Government Agencies Deal with Excessive Child Support Orders

July 13th, 2014

On Friday, June 27, 2014, Connecticut’s Department of Social Services (DSS) sponsored a one-day conference. This conference focused on the relationship between child support and effective parenting. It emphasized the importance of co-parenting and of father involvement with their children. The judicial branch, Support Enforcement Services (Charisse Hutton) and Family Support Magistrates Division (Norma Sanchez-Figueroa) emphasized the importance of parental involvement and the negative influence of excessive support orders.

  • The keynote speaker was Vicki Turetski, Commissioner, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Child Support Enforcement.
    • She emphasized that regular child support payments increase with parental involvement.
    • She lauded the Fatherhood Initiative, a federal program that began in 2000.

Brief Summary of Conference Themes
The themes of the conference centered on the connection between parental involvement and financial support for children living with one parent. Even in cases with past domestic violence, a structured program and a commitment to change behavior can lead to successful co-parenting. There was general agreement that parental time and decision making responsibility are at least as important as child support dollars. The dollars can interfere with parental involvement when support orders are unrealistic or when arrearages build up due to illness, unemployment of incarceration. The conference proposed specific remedies such as in-kind child support payments and easy ways to reduce support orders after illness or unemployment. Child Support Guidelines in Connecticut are unrealistic at low income levels, but currently the Commission has failed to appreciate the damage this does.

Possible conclusions with respect to root causes of excessively high child support orders
The root cause of the problem addressed by the Conference is, in my opinion, the economic studies used to justify excessively high support orders. The studies are flawed in many ways, including: 1) The assumption that percentages should be based on an intact family; 2) the assumption that only one parent, the “custodial parent,” is capable of making financial decisions on behalf of children.

Are child support orders unreasonably high?

July 13th, 2014

A 2013 economic study by Sarro and Rogers provides some new thinking and new data. See: Mark A. Sarro and R. Mark Rogers, “Economic Review of the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines,” submitted to the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines Task Force (June, 2013). Here are some key points from that study:
 “Most states base their child support guidelines, to some extent, on specific economic studies. However, the most widely used studies do not measure actual direct spending on children and are based on national data. Most child costs are not directly observable, but rather are indirect costs shared by adults and children in a household, such as housing and food. Therefore, the available economic data are estimates with theoretical and practical limitations, and the resulting child cost estimates are informative and important to consider, but they are not determinative.” p 1
 “There simply is not a definitive source of data to dictate whether the resulting Guidelines amounts are right or wrong with certainty and in every case. This is why presumptive awards are rebuttable, based on case specific facts that diverge from presumptive facts. The rest of this report summarizes the economic principles, approaches, and most current data available to help inform the Task Force’s review of the current Guidelines.” p. 13
 Income Shares estimates, such as the Betson-Rothbarth amounts, also rely on data from intact (specifically, husband-wife) households to inform policy decisions for households which are not intact. These guideline models implicitly assume economic decisions are made the same way for separate households as for married households, when, in fact, the economic tradeoffs may be very different. One obvious difference is the additional overhead cost required by two separate households relative to the cost of a single household. By failing to account for this additional cost, economic models likely overestimate the standard of living of a non-intact household at a given income level. Maintaining a standard of living estimated based on intact household data likely requires more income than is actually available to a non-intact household.” pp 19-20. Sarro and Rogers show that shared parenting implies higher fixed costs associated with maintaining two households, and that intact families would adjust to such costs.
 Sarro and Rogers (2013) produce detailed data – based on a large random sampling of support orders from several districts within Massachusetts – showing that a large percentage of couples agree to amounts far below Guidelines. These new data raise questions: why any state adopts Guidelines that many consider unreasonable? Why is only one parent presumed to be competent to make spending decisions on behalf of children?

Why Connecticut’s Child Support Commission is split and implications for shared parenting

May 29th, 2014

The Commission has split on the issue of unreasonably high child support guidelines and its implications for parental involvement with their children. This split is particularly relevant in light of the Massachusetts shared parenting guidelines adopted in 2013. Massachusetts had data showing that a large percentage of couples agree to amounts far below Guidelines. This raises the issue of why any state adopts Guidelines that many consider unreasonable.

The Department of Social Services (DSS) paid for an economic study of the Guidelines. The Study recommended lowering Guideline percentages at the low income levels, raising the percentages at middle and high income levels. The Commission voted to accept the recommendation to raise the percentages but rejected the proposal to lower the percentages for low income obligors.

