By: Diane Bernard, Public News Service – MD
BALTIMORE – Maryland needs to overhaul its child-support system, according to a new report by the Abell Foundation.
The report says the combination of high child-support amounts and tough enforcement tools has done more harm than good for lower-income Maryland families. It says the child-support amounts ordered for many low-income parents are unrealistically high, and policies around enforcement and collection are unnecessarily punitive.
The result is that many men get caught in a cycle of debt they can’t escape. Laure Ruth, legal director for the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, thinks it’s inappropriate for the state to order a parent to pay when it’s clear the parent cannot.
“Even though I think the Women’s Law Center, where I work, represents mostly people receiving child support, it really is not beneficial to the children in the long run to order somebody to pay child support that they’re never going to be able to pay,” says Ruth.
The report recommends the state ensure that courts base child-support orders on a parent’s ability to pay, using their actual income rather than potential earnings. It also calls on lawmakers to eliminate some of the more than $1 billion of old child-support debt on the books, and stop intercepting payments of parents receiving public assistance.
Many of the report’s recommendations mirror legislation that was introduced, but didn’t pass, in the legislature this year. The bills included changing the calculation for shared child-support status.
Current Maryland law says if a child spends 128 nights in the other parent’s house during the year, it is considered shared child support. Ruth explains that any fewer nights require one parent to pay full child support.
“That 128 nights is known far and wide by family law practitioners as the ‘cliff effect,’ because if you have the child 127 nights, you owe an amount that is much, much higher than if you have the child for 128 nights,” says Ruth.
The system has largely been designed over time to crack down on so-called “deadbeat dads,” but Ruth says modern thinking is shifting to find ways to appropriately deal both with fathers who don’t pay because they have no money, and those who are looking to dodge their responsibilities.