Plagued by problems, Ohio's child support system set for sweeping reforms
Posted June 18, 2018 2:40 p.m. EDT
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio's child support system, plagued with an outdated formula used to calculate payments, $100 million a year in unpaid support and non-custodial parents who slip into the underground economy to avoid wage garnishments, may soon get its most sweeping reform in decades.
The impact of newly passed legislation on families will vary based on factors such as income, health care coverage, child care arrangements and more.
The reform package, which is awaiting Gov. John Kasich's signature, will do the following:
-- Update economic data used to calculate orders for the first time since 1992 -- the new data will allow for calculation of orders for families with combined income of up to $300,000, up from the current $150,000;
-- Take into consideration parent contributions for health care coverage and medical expenses;
-- Account for shared parenting time;
-- Change the minimum order to $80 a month, up from the current $50 a month;
-- Allow state workers to update child support formula tables, rather than require lawmakers to approve updates;
Cap allowable credit given for child care expenses so low-income support payers are limited to sharing half of child care costs; and
-- Establish a "self-sufficiency reserve" to make sure low-income parents don't face child support orders that far exceed their ability to pay.
House Bill 366, the reform package, cleared its final legislative hurdle June 7. It has yet to be delivered to Ohio Gov. John Kasich for consideration. The law would go into effect nine months after Kasich's signature.
The changes will not be retroactively applied. If there is a review of a current child support order, the new rules will be applied.
"It's long overdue," said the Rev. Eli Williams, who runs programs for men striving to be good fathers, but who often fall short making child support payments.
"This will provide some relief for non-custodial parents who have been penalized with unfair and unreasonable obligations because of the outdated formulas," said Williams, whose Urban Light Ministries' fatherhood programs attract about 500 men a year in Montgomery, Clark and Greene counties.
For more than a year, state Sen. Bill Beagle, R-Tipp City, and state Rep. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, worked on companion bills to bring about comprehensive changes to the system that collects $2 billion a year.
Roughly $100 million in child support goes uncollected each year in the state.
But about that much -- $99.4 million -- was collected in 51,622 Montgomery County child support cases last year, said Sarah Fields, who heads the Montgomery County Child Support Enforcement Agency. Altogether during the 2017 fiscal year, Montgomery County had 171,756 participants, either children, parents or caretakers.
The goal of the changes is to have child support orders that are based on the ability to pay, with the ultimate goal of consistent, regular payments to families with children, Fields said.
"We can require somebody pay $800 a month, but if they can't pay that and they aren't paying that, then that order is meaningless," she said. "When somebody can't pay it, and they get frustrated and they go underground or they just give up, a theoretical $800 a month doesn't really help that family. If we could set a more reasonable order ... it may be a significantly lower order, but you're getting that money every month."
Beagle said child support reform is a complicated, emotional issue that eluded a fix for several years. House Bill 366 tries to balance concerns about fairness, collection rates and the well-being of children, he said. He acknowledged that some families will see their child support orders reduced.
"Our hope is by right-sizing the awards, collection rates will improve," Beagle said.
Collection rates may well improve, but that's because some custodial parents will be owed less -- sometimes dramatically less -- and almost always single women raising children, said Graham Bowman, an attorney with the Ohio Poverty Law Center.
"It's just that low-income mothers will be receiving much less than the cost of raising the child. So the burden is going to be carried primarily by these low-income mothers," Bowman said.
The Ohio Poverty Law Center agreed with broad portions of the potential new law, but disagreed on one major change that has the potential to lower dramatically the amount of child support paid and received by poor parents.
"They (legislature) greatly increased the self-sufficiency reserve in this legislation such that the amount the obligor, or the person paying child support, has to pay each month is well below what it actually costs to raise a child," he said. "What makes this legislation so difficult is that there is no adequate way of splitting the income of two very low income people in a way where everyone's needs are met -- the mother, the father and child."
Under current law, if the parents each make roughly $16,800 a year and have three children, the obligor owes about $4,990. Due to the self-sufficiency reserve change in the prospective law, that amount would drop to about $2,000, according to a Ohio Poverty Law Center analysis.
"One way or another, those mothers will need to find additional resources somewhere to make up the difference," Bowman said.
Those who owe child support -- mostly fathers -- need to be able to pay minimal bills for themselves in order contribute support for their children, said Fields, who runs the Montgomery County office where 35,700 cases showed some kind of arrears balance during the last fiscal year.
"An obligor is entitled to a certain level of money to be able to pay their own rent, be able to get to work, be able to buy food," she said. "Then we are going to look at the money that's available after that basic level of subsistence."
Eventually, collections were made on 23,095, or 64.7 percent of the cases in which Montgomery County obligors fell behind in 2017, according to county records.
Those supporting the law and those with reservations all tend to agree on the biggest challenge facing low-income parents: The cost of raising a child has grown over recent decades as job opportunities withered and wages fell flat.
"The jobs that are available today don't pay as well as the jobs that were available during the heyday, for example, of General Motors in Dayton," said Williams. "Wages are down and the minimum wage -- when it's weighed against the cost of living -- is not even as reasonable and fair as it was 30 or 40 years ago. So they needed to update those tables by which they determined how much child support would be owed by an obligor."
Some parents who owe money have become familiar faces at enforcement dockets, said Beth Anne Schorr, director of the Warren County Child Support Enforcement Agency, during testimony in front of lawmakers last month. It's typical those in arrears make about $10 an hour. Frequently they are unsuccessfully self-employed and exist in a constant cycle of "robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Of the 12,500 cases involving 16,000 children, about 6,600 of the orders are a month or more behind, she said.
"The current schedules create unattainable expectations and thereby engender frustration within the family that cannot possibly in the best interest of the child," Schorr said.
The new law would also give an obligor more credit for shared parenting, a role that also benefits children, Williams said.
"Children are so much better off in just about every measure when they have an involved, committed, mature and responsible father," he said.
But as parents share more custody of children, the new law could increase the risk for disputes, Bowman said.
"The judge can change the amount of child support owed base on how much parenting time the father has with the child," he said. "We were asking that some of those provisions be taken out because they would lead to increased litigation. You would have both parties arguing over whether or not a particular parent had 146 or 147 days with the child."
Beagle, who is term limited and leaving the legislature in December, said winning passage of child support reforms and unsealing adoption records rank among his proudest accomplishments as a lawmaker. Both are tough issues that failed to win approval in previous legislative sessions.
"When you're able to get it over the finish line, that's a good feeling of success, especially when it'll impact thousands of Ohio families," Beagle said.
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