BALTIMORE — A report from the Abell Foundation details how Maryland's child support system policies are in need of reform, finding that some practices fuel a cycle of poverty and instability for low-income families.
Vicki Turetsky, author of the report, is an attorney and independent policy consultant. She previously served as the commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement in the Obama Administration.
The child support program serves one in five children in the United States. In Maryland, the Child Support Administration managed almost 199,000 cases statewide and 55,000 in Baltimore. According to the report, in Baltimore, a total of $75 million was collected in 2018, with 68 percent being paid on time and the other 32 percent, or $24 million, past due payments.
The report states that the cumulative amount that went uncollected was almost $379 million.
Turetsky details how the policies currently in place have become a destabilizing force in the Baltimore community. They recommend that that child support orders must be based on the obliger's "earnings, income and other evidence of ability to pay."
In general, child support orders are based on the combined income of both parents, however often courts do not base support orders on the actual earnings, the report explains.
The report finds that 50 percent of noncustodial parents were employed and earned a median income of $22,689.
Turetsky points out that Maryland noncustodial parents who earn a $50,000 median income are ordered to pay 14 percent of their earnings toward child support, while noncustodial parents earning a $6,000 median income are ordered to pay 61 percent according to a University of Maryland analysis.
She explains that parents higher on the socioeconomic ladder are expected to pay a much lower share of their income toward child support than those who are lower-income.
"This disparity is unfair and unsustainable," Turetsky said.
According to "Passarella and Born," research shows that Maryland parents who paid all of their support were expected to pay 18 percent of their earnings while those who paid the least amount were expected to pay more than 70 percent of their income.
Often the debt that arises from child support can create a barrier to parental involvement and their ability to stay economically stable. There are policies in place that are "unrealistically high," the report continues, and "unnecessarily punitive."
For example, those who fail to pay child support can have their license suspended. Research shows however that this does not better the chances of the child support being paid, in fact it interferes with parents ability to make the payments by making the way they find and maintain employment inherently difficult.
Turetsky argues that child support debt that exceeds a noncustodial parent's ability to pay can cause friction between parents and unrealistically inflate their expectations that the child support agency should be able to collect money that does not exist.
Citing the Preamble to Flexibility, Efficiency and Modernization in Child Support Enforcement Programs, the report points out that child support arrears can create lifelong indebtedness, even after the children are grown. The report references federal surveys done with homeless Vietnam veterans who say that child support debt was one of their top legal problems.
Child support debt can even shut out aging parents from assisted living facilities and residential homes, the report continues.
In addition to reducing the uncollectible child support debt, the report recommends that the policies ensure that "children, not the state, receive the money when their parents pay child support." They state that using child support to repay Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA) is not cost-effective and erodes community trust.
They recommend that the state expand the child support pass-through statute to pass through 100 percent of collections to families receiving cash assistance.
Turetsky continues, stating that parents are more willing to make the payments when it benefits their children. For instance, research in several states found that more parents paid child support when it was passed to their children.
A study referenced in the report found that when families received their child support, "reliance on cash assistance decreased, child care satisfaction increased, and child maltreatment reports decreased." All of this with no cost to the state.
Turetsky states that it is time to end the program's cost recovery role in Maryland, that the welfare cost recovery is not cost-effective and reduces incentive funding.
"It reduces the willingness of parents to cooperate with the child support program and comply with their child support orders," Turetsky said. "It aggravates the strains between the parents and further disconnects parents from their children."
Turetsky states that using child support as state revenues sends a mixed message to parents about the importance of supporting their children and "undermines" the mission of the program itself.