New child support guidelines go into effect this January. The Kansas Judicial Branch defines guidelines as, “rules judges follow to decide how much child support each parent is to pay toward raising their children.”
They’re meant to make a fair and balanced way to determine how much money is owed. Upon examining the facts, we find the guidelines are causing homelessness and the separation of children from poorer parents.
The Child Support Guidelines Committee recently approved an obligation that is 28 percent higher than the national average at the same cost of living. According to the study conducted by Jane Venohr, of the Center for Policy Research, this would place Kansas among the highest in the nation. Compared to nine other states with nearly the same cost of living, Kansans are saddled with mandatory payments poorer parents cannot pay. The result of setting levels so high is a cycle of debt, homelessness an,d ultimately, separation of children from willing parents.
Topekan Luke Forth is one of many parents who have experienced homelessness and separation from his child because of unrealistic child support. After separating from his girlfriend, Luke was ordered to pay an amount so high he had no ability to afford a home, saying "I went to work every day, but each night, I ended up sleeping in my car. After CS and taxes were taken from my paycheck, I didn’t have enough for the cheapest apartment.”
Luke wasn’t allowed to have significant time with his child because the court said he didn’t have a residence. When he explained to the court his financial situation, no adjustments were made to his obligation. Instead, he was directed to apply for low-income housing. Luke applied for housing assistance but was denied because his total income before his obligation was too high to qualify.
“I missed my kid so much," he said. "I wanted to see her, but they wouldn’t let me because of the situation the guidelines put me in.”
We find the committee is composed almost entirely of attorneys and judges. This aspect is alarming considering not one member on the committee is an economist or a mathematician. Lawyers and judges work in the field, but only using these professionals can lead to views based solely on courtroom testimony, which isn’t always fact-based. The result has been math and logic errors in the guidelines for years at the expense of Kansas families. Many errors are caught years later by parents and practitioners.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves if we believe the judicial branch wants to fix the problems with family court. If so, why do lawyers fight minimizing their power over families? Why has the system and process worsened through their recommendations? A simple solution to this problem would be to add committee members with backgrounds in mathematics, statistics or economics.
Additional members with social or behavioral science professions would help provide insight on the unintended consequences of adopted guidelines. Finally, at least four parents should be on the committee at all times.
Forcing parents into a cycle of impossible debt and homelessness will only destroy the parent-child bond. Research shows parents with equal time with their children are much more likely to comply with child support orders. Setting realistic support orders will allow more parents to be around their children.
Most importantly, those children end up living happier, healthier lives. Shouldn’t that be the goal of this committee?
Will Mitchell is chairman of the National Parents Organization of Kansas.