RD250 - Quadrennial Summary of the Child Support Guideline Review Panel

Executive Summary:
[The report is amended because a Panel member was unavailable for a long period of time, missing the commentary period, and wished to provide a dissenting opinion. The report is thus modified by the addition of the attached pages (pgs. 80-89), and a fuller explanation is included therein in a cover note from the Panel’s Chairman. (December, 2005)]

The Child Support Enforcement program was established in 1975, under Title IV-D of the federal Social Security Act. It was initially intended mostly as a vehicle for recovering a portion of federal and state public assistance payments. That purpose continues as one of the program's components, with custodial parents seeking public assistance required to apply for child support enforcement, and to cooperate in locating the no custodial parent and relevant assets, as a condition of receiving the parent's portion of the family's public assistance grant.

Welfare reform and related federal legislation during the 1980s and '90s led to reductions in public assistance child support cases - at the same time substantially expanding the scope of the program to include non-public assistance parents who may apply for services or be referred by the courts. Such cases by now are by far the largest portion of Virginia's child support caseload. Whereas public assistance (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families - TANF) applicants are referred to DCSE by the local Departments of Social Services (LDSS), non-public assistance cases may enter the program through various avenues: for example, by direct application to DCSE; through the courts; from other states or countries; and through the foster care process.

Though federally-mandated, the program is administered by the states. It is heavily-regulated and largely financed by the federal government, and in recent years has used little or no Virginia General Funds. In Virginia, cases may be established either judicially or administratively, with program enforcement directly administered by the Division of Child Support Enforcement of the Commonwealth's Department of Social Services.

Child Support Guidelines

One federal requirement is that states establish and utilize "guidelines" to set the criteria for determination of parental obligations to provide financial support for their child(ren) when their cases come before either a court or an administrative child support enforcement office. In Virginia, these guidelines are in Code of Virginia §§ 20-108.1and.2.

The federal government also requires that states conduct substantive reviews of their guidelines at least quadrennially, and make appropriate adjustments if warranted. Code § 20-108.2H sets out the requirements and processes for these reviews, to be conducted by a fifteen member Panel, the makeup of which is described in the full Panel report. The Panel has completed its deliberations for 2005, and both this Executive Summary and full Report will be submitted to the Governor and General Assembly before the 2006 Assembly session convenes.

Framing the Debate

Just as the child support enforcement program has become larger, more complicated and more sophisticated over the thirty-plus years of its existence, its purposes and desired outcomes have also become the subject of increasing debate on the part of advocates of the various populations and groups having either direct involvement(e.g. parents and children of non-intact families) or related or overlapping interests (e.g., parents earning less than poverty-level incomes; fathers' or mothers' rights advocates; advocates for incarcerated noncustodial parents; etc.).

The Panel invited representatives of many such groups to provide input for its consideration, through invited testimony, self-initiated submissions and public hearings/comment periods. When over the course of several months and many lengthy debates it became apparent that some such issues had conflicting perspectives, little uncontradicted data and insufficient Panel member support, the decision was made to stay with the existing "Income Shares" guideline model and limit Panel recommendations to key improvements to bring it up to date.

The cited Code sections include a Schedule of presumed total financial support award amounts for the possible combinations of total parental gross income and number of covered children, and legislative prescriptions for the Schedule's use by both the courts and the Division of Child Support Enforcement (DCSE). The prescriptions include definitions of deviation factors through which courts or DCSE may adjust Schedule amounts when warranted in particular cases. In practice, DCSE offices are authorized to apply only one deviation factor when they are the ones who set the child support obligations, whereas the courts may apply all of them.

Virginia is one of the more than three-fourths of states utilizing variants of the" Income Shares" method of determining child support obligations. Under this approach, the combined gross income of both parents is used, along with the number of children to be supported, to calculate the presumed child support obligation. That obligation is then pro-rated between the parents according to their proportion of the total income.

The Commonwealth's present Schedule was enacted in 1988, utilizing data and research findings from a decade or more earlier. Data for determining obligation amounts are based on national studies of the costs of raising children in intact families, with the underlying philosophy that to the maximum possible extent, the child(ren)affected by the dissolution of whatever relationship gave them life, should continue to be maintained insofar as possible at the same standard of living they would have enjoyed if the family were intact.

A number of groups and individuals representing the interests of non-custodial parents (NCPS) oppose the income shares approach. Some of these, as well as advocates of other perspectives, are concerned about the equity of requirements and fairness of practices having to do with custody and visitation determinations, geographical differences and/or other issues they perceive as warranting changes in the Guideline. The Panel devoted considerable time and discussion to these concerns, but ultimately decided its priorities for 2005 should be primarily to retain but modernize the Virginia income shares Schedule, clarify the deviation factors, and provide added protection for the lowest-income parents (both custodial and noncustodial) through a self-supp6rt reserve based on the most recent federal cost-of-living formula.

Data and Methodology Issues

Senate Joint Resolution 192 of the 2000 General Assembly Session directed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) to examine "the costs of raising children in Virginia when parents live in separate households," and to "develop data that can [be] used to determine appropriate child support amounts." In Senate Document 9, its Technical Report: The Costs of Raising Children, dated November 7, 2000, JLARC concluded that "it would not be cost-effective for the General Assembly to attempt a new, Virginia-specific data collection effort."

The JLARC report recommended a methodology for using current nationwide data to estimate expenditures on children, and to help evaluate present Guidelines or develop new ones. Its recommendations were to continue the use of the income shares approach; to continue the use of data on husband-wife households as the most comprehensive and accurate available; and to utilize a number of technical estimating models for estimating expenditures on children. This approach was followed in the development of a proposed new Schedule by the 2001-2002 Guideline Review Panel. Though submitted as proposed legislation in the 2003 General Assembly, this bill did not pass. The legislative proposals in this 2005 Panel report, however, keep the existing Schedule as their basis but propose cost of living and self support reserve adjustments as described above.

Synopsis of the Panel's Legislative Recommendations

1. That the General Assembly adopt an updated Schedule of Monthly Child Support Obligations, that legislative language be included stating the new Schedule shall be implemented prospectively, and that, for purposes of review or modification, implementation of the new Schedule shall not be considered a material change of circumstances.

2. That § 20-108.1 (B) be amended to delete duplication and clarify this section of the Code.

3. That § 20-108.2 be amended to strike unnecessary references, to insert language to incorporate a self-support reserve and to clarify this Section of the Code.

Additional Legislative Recommendations Not Formally Voted Upon but Having Substantial Panel Support*

1. That in situations where child support arrearages still exist at the time the youngest child covered by an order is emancipated, the Code be amended to allow the collection of arrears payments to continue at the same total amount due under the terms of the existing child support order until arrearages are satisfied.

2. That in order to overcome the difficulty of correctly prorating payments by noncustodial parents having multiple child support cases and varying "charge dates" throughout the month, the Code be amended to make the effective date of all child support orders, including modified orders, be the first of the month (initial payments on other dates to be prorated through the end of that month).

*(Individual Panel members from the General Assembly have signaled their intent to introduce both of these proposals in the 2006 session.)