Dads call support laws unfair

By Jeffrey Klineman, Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, Thursday, July 19, 2001

LAWRENCE -- Describing the hardships wreaked upon them by what they perceive as an unfair system, fathers who pay child support used a public hearing on the issue yesterday to unload their frustrations and offer suggestions.

"I was forced to move out of state because I can't afford to live here anymore," said Larry Costa, who had driven three hours to Lawrence District Court from Bethel, Maine, to complain.

Jim Marques, a fathers' rights activist who works in Methuen, testifies at the hearing onchild-support guidelines yesterday at the Fenton Judicial Center in Lawrence. "My child support exceeds my monthly income by $150," he said. "I have to go out to the side of the road to pick up cans in order to be able to pay my child support."

Costa, like many of the 40 or so attendees, suggested basing a non-custodial parents' ability to pay child support on their income tax returns, rather than their weekly paychecks.

The fathers and their supporters -- as well as advocates for increasing child-support requirements statewide -- were in court yesterday as part of a series of public hearings scheduled statewide requesting testimony on child-support guidelines.

By federal mandate, the guidelines are reviewed every four years. They provide a basis for judges to determine what level of child-support payment should be provided to custodial parents.

They also provide a way to bankrupt, or at least severely test, the resources of many fathers who are trying to remain a part of their children's lives, if much of the testimony heard yesterday is to be believed.

"I live from paycheck to paycheck and can barely pay my bills," said Gregory Fair, a West Lebanon, N.H., man whose ex-wife lives in Essex County. "My wife and I can't afford a home, but my ex-wife has a new house filled with electronics, her husband drives a new truck, and her children are going to private school."

"I never imagined the day I would have to pay my batterer $2,100 per month in child support," added George Burdick, a Westborough man who said his ex-wife had been sentenced to probation for attacking him. "If our genders were reversed, there's no way this would have happened."

But frustrated fathers were not the only ones to speak to the panel of two judges and two court administrators who heard the testimony yesterday.

Speaking through a translator, Sunn Ary of Dorchester said she had left an abusive husband and was receiving child support payments -- but a third of the payments had to be used to pay for supervised visitation of her child by the child's father.

"It makes a huge difference," she said.

"There's no question these are difficult issues," added John Welch, a staff attorney for Neighborhood Legal Services in Lynn, who advocates raising the payment guidelines for families in poverty -- the vast majority of which, he said, are headed by women. "The issue of fairness, however, depends on one's perspective."

Judge Edward Ginsburg, one of the panelists, said that after sitting through four of the hearings, he recognized the level of tension that comes from custody disputes.

"The only thing we will get out of this process is everyone more angry," he said.

After weighing the testimony and several studies regarding child support, Barbara A. Dortch-Okara, the chief justice for administration and management of the Massachusetts Trial Court, will set the final guidelines, according to panelist Mary Jane Moreau, a trial court administrator.

The public forums are being held in Massachusetts for the first time since a federal bill requiring state child-support guidelines was passed in 1985.

"Each chief justice has chosen to do their own review," Moreau said. "[Dortch-Okara] feels public input is important."

The new guidelines will be set by Jan. 1, 2002.

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