$270M in Child Support Owed in Rhode Island

Monday, November 15, 2010


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As much as $271 million in child support payments and interest is past due in Rhode Island—taking a toll on thousands of Ocean State families as well as affecting the state budget.

Not counting interest, $185.8 million is in arrears, as of November 12, 2010, according to data GoLocalProv obtained from the state Office of Child Support Services. “You look at these numbers—it’s just awakening,” said Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, D-Woonsocket. “If we’re facing a $400 million deficit, this is half our deficit. It just gives you an idea of how significant that number is.”

The exact amount owed to date—including interest—is $271,880,122.92.

In the last session, Baldelli-Hunt sponsored a bill that would have required the state to publish a list of the non-custodial parents in arrears for $2,500 or more. It never came to a vote, but she says she may introduce the legislation again in the next session—or at least hold hearings on how to support the efforts of state employees to improve collections on delinquent child support payments.

In a statement, House Speaker Gordon Fox applauded the move to clamp down on delinquency. “I support all efforts to make sure that the people who owe money in our state pay off their debts,” Fox said told GoLocalProv.

Nearly half of parents late in 2009

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In 2009 alone, 49 percent of non-custodial parents were either behind on their payments or paid them on time, but not in the full amount, according to data compiled by Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, a local advocacy organization.

“Isn’t that a red flag to tell you that something is wrong and that we need to make changes to reduce that percentage?” Baldelli-Hunt said.

Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT joined Baldelli-Hunt in calling for change. “Aspects of the system—not just in Rhode Island but also the country—have fallen short of the goal of being able to ensure that all child support payments are in full and on time,” Bryant told GoLocalProv. “While there has been some progress in Rhode Island, we need to increase our effort.”

The state does already have a wide array of tools and resources at its disposal to collect back payments. Those include: deductions from federal tax refunds; liens on bank accounts, insurance settlements, and real estate; revoking driver’s licenses, denial of passport applications; and reporting the situation to credit bureaus.

Impact on families and children

The back payments have a significant, wide-reaching impact—affecting not just families, but also the state welfare program, the state budget, and even the economy.

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“It’s a lot of money that is needed by the families that are using the money and certainly a great percentage of that money that is in arrears could play a major role in the economic well-being of these families and the state as a whole,” Bryant told GoLocalProv.

For low-income families in the program, child support payments constitute nearly half of their income, or 48 percent. Beyond financial need, research also shows that non-custodial fathers who make payments are more involved in the lives of their children. Those children also tend to do better in school, according to KIDS COUNT.

Cost to the state budget

Beyond the impact to individual families, there are consequences for the state budget. About 11 percent of the children in the program are also in the state welfare program, Rhode Island Works. In those cases, most of the child support payments are used to reimburse the state—only about $50 of the average $253 monthly payment goes directly to the family.

As of this month, $62,984,521.15 was owed to these children and their custodial parents. And the interest on those past due payments had climbed to $32,849,923.17, according to the Office of Child Support Services. (Interest is applied at the rate of 1 percent per month on the unpaid balance.)

Reliability of records in question

But identifying just how much money back payments are costing the state—specifically the state welfare program—is no simple task.

In the first place, those totals include payments owed non-custodial parents in Rhode Island and to custodial parents who have moved out of state—the Office of Child Support Services did not separate the two in its report. And those payments that are made have to be shared with the federal government: about 66 percent of each dollar is used to reimburse the federal government for welfare funding it provides the state, according Sharon Santilli, an associate director at the Department of Human Services.

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Then there is the thorny issue of “false arrears”—back payments that may not actually be past due for any number of reasons, according to Santilli. Those reasons include:

• the non-custodial parent may be sending payments directly to the custodial parent without notifying the Office of Child Support Services
• the child may have moved out of state and new case was created for the child without deleting the old in-state case
• the court order for child support could have been changed in a private court hearing and the attorneys did not fill out the proper paperwork to change the order in the system
• the custody or placement of the child could have been changed and the parent’s attorney did not complete the proper paperwork
• the court order was suspended and the parent’s attorney did not complete the proper paperwork

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$50 million in false debts removed from system

Santilli said the state used economic stimulus funds to undertake a manual review of cases that are in arrears, ultimately removing about $50 million in false arrears from the records. But she said she could not be sure the Office of Child Support Services had gotten rid of all the false arrears.

“Staff resources cannot be dedicated to case clean-up on a daily basis. There are 56,000 cases currently. There are fewer than 34 workers dedicated to caseloads,” Santilli said. “The staff must focus on establishing paternity, establishing medical and child support orders, modifying orders, and enforcing those orders. Clean-up is secondary to the core mission of the program.”

Photo of childen courtesy of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT.


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