Critics denounce system for child support payments

By Seth Owen, Enterprise staff writer, Brockton Enterprise, July 12, 2001

BROCKTON — In sometimes emotional testimony, mothers and fathers on both sides of the issue vented their frustrations Wednesday over state requirements for child support.

Anna Texeira of Brockton, holding her 3-year-old son, recounted her struggle to raise her child alone while his father lives in the city and chooses not to visit him, she said.

She said the child’s unidentified father has a healthy income, yet she can’t get the $25 per week the court has ordered him to pay.

Michelle Callahan, who is pregnant, described the hardships her family is suffering because her husband has to pay so much in child support he can’t take care of his new family.

She said she is worried about being forced out in the street, while her husband’s ex-wife just bought a $235,000 home.

Then there were the men, who outnumbered women at the hearing and who told how the state’s current child-support requirements impoverish them.

"I’m 41 years old, I work three jobs and I live with my parents," said Ed Derba of Dedham, noting that his ex-wife lives in a $300,000 home and just bought a $50,000 car.

About 80 people filled a room at the new Trial Court on Main Street as probate court judges Edward Ginsburg and Paula Carey and administrator Mary Jane Moreau held one of five public hearings scheduled statewide on child-support guidelines.

They were not there to discuss child custody issues, but to offer input on what payments should be required of noncustodial parents for the care of their children.

Some speakers presented charts and diagrams to outline their views, while others simply stood and spoke from their hearts.

David B. Weden presented research that he said shows child-support obligations in Massachusetts are far higher than other states

While most other states set the amount at about 15 percent of gross income for a single child, in Massachusetts it’s as much as 30 percent, he said.

Martin Bazant said mortgage lenders and federal guidelines say that no more than 36 percent of someone’s income should go for housing, but the state’s child support guidelines are so high he’s left with just 6 percent of his income available.

"I can’t afford to live off my own income," he said. Until he remarried, he said, he had to have roommates and when his 7-year-old son came to visit, they had to sleep in the same bed.

Bazant said the guidelines were inadequate for people with lower incomes because they did not cover the actual costs of raising a child and a lot of fathers fail to pay child support.

On the other hand, he said, the guidelines for middle- and higher-income levels were unfair, amounting to a windfall for many custodial parents.

Earl Henry Sholley of the Fatherhood Coalition said the guidelines are destroying lives and in the end, hurting children because fathers are being put under so much financial and emotional stress.

Steve Olsen of Abington said he faithfully paid child support, but when his children reached college age a judge imposed an additional $10,000 lump sum payment. When he couldn’t pay, Olsen said, he had to serve 30 days in the county House of Correction without a chance to state his case.

Ellen Wilbur of Legal Services in Brockton was the only person to speak in favor of increasing the guidelines in any way.

Wilbur said the $15,000 of the custodial parent’s income that is excluded from consideration in the guidelines should be increased.

"Based on the cost of living it should be $24,000 to afford what it afforded in 1986 (when the guidelines were adopted)," she said.

In the 90-minute hearing, 28 people got the chance to speak, Moreau said. Another 25 people spoke at the first hearing Tuesday in Boston. The hearings are part of the review process mandated by federal law.

"They can require you to review the guidelines, but they can’t require changes," she said.

The review has to be completed by the end of December, she said.

At the close of the hearing, judge Ginsburg said he had 240 people in his court room that morning on probate matters.

"There were 240 people, all of them angry. And when I left, most of them were still angry. You can’t make everybody happy, it’s impossible," he said.

Sholley, of the Fatherhood Coalition, criticized those remarks afterwards as an example of what’s wrong with the system. It’s not a question of making people happy, it’s a question of equity and fairness, he said.

"What hurts fathers hurts the children eventually," Sholley said.

Driving non-custodial parents into bankruptcy, suicide or poverty is not in the best interest of children, he said. He wants the guidelines brought more in line with the norm for other states.

No longer paying child support himself because his children are grown, Sholley said the issue is a "civil rights issue" in his mind.

"Every year that goes on adds to the victim pool," he said.

Written comments on child-support guidelines may be submitted to the Administrative Office of the Massachusetts Trial Court, Attn: Child Support Guideline Review, 2 Center Plaza, Boston 02108.

Seth Owen can be reached at

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