Support levels high in Mass.

By Martin Luttrell, Telegram & Gazette Staff , Wednesday, July 18, 2001

WORCESTER-- Mark Gilbert recalled yesterday how he saved his daughter from a tub of scalding water and shielded her from her mother's fists, taking the blows meant for the little girl.

But when his wife accused him of abuse -- falsely, he maintains -- the court awarded her custody of his child and sentenced him to a life of poverty, according to Mr. Gilbert.

The Fitchburg resident told his story yesterday to a panel of judges in Worcester Superior Court. He was one of several men and women who gave sometimes emotional testimony about their experiences with the state's child support laws.

A few women at the hearing asserted that the laws are fair and just, and do protect children. But the clear majority yesterday -- men and women -- argued that child support payments awarded by Massachusetts' courts are among the highest in the country and are unfair to men.

The hearing was one of five being conducted throughout the state to take oral and written comments on the current judicial guidelines for child custody cases.

Those guidelines are being reviewed by the state's Trial Court. Once the hearings are concluded, Judge Barbara Dortch-Okara, chief justice for administration and management, will decide what, if any, changes will be made.

Any changes would go into effect in January, according to Mary Jane

Moreau, director of planning and development for the Administrative Office of the Trial Court. She said federal law requires that state child support guidelines be reviewed every four years.

Dr. Edwin C. Holstein, president of The Fatherhood Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates for fathers' rights, said after the session that the hearings mark the first time public comment has been solicited as part of the guideline review process.

This wouldn't have happened without our pressure, he said. Since these guidelines were promulgated in 1986, the reviews have been done in secrecy. We applaud Justice Barbara Dortch-Okara for opening this up.

We're talking about $1.4 billion being paid in Massachusetts. ... We believe this should be the first step in a dialogue. True dialogue means sitting down at a table.

Judges use the state's child support guidelines to help determine how much money the parent granted custody of a child should receive. The current guidelines are based largely on the income level of the non-custodial parent and the number of children, although judges do have some discretion to increase or decrease the amount.

Under the current guidelines, noncustodial parents must pay between 15 percent and 33 percent of their gross weekly income for child support, depending on the number of children. Those percentages increase for older children.

Mr. Gilbert, who said he worked as a rape crisis counselor until his involvement with The Fatherhood Coalition, told the judicial panel that the courts do not recognize that men suffer abuse at the hands of their spouses. He said that he makes $8.30 an hour and pays $130 a week -- nearly 40 percent of his gross income -- in child support.

Megan Christopher and Jennifer Valienti, lawyers who have represented domestic violence victims, urged that child support payments not be reduced.

I strongly oppose any change in the guidelines that would lessen child support payments, Ms.Valienti said. We're talking about support for children, not punishment for noncustodial parents, she said.

Many women are fearful to even apply for child support because they think it will mean visitation rights for the abuser.

Ms. Christopher said her agency, South Middlesex Legal Services, looks closely at how its clients spend their money, including child support.

It's a constant effort to maintain themselves and their children, she said. People who receive this support cannot afford things that most people take for granted. The cost of housing and energy have increased dramatically. The cost for a multi-bedroom apartment is astronomical.

But some testified that the courts are stacked against men in custody cases, and that women exploit the system, refusing to work while their ex-husbands take on additional jobs to make ends meet.

There seems to be a major prejudice in the courts, said Maureen Tallen. There are more good men than bad. The guidelines amount to spousal support. Twenty-nine point nine percent of my husband's income goes to child support. That's nearly two times the New York guidelines.

I adore my stepson, she said. His mother won't buy him Rollerblades or a skateboard. We have that at our house, and if we send them home with him she'll throw them out.

Christi Berry testified that her husband's ex-spouse is living with another man and receiving child support, and is demanding more. She chooses not to work even though she got assistance in getting an associate's degree, she said.

Women are responsible for their actions. It's not all the fault of men. She's raping the system.

Additional hearings will be held today in Lawrence and on Tuesday in Springfield.

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