Government Agencies Deal with Excessive Child Support Orders

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.

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Are child support orders unreasonably high?

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?

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