DSS has recognized that these policies can damage a child’s relationship with his or her parents. A 2014 letter from DSS Commissioner Rodrick L. Bremby makes the case for accepting the entire economic study. He says “A father’s emotional, social and educational support as well as financial support is imperative to the growth of a well-rounded child.” He states that the percentages required of low income obligors are unrealistic and “counterproductive to fostering the parent-child relationship as it may lead to uncollectable child support orders and drive noncustodial parents to underground economies and alienation from their children.”
After the vote to retain unrealistic percentages, David Mulligan, Director, Bureau of Child Support Enforcement, resigned as chair of the Commission. DSS stated its intentions to withdraw staff support from the Commission unless the partial adoption is reversed. Staff support is considered essential to completion of the Commission’s task because drafting of regulations is a highly specialized activity.
The SPC continues to advocate for shared parenting guidelines and for repeal of unrealistically high percentages of income.
Contact info@sharedparentinginc.org for more information.

Connecticut’s legislature votes no confidence in the family court system

May 5th, 2014

On Friday, April 25, 2014, both houses of Connecticut’s legislature unanimously approved a bill that restricts judges in family court matters. Parent who have been unfairly denied access to their children and bankrupted by the court turned out in large numbers to testify in favor of the legislation. Given that judges and divorce lawyers fought hard against the measure, this can only be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the way family court operates today in Connecticut.
The bill passed on April 25 deals with technical issues associated with the court appointed Guardians Ad Litem (GALs). The issues generating the no confidence vote centered on:
1. Poor training. GALs require only 30 hours of training. No law degree, no study of child behavior, no other experience with children.
2. No accountability. As a practical matter, parents paying the bills could not fire the GAL! And, GALs have immunity from law suits.
3. Some GAL’s had few meetings with children and refused to meet with those intimately involved with the children’s lives.
4. Excessive pay. Hourly rates were reported in the $200-$850 range and some total billings were in excess of $20,000 per year. Some testimony suggested that GALs are more interested in the pay than in the welfare of children. Parents can be jailed for failure to pay GALs.
5. In some cases, getting a high paying GAL assignment required a cozy relationship with an attorney representing one side of the custody case.
The legislation that will take effect in October, SB 494, addresses most of the complaints listed above. Specifically, it allows parents to agree on a GAL or an attorney for the minor child (AMC) from a list of fifteen candidates proposed by the judge. If they can’t agree, and the judge appoints a GAL, then this decision is appealable. Most importantly, the judge is required, within 21 days, to issue an order clarifying the work to be done by the GAL or AMC, to set forth the fee schedule and to set deadlines on the completion of that work.
This increase in transparency strongly discourages a cozy money-making relationship between GAL’s and others in the court system. A judge needs to refer to one or more of 16 factors defining the “best interests of the child” when appointing a GAL/AMC and the GAL/AMC will be accountable for using these 16 factors when they represent a child.
Is this real reform or is it an effort to appease advocates for reform? We believe that it represents an important first step towards reform, and that it signals a new direction in the relationship between the legislature and family court officials. For one thing, the judiciary tried to head off the legislation by promising internal court reforms. For another, judges and court insiders lobbied hard to prevent any legislative interference with their activities. Thirdly, “John McKinney, the Republican leader of the state Senate said the bill is a modest first step towards fixing a system ‘that has fallen apart’ (Hartford Courant, Saturday, April 29, 2014, page B4).” Finally, the unanimous vote in a legislature where many members are lawyers provides a compelling indication that family court system must change.
Those advocating for reform include a large, vocal group of parents, grandparents and families known as the Coalition for Connecticut Family Court Reform. Jennifer Verraneault, a GAL based in New Haven and member of a task force studying the issue, has emerged as the leader of this group. Two formally organized groups support broad reforms designed to reduce conflict in custody cases and increase involvement of both parents unless there is evidence of abuse or neglect: the Shared Parenting Council of Connecticut (SPC) and the National Parents Organization (NPO).
Rep. Gonzalez embraced the need for family court reform, even at the beginning of the process when she was ridiculed as a radical. After the unanimous vote, senators and representatives thanked Rep. Gonzalez for not giving up on the legislation. Congratulations and hugs rewarded her hard work and dedication to the legislation.
This legislation points towards a sea change in Connecticut family law. For the first time, the legislature has substantially restricted the actions of family court judges, imposing specific limits on how they act. Prior to this, judges had broad latitude to determine vaguely defined “best interests of the child,” and this often resulted in marginalizing one parent, as well as fostering greater legal dispute. A small change embedded in the new legislation may have broad consequences: in any case, even one not involving a GAL or AMC, judges are now required to articulate which of the 16 factors (or possibly some other consideration) they use when determining the best interests of the child.
A new direction was set by the Connecticut legislature on April 25, but much work still needs to be done to ensure that children are not arbitrarily deprived of access to a capable parent, or disadvantaged financially by the excessive cost of a custody dispute. The SPC and NPO have expressed a willingness to meet with family court officials to hammer out further improvements in the family court system.

