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Written by Tianna Terry, Staff Attorney

Dec 02

2011

Child Support Community Legal Services Project Expands Coverage, Receives Additional Assistance

About five months ago, Legal Aid and Bread for the City began the pilot phase of the Child Support Community Legal Services Project.  Through the Project, which is funded by the DC Bar Foundation, attorneys provide legal information, advice, and same-day representation to custodial and noncustodial parents with cases in the Paternity and Child Support Branch of DC Superior Court.  The Project opened its doors at the end of June, and provided legal assistance in well over 100 cases by the end of October.  Project attorneys initially covered one of the three magistrate judges’ calendars twice a week, but have since expanded services and are now staffing the Project four days a week and covering all the magistrate judges’ calendars.  

The Project has several partners that provide critical support.  The law firm of Crowell & Moring LLP provides paralegal support two days a week.  The DC Bar Pro Bono Program assists with eligibility screening and provides legal information and advice to litigants who are not eligible for Project services because of residency and/or income.  Catholic University Columbus School of Law students and professors from the General Practice Clinic also advise custodial and noncustodial parents about their rights and the legal arguments for their case.

With the assistance of these partners, Legal Aid and Bread for the City have been able to help hundreds of parents navigate the often-daunting legal process and obtain fair, accurate child support orders for their children.  The vast majority of the parents that the Child Support Project has served are residents of Ward 8, the poorest, most racially segregated area in the District.  In these challenging economic times, families need legal assistance with child support cases more than ever.  While the need for financial support has become more acute among custodial parents, noncustodial parents find it more difficult to get and keep employment and pay child support.  

The first several months of the Child Support Community Legal Services Project have been very successful.  We hope to serve even more families in the coming months and will continue to strive to increase access to justice for low-income District residents.

Mar 26

2010

Child Support Services Division Falling Short of Fulfilling Its Mandate

Tianna Terry On Friday, March 19, I testified before the DC Council Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary about the performance of the Child Support Services Division of the Office of the Attorney General (CSSD).  Legal Aid also submitted joint written testimony about CSSD’s performance with Bread for the City, another legal services provider that handles child support cases.

CSSD is responsible for establishing and enforcing child support orders in the District.  In these difficult economic times, District families need CSSD’s services more than ever before.  For families living at two hundred percent (200%) of the poverty level, child support composes about thirty percent (30%) of their income.  When properly administered, child support helps lift children out of poverty and provides a measure of stability for low-income families.

Although CSSD has developed several promising initiatives over the last year, there are longstanding, ongoing problems with the District’s child support program that CSSD still has not successfully resolved.  CSSD continues to fall short of fulfilling its mandate.  For example, in FY 2008, CSSD established orders in only fifty-five (55%) of its cases, compared to the national average of seventy-nine (79%).

Many of CSSD’s performance issues can be addressed with minimal or no cost to the District.  For example, in order to adequately serve families, CSSD must adopt a family-friendly customer service model, which mainly requires changing the message in CSSD’s staff training materials and customer materials.  In addition, the Council should increase its oversight of CSSD by holding regular hearings to review the agency’s performance.  Also, to increase transparency and accountability, information about CSSD’s goals, performance, policies and procedures, and budget should be accessible to the public.

Hopefully, the oversight hearing was the beginning of a dialogue about how to ensure that CSSD can help more District families obtain the financial support that their children need and deserve.

Jul 15

2009

Advocates Successfully Lobby the DC Council to Increase the Self-Support Reserve for Child Support Obligors

Tianna TerryOn June 16, 2009, the DC Council passed emergency legislation, introduced by Councilmember Phil Mendelson, to increase the “self-support reserve” for noncustodial parents who are court-ordered to pay child support.  Mayor Adrian Fenty signed the bill on July 6, 2009.  This legislation is essential to preserving a provision of the District’s child support law that ensures that child support orders are fair.

The self-support reserve is the amount of annual income that child support obligors can set aside to meet their personal subsistence needs.  This amount is subtracted from the obligor’s income before the child support obligation is determined.  In the District, the self-support reserve is 133% of the annual federal poverty guideline for a single individual, which is $14,404 for 2009 (the current federal poverty level for a household of one is $10,830).  If a noncustodial parent earns less than the self-support reserve amount, the judge calculates the parent’s child support obligation on a case-by-case basis rather than using the standard formula.  Several states, including New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon, have similar laws.  The self-support reserve is critical to ensuring that child support obligors can both financially support their children and pay for their most basic needs. 

DC child support law clearly mandates that the self-support reserve must be updated every two years by publishing the new amount in the DC Register.  The reserve amount should have been updated by April 1, 2009.  Nevertheless, because the statute did not indicate which government body was responsible for updating the reserve amount, the task went undone for three months. 

The self-support reserve was finally updated on July 6, 2009 because advocates persistently lobbied DC government officials.  The advocacy effort was led by the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, with support from Legal Aid and Bread for the City.  Advocates initially tried to persuade the DC Child Support Services Division (CSSD), the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), and the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Legislative Affairs to simply publish the new self-support reserve amount in the DC Register and update the online Child Support Guideline Calculator (which is maintained by CSSD).  However, these attempts failed.  CSSD insisted that new legislation was necessary to update the reserve amount, and the Mayor’s Office contended that the District’s Child Support Guideline Commission needed to be reconvened to review the matter.  Advocates then turned their lobbying efforts to the DC Council, and were ultimately successful.

While this tug-of-war ensued, child support orders were being calculated incorrectly at DC Superior Court everyday because the online Child Support Guideline Calculator that the Court uses included the old self-support reserve figure.  Estimates by DC Appleseed indicate that DC Superior Court enters more than 200 child support orders each month. 

Although noncustodial parents at various income levels were negatively impacted by the District’s failure to update the self-support reserve, those living in poverty were especially harmed.  The updated self-support reserve amount ($14,404) is $2,022 more than the old amount ($12,382).  This increase is particularly significant in these difficult economic times. 

The District’s failure to update the self-support reserve resulted in child support orders being entered that low-income obligors could not afford to pay.  The obligors who managed to pay these inflated child support orders have incurred substantial hardship to do so.  Those who failed to make the court-ordered payments have accumulated debt.  Failure to pay this debt carries significant consequences, including driver’s license suspension, seizure of income tax refunds and bank account funds, and incarceration. 

The emergency legislation passed by the DC Council requires the DC Child Support Services Division to ensure that all child support orders entered on or after April 1, 2009 are modified appropriately.  Legal Aid and other child support advocates will make every effort to make sure that this happens. 

For more information about advocates’ efforts to update the self-support reserve, read the testimony that Legal Aid submitted to the DC Council about the issue.