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Child support reform measures OK’d by Maryland legislature: ‘Definitely incremental steps in the right direction’

Reform bills aimed at helping Maryland fathers comply with their child support orders by making the payments more reasonable are headed to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk.

The General Assembly overwhelmingly passed two key bills in the final days of the legislative session, even as the annual meeting was shortened to help prevent further spread of the new coronavirus.

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One bill aims to make sure child support payments are more realistic for the poorest fathers. The legislation requires courts to consider a parent’s circumstances, such as his job prospects and education, before deciding how much child support he must pay. It also discourages judges from assigning imaginary income to a parent without fully evaluating his actual earnings and individual situation — while also giving him a larger share of money to live on.

The other bill would allow inmates to have their orders suspended after they are incarcerated for six months, down from 18 months, so they leave prison with less debt and are better positioned to make future payments.

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The legislation is headed to Hogan for his consideration. The Republican governor has not taken a public position on the bills.

The Assembly’s action follows a nine-month investigation by The Baltimore Sun published this month. The investigation found that Maryland’s dysfunctional 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.

Typically, orders are paid by the father to the mother. In Baltimore, the vast majority of cases involve African American men.

When these parents are unemployed, their payments are routinely determined using “imputed” income that represents what a judge believes they could earn if they had a job. For parents who are incarcerated, the obligation to make monthly payments often does not stop and unmanageable debt piles up while they are in prison.

These unrealistic orders and prison arrears have led to tens of millions of dollars of uncollectible debt, much of which is concentrated in Baltimore’s poorest communities. Some 15,000 parents collectively owe $233 million in 10 Baltimore ZIP codes, The Sun’s analysis showed. Parents in one Northwest Baltimore community alone owe $33 million. Some of the money is owed not to families, but to the government for welfare they have received.

Del. Nick Mosby said the legislation lays the groundwork for additional needed improvements. Given the complexity and severity of the problem, the Baltimore Democrat said he believes a commission should be created to find large-scale solutions.

He said The Sun’s investigation put a spotlight on the severity of the problem and gave a voice to many who feel the system is stacked against them.

“The bills are definitely incremental steps in the right direction,” Mosby said. “What we really have to do is develop a commission to take a deep dive into all of the different policies and procedures and come out with a white paper. We need a strategy for individuals who want to be productive members of society and good fathers, but unfortunately because of policies, haven’t been allowed to be.”

Advocates want the state to rethink counterproductive enforcement policies, arguing that some sanctions work only if a parent is able but unwilling to pay. Taking away the driver’s or professional license of a low-income parent who falls behind on payments makes it less likely he’ll be able to get and keep a job, critics say.

Many want to see the state pump more resources into employment programs for noncustodial parents. Rather than taking punitive measures, such as locking parents up for not paying child support, the state could invest in training and placement services to get them into good-paying jobs.

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

The system also should do more to encourage healthy co-parenting, either through mediation services or alternative court programs, according to advocates. They say the best outcomes for kids include having relationships with two loving parents.

The state Department of Human Services, which runs Maryland’s child support system, backed both of the reform proposals approved by the legislature. The goal, the agency says, is to create orders based on a parent’s actual ability to pay, including when they are in prison or unemployed.

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The bills passed both chambers with broad support. The changes were required by federal regulations issued in 2016.

Along with limiting the use of imputed income as the basis for setting orders, the legislation will for the first time in a decade update the state’s guidelines that are used for determining payments. The payment amounts are based on an economic formula that considers the cost to raise a child and the combined income of the separated parents.

The second bill will help lessen the uncollectible debt that builds when parents are behind bars, a tally that can reach tens of thousands of dollars that likely will never be paid to the mothers or children. Such debt has also been found to discourage ex-offenders from getting payroll jobs.

Since 2012, Maryland has allowed prisoners with sentences of 18 months or longer to have their orders frozen. But The Sun’s investigation found that often has not happened. Going forward, advocates say, the state should take a more assertive role in ensuring prisoners who qualify have their orders suspended. Some also want the state to examine why the original law has not worked as well as intended.

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