The full text of SB 494 can be found at: http://www.cga.ct.gov/2014/amd/S/2014SB-00494-R00SA-AMD.htm

Testify for Shared Parenting, GAL Reform and Alimony Reform on Monday, March 31

March 27th, 2014

When: Monday March 31, preferably near 8am, but any time after that is OK.
Between 8am and 10am you sign up for a lottery number. After that you sign at the bottom of the list of speakers. Expect to compete with many people testifying.
Where: Legislative Office Building, Second floor. Driving directions:
http://www.cga.ct.gov/asp/menu/DrivingDirections.asp. If the Parking Garage is full (which is likely), there’s a pay garage in a commercial building on Oak Street opposite the entrance to the Appellate Clerk’s office.
What: Bill 6685 – shared parenting; RB 494 -GAL reform; Bill 5524, alimony reform

If you can’t attend, submit written testimony by email: JUD.Testimony@cga.ct.gov . You can even submit written testimony through Tuesday, April 1.

Please testify to any of the following points that agree with your thinking and experience:
• Most of the problems – alienation, excessive cost, and experts trying to substitute their opinions for the parents’ – could be solved if judges, family relations officers and others simply asked repeatedly: which parent is more likely to provide “frequent, meaningful, and continuing contact” between the child and the other parent?
o The courts need to clearly send the message that each parent must promote frequent and meaningful contact with the other parent.
o Of course there are exceptions in cases with proven violence, neglect or abuse.
• Guardian Ad Litems (GALs) need to be carefully supervised as specified in RB494. Here is a link to the full text: http://www.cga.ct.gov/2014/TOB/S/2014SB-00494-R00-SB.htm
o RB 494 will be hotly contested by professionals who are making lots of money on the existing family court system.
o The Shared Parenting Council supports RB 494 as a step in the direction of much needed reform.
• Modify RB 494 to require GALs to promoting active involvement by both parents.
• Alimony requires guidelines for judges to follow. This will ensure consistency across courts in Connecticut.
• Absent abuse, neglect and domestic violence, children have the constitutional right to have both parents equally involved in their lives.
• There’s no oversight or accountability of the court appointed professionals such as GALs, AMCs, Psychological Evaluators. This opens the door to a few who want to exploit the system. Only in very rare circumstances should a judge appoint a GAL or any other individual to a family absent proven abuse and neglect.
• Absent findings of abuse or neglect the judge should be required to tell counsel and parties that we have a presumption of shared equal parenting time. If the parents disagree about the amount of time, then the burden of proof is on the parent who is not agreeing to up to 50% time for the other parent.
• The judge will enforce the laws and then sanction parents who lie to the court or mislead the court in an attempt to seek more parenting time. Sanctions need to be monetary and/or in the form of community service.
• Parental alienation: a Judge needs to be alerted in an emergency hearing that a child about potential alienation. DCF will be called in. Hopefully this will be a detergent for any alienator in their early stages of abuse.

We had a tremendous turnout in January, and as a result the Judicial Branch is beginning the process of reform.
Don’t miss this opportunity to participate in these major changes in Connecticut law.

Testimony in Hartford supports presumed shared parenting – click for shared parenting plans

January 9th, 2014

Over 50 people attended a hearing of Connecticut’s Custody Task Force at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Thursday, January 9, 2014.
Almost all spoke in favor of the presumption of shared parenting as a starting point. If shared parenting were presumed by the court, then parents would realize that they are wasting their time and money when they fight for control and time. Of course, shared parenting would be subject to review if there is substantial evidence of abuse or neglect,
The crowd enthusiastically supported many speakers who testified about excessive legal costs associated with custody issues. Several talked about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal costs.
Would you like a model plan for shared parenting? It gives details of shared parenting time and decision making responsibility. Just leave a comment below specifying your interest.

Child Support Guidelines should recognize shared parenting. Testify to improve the lives of children in Connecticut.

September 4th, 2013

Hearings on 9/17 and 9/24. See below for details.
Suggested testimony: child support guidelines should recognize shared parenting
• Tell your own story, or the story of those you know, about a noncustodial (also known as “nonresidential” or not “primary residence”) parent who was made a second class parent, a visitor with his or her own children, or was unable to maintain a home for overnights.
o Try to weave the points below into your story.
• Everyone wants to adequately support their children.
o Do not recommend any reduction in total support for children. (The reason: CT’s support amounts are at or below those in surrounding states and about average for the nation.)
o Children need active involvement of both parents.
o Parental Responsibility Plans (PRP’s), currently required in CT, emphasize active involvement by parents. Child Support Guidelines need to catch up and encourage shared parenting.
• Shared parenting should be recognized by allocating child support between the two parents appropriately.
o Both parents need to maintain adequate residences for the children.
o Two nights per week is substantial involvement requiring maintenance of a home for the children.
• Massachusetts adopted new Child Support Guidelines effective 8/01/13
o Recommend that we adopt MA Guidelines for two shared parenting situations: 1. substantially equal time or 2. substantial (2 or more nights per week) but unequal time.
How and where do you submit written testimony?
By email: david.mulligan@ct.gov
Please copy NPO on your submission: rita1st@nationalparentsorganization.org

