The irony of reform: Child support laws may not support families p2

We are talking about child support and the government’s — both state and federal — attempts to collect past due support payments. The reforms passed by Congress in 1996 eliminated, for the most part, the problem of noncustodial parents skirting their obligations even if they had the money. These efforts, however, were not quite as successful with parents who could not afford to pay. Even when you consider the economic ups and downs of the past 20 years, including the Great Recession, it still comes as a surprise that more than $113 billion in child support payments is currently right now.

The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement points to the garnishment formula (discussed in our last post) as one likely cause. Another could be how child support is calculated in the first place.

The formula, of course, is based on income. Again according to the OCSE, when the court cannot find evidence of a noncustodial parent’s income, the law in many jurisdictions allows courts to go ahead and assume that the parent holds a full-time, minimum wage job. Someone with no income suddenly has income, on paper, and is handed a child support order well beyond his or her means.

Yet another possible cause: the disconnect between how custody matters are decided and how child support matters are decided.

For example, in Illinois, both the Child Support Enforcement Division of the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Healthcare and Family Services manage enforcement of child support orders in 89 counties, but the State’s Attorney’s office handles enforcement in the remaining 13 counties.

That being said, the Attorney General’s office is barred from involvement in custody matters. Custody enforcement in this state is up to the individual courts, and the enforcement mechanism — a fine, jail time, a damage award to the other parent — is up to that court.

It is easy to imagine that the lines of communication between the courts and state agencies might break down. If computer systems are not compatible, or a nonpaying parent is known as Jerry K. Smith at one agency and as Jerry Kenneth Smith at another, the system breaks down. In some cases, the files do match, but a support order may take much longer to process than a custody change. There are parents who owe child support for children who live with them.

Then there is incarceration. We’ll cover that and finish this up in our next post.

Source: Peoria Public Radio, “From Deadbeat To Dead Broke: The ‘Why’ Behind Unpaid Child Support,” Jennifer Ludden, Nov. 19, 2015

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