Guest Commentary

With some minor changes, the state's child support system could work for--instead of against--families

Child support is a term that conjures up all kinds of feelings and emotions. After all, nowhere else in this society are monies paid on behalf of (or in trust for) a child where these monies are NOT accounted for by a trustee.

The federal government requires that all states implement some kind of child-support guidelines. Arizona not only has adopted child-support guidelines; the state also implemented an automatic wage assignment law--a mechanism where all child support is withdrawn by the employer from the paying parent's paycheck, sent to the court and then dispersed to the receiving parent. Developed with the guidelines was a process to allow for a "simplified procedure" to modify child support.

After many revisions, the guidelines in Arizona are now about as fair as they can be. Automatic wage assignment did solve some of the conflicts between parents and allowed the state to intercept and recoup monies they had paid out to the receiving parent for government assistance.

One would think that should have taken care of everything.

As time went on, the "big computer in the sky" otherwise known as the Support Payment Clearinghouse was built. All child support now goes though the clearinghouse and is then sent to the state and/or to the receiving parent. This, too, appeared to be a good thing. Should the paying parent fall behind, officials can follow up quickly and automatically. The state gets their money, and the receiving parent gets theirs. Either parent can modify the child support agreement at any time through the "simplified procedure." Everybody's happy.

But that is not the reality. The computerized system cannot automatically respond to changed circumstances, such as the loss of employment or a child coming of age. Unless a modification of child support is requested, the process stays the same. The "simplified process" is not very simple, and Child Support Enforcement is reticent in assisting the paying parent. Consequently, the clearinghouse computer automatically keeps grinding out arrears with interest and sets in motion a draconian process of punitive actions. These actions can include the processing of an "amended order of assignment" (an "order" neither signed by a judge nor sent to the paying parent, although it results in a higher child-support amount to cover an arrearage listed on the clearinghouse computer, whether it's truly owned or not); derogatory reporting to credit agencies; income tax refund interceptions; liens on real property; and bank account garnishments.

There is no recourse for the paying parent if the clearinghouse computer is incorrect. Any attempts made to correct the information on the clearinghouse computer result in no action. The insidiousness of the automatic process and the lack of accountability on the part of Child Support Enforcement not only cause irrevocable harm to the reputation and credit worthiness of the paying parent, but they also damage a most important aspect in this society: the parent-child relationship.

What can be done? Knowledge is the key. The state should provide mandatory change notices to both parents. Extend the mandatory course regarding children's issues to include child-support obligation information. Provide free, comprehensible classes to show parents how to modify child support via the "simplified procedure." Develop a specific liaison to control computer challenges, including credit for overpayments. And finally, if unsigned amended orders of assignment are to remain, the state should provide orders for overpayments, recourse for incorrect orders, mandatory process service and credit bureau notifications for removal of the derogatory credit reports.

Child support is necessary; a child's relationship with a parent is, too. There are enough challenges in these life-changing situations without adding the "automated" ones to the mix. By fixing just a few glitches in the system, the state could send the message that maybe it's not all about the money. Maybe it is about the children.

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