When and where do you testify?
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
6:00-8:00 PM
Department of Social Services
New Haven District Office
50 Humphrey Street
New Haven, CT

Tuesday, September 24, 2013
6:00-8:00 PM
Department of Social Services
Norwich District Office
401 West Thames Street, Unit 102
Norwich, CT

Tuesday, October 1, 2013
6:00-8:00 PM
Department of Social Services
Waterbury District Office
249 Thomaston Avenue
Waterbury CT.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013
6:00-8:00 PM
Department of Social Services
925 Housatonic Avenue
Bridgeport, CT

Tuesday, October 15, 2013
2:00-4:00 PM
Department of Social Services
Central Office
Mezzanine 2AB
25 Sigourney Street
Hartford, CT

How much time will you have to testify, and how do you sign up?
Expect 2-3 minutes for your testimony.
Arrive about 15 minutes early in case there is a sign up.

Child support guidelines should empower both parents

August 7th, 2013

Connecticut’s Child Support Guidelines need to empower both parents to maintain households and pay for expenses associated with child rearing. The term “empower” is important, since they benefit from seeing parents who have responsibility and the means to exercise this responsibility.
In August 2013, Massachusetts implemented changes encouraging shared parenting.
If you agree – or disagree – post your views by clicking the title above.

Testimony reveals major flaws in Connecticut’s Guardian ad litem system

April 14th, 2013

Testimony before the Judiciary Committee on Friday, April 5, 2013, revealed major flaws in Connecticut’s Guardian ad litem system. GALs are supposed to interpret the “best interest of the child” in contested custody cases. Often, judges lean heavily on information provided by the GAL. The ability of parents to spend time with their children can depend on support from the GAL.

Many of those testifying reported problems, including:

  1. Poor training. GALs require only 30 hours of training. No law degree, no study of child behavior, no other experience with children.
  2. No accountability. The parents paying the bills cannot fire the GAL! And, GALs have immunity from law suits.
  3. Few meetings with children and refusal to meet with those intimately involved with the children’s lives.
  4. Excessive pay. Hourly rates were reported in the $200-$325 range and total billings in excess of $20,000 per year. The testimony suggested that GALs are more interested in the pay than in the welfare of children. Parents can be jailed for failure to pay GALs.
  5. In some cases, getting a high paying GAL assignment requires a cozy relationship with an attorney representing one side of the custody case. In these cases, the GAL may be more interested in supporting the attorney than in the children.

In fairness, other parents have had good experience with GALs. But the testimony suggests major problems with the GAL system.

What is your experience with Connecticut’s GAL system? Click on the title above to leave a comment.

Parental Alienation: This Time Proven in a Connecticut Court

December 1st, 2012

I get a stream of complaints about “parental alienation” in Connecticut, the attempt by one parent to minimize or eliminate the other parent’s role with the children. Every year, two or three of these cases come to my attention. Clearly, Connecticut has a problem with parental splitting or even alienating behavior.

The case of Tauck v. Tauck provides court evidence of splitting behavior. Court records show that in 2005 allegations of child molestation were filed against the father; in addition, it was claimed that he had downloaded child pornography onto his laptop computer. During the trial, it was found by Judge Abery-Wetstone that Mr. Tauck could not have downloaded the images because he was out of the country, and the child molestation charges were entirely unsubstantiated.

The damage to children from splitting or alienating behavior is enormous. They are being denied a relationship with their parent. Studies have shown that children without one parent are at much greater risk of behavioral problems, poor school performance and incarceration.

Connecticut judges, DCF, family relations officials need to do a better job of recognizing signs of splitting and alienation. These include:

  • The aggressive parent fails to encourage the child to have a
    relationship with the other parent. Failure to actively promote this important relationship in the child’s life is often the first indication of destructive splitting  behavior to follow.

  • A parent penalizes the child for spending time with the other parent.

  • A parent refuses to allow the child to spend time with the other parent.

  • A child who previously had a positive relationship with a parent refuses further contact.

  • One parent cuts off direct contact between a child and the other parent. Phone calls, letters and emails are unanswered.

  • Protective orders are being used as a tool to prevent visitation.

Judges and other professionals need to make it clear not only at the outset but repeatedly throughout the proceedings that such behavior will not be tolerated. More so, they should question each party as to how they intend to assure the other parent has an equal role in their children’s lives.

Post your experiences with splitting or alienating behavior here. We are particularly interested in hearing from adults who experienced this as children.