Just hearing the words child support sparks an emotional response. Fathers who feel like the rules are more about the paycheck than the parenting, mothers who say they can’t live on what they have.
“In general, the perception is, it’s unfairly biased against men in the state of Massachusetts,” says John Ollen of Martha’s Vineyard.
“The formula used is fair. The law is reasonable and people have a responsibility to support their children,” says Lauren Inker of Boston.
“Right now, I bring home $1,626 dollars a week, and $350 goes to child support,” says Brian Ayers, who thinks $18,000 a year in child support for his infant son is too steep. At 29-years-old, he says he had to move back in with his parents. He sees his son every other weekend, and a couple of nights a week.
“When I have my son, I still need to provide clothing for him, I still need to provide a crib, I need to provide food, diapers, whatever his necessities are when he’s with his mother,” Ayers says.
“I went back to live at my parents, I had to, from a cost standpoint, until I could afford to live in a decent place, and then you feel kind of like a second class citizen because your kids are coming to a small place when you’re used to mom’s nice house,” says John Gagnon, who has been paying alimony and writing out child support checks for eleven years.
He now says he pays $2,700 a month for his teenaged daughter. He says she stays with him nearly half the time and his 19-year-old son lived with him full time before going off to college this fall. He feels the guidelines don’t take into account how much time he spends with his kids.
EXCERPT FROM SHARMAN'S BLOG
"Here is my take away: nothing's perfect. Maybe it's better now than it ever was, but maybe we still do have a long way to go. I will say that I don't believe there is ever a winner or a loser. Everyone ends up losing something in some way, especially kids."
“It really didn’t matter from a child support guideline standpoint if they had stayed one night a month, or zero nights. I would have paid the same as having them 13 nights,” Gagnon says.
When is comes to paying child support, things used to be different in Massachusetts. In 1987, when the first guidelines came out, judges had non-custodial parents pay a percentage of their income to the custodial parent. They adjusted for the custodial parent’s income, but only after the first $20,000.
In 2009, that all changed. A 12-member task force overhauled child support guidelines in Massachusetts and that panel traveled the state to educate judges.
Now, using a worksheet, incomes from both parents are added together and worked into a formula. Judges also weigh how many children are involved and required expenses. In Massachusetts, that means mandated health insurance, child care, and housing costs.
The guidelines also called for changing language. You won’t hear the terms custody or visitation any longer. Instead, it’s parenting time. All of this meant to make the system fair for both parents.
“We want kids to be well supported. We want kids to have enough support, but we don’t want to create this huge windfall prize that creates conflict between the parents,” says Dr. Ned Holstein, the founder of the father’s rights group “Fathers & Families”. He sat on the task force and says the system is still unfair. For instance, he says some states pro-rate support according to parenting time spent with the child. He also says judges in Massachusetts may order both child support and college expenses until age 23. “We have a long way to go, but the worst thing is the pervasive gender bias in family court. Men are still looked at a breadwinners, and women are still looked at as nurturers of children,” Dr. Holstein says.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. We have 24 female judges on the probate court and 24 male judges on the probate court. To suggest that everyone has grouped together and is biased against the fathers, it simply doesn’t happen,” says family court attorney Marilynne Ryan, who also sat on the task force.
She says they’re meant to put balance into the family court system. Since nothing is perfect, she says judges are allowed to deviate from the guidelines.
“If you have two parents, each making $500 a week, and they pay the same amount for medical insurance and there are no other adjustments, and the children principally reside with let’s say mom, then dad is going to be paying some money to mom for child support,” Ryan says. She feels the guidelines are extremely fair.
Crystal Arnhold is a single mom who relies on her child support checks. She says she receives just under $250 a week to raise her 2-year-old son, and 5-year-old daughter with Down’s Syndrome.
“I work what I can and still just barely make it. Like this month, I have $29 to get food for the next two weeks,” Arnhold says.
She works part-time at night while her mom watches the kids, but money is tight. She says under the new guidelines, she stands to lose more because she’s trying to work.
“I’m not greedy by any means, I just want to try to get for my kids what they need,” Arnhold says.
Brian Ayers says he’s working with the court system, but wants to see more changes.
“The best interests of the child is to have a loving caring home in both places, where he’s provided equally at both residences. Not his mother’s, not his father’s, but equally among both,” Brian says.
He tells us he doesn’t see himself leaving his parent’s home anytime soon, now he’s writing to his lawmakers to try to change what he believes is a system that’s still broken.