jones said of taking away licenses.

He said the child support system also has got to find a way to help separated moms and dads co-parent. To start, the system should look for ways to guarantee fathers have access to their children through visitation, which typically is not required by child support orders.

“The child deserves to have relationships with both parents,” Jones said.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and a lead sponsor on child support reform efforts, said the proposals now being considered would make substantial improvements to the child support system, including by providing more guidance to the courts on drafting orders for lower-income parents. Still, she said she is open to pressing for future changes.

“There is always work to do,” Dumais said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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