COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio’s child support system is riddled with problems, including billions in unpaid support and an outdated formula that some believe contributes to non-custodial parents moving to the underground economy to avoid wage garnishments.
Unpaid support on the books, accumulated since 1976, totals a staggering $4.5 billion in Ohio and every year another $100 million piles onto that figure, according to David Fleischman, bureau chief in the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services child support office.
Complicating collections is that 69 percent of the debt is owed by parents who had reported earnings of less than $10,000, according to Susan Brown, director of the Franklin County Child Support Enforcement Agency.
Nationwide, studies show the total unpaid child support is $114 billion owed by 5.5 million delinquent non-custodial parents.
State Sen. Bill Beagle, R-Tipp City, is pushing to overhaul the child support system for the first time since 1992. While more than 1 million kids are in the Ohio child support system, the bill would not make any retroactive changes to existing cases.
Senate Bill 125 calls for updating economic data used to calculate child support obligations, taking into account shared parenting arrangements and recognizing that non-custodial parents often provide health insurance for their kids.
The current system now rewards the largest support for the first child who files for support. Beagle’s bill would provide a standard deduction amount for each child.
Another big problem with the current system: formulas used can spit out child support awards that are more than a parent’s income, resulting in poor collection rates. Unpaid support stacks up, and parents sometimes move to the underground economy to avoid hefty garnishment.
"On the surface X number of dollars per month may seem great but if it exceeds someone’s income or is nearly 100 percent of someone’s income, that’s not going to help anybody," Beagle said. "So let’s have formulas that are realistic and perhaps we’ll improve collections, especially for middle- to low-income people. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve."
The state child support system, which collects nearly $2 billion a year for children, is supposed to balance the cost of raising a child with the ability of parents to pay. Collection rates for parents who make between $10,000 and $40,000 a year average 55 percent.
Overhauling the child support system is no easy task.
"I think it’s a heavy lift because child support can be very emotional for people. But, like I said in my testimony, it’s all about manner, method and math," said Amy Roehrenbeck, executive director of the Ohio Child Support Directors Association.
The legislation calls for updating the amount set aside for non-custodial parents to be self-sufficient — money they need to pay their own basic expenses before calculating what they should be able to pay for child support.
Whether kids will get more or less child support paid on their behalf will vary case by case, she said.
Roehrenbeck said low-income families likely would see a decrease in the child support amount they would pay while mid- to high-income families would likely pay more. Also, minimum support orders would be increased to $80 a month, up from the current $50 monthly minimum.
Susan Brown, director of the Franklin County Child Support Enforcement Agency, said in testimony to the Senate that child support orders are often established based on presumed wages — not actual income.
Low-income parents see the program as so punitive and oppressive that only 40 percent show up for their administrative hearings, she said.
"So what’s happening is that orders are being established based on wages that have never been earned and which noncustodial parents may not have the ability to pay," she said.
Regulations allow for garnishing up to 65 percent of reported earnings, which often drives parents into the underground economy to avoid heavy garnishment, according to experts.
"The reality of this situation means that in most cases, the parent who has the child in their home is receiving inconsistent and unreliable payments of support, or — more often than not — no child support payments at all," Brown said.
The economic guidelines have been studied every four years for a quarter of a century but lawmakers have never updated them. Roehrenbeck said the economic data used dates back to 1980 through 1986.
Among the reforms embedded in Senate Bill 125 is to move the guidelines from Ohio Revised Code — the purview of state lawmakers — to Ohio Administrative Code, which can be changed by state officials in the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
Don Hubin of the Ohio chapter of the National Parents Organization, which advocates for shared parenting, said the bill gets some things right and some things wrong.
Hubin praised the bill for changing how child support is calculated. "When you institute an impossible order, you encourage non-compliance and . and the child ends up getting nothing," he said.
But Hubin said Ohio and SB125 fail to treat both parents equally and give a proper accounting for duplicated expenses incurred by both, such as having beds in two households for when kids spend time with each parent. The bill doesn’t give the non-primary custody parent a break for shared parenting until a child spends 90 or more nights in that parent’s household, he said. These elements make it more difficult for separated or divorced couples to do shared parenting, Hubin said.
Beagle said he hopes the Senate and House will agree on a bill by next spring.
"By improving collection rates, by right-sizing the child support awards, we hope more money will be collected and put toward the children’s benefit. That’s how the kids will benefit," Beagle said.