Families Getting Child Support Unhappy About New Fee

Friday, September 7th 2007, 3:50 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Millions of families that turned to federal and state governments for help in collecting child support payments will now have to pay more for the service.

Beginning Oct. 1, families will have to pay $25 annually when states have collected at least $500 on their behalf. Families that previously received public assistance will be exempted.

The $25 will help reduce the federal deficit and compensate the federal government and the states for providing a child support program. Two-thirds of the fee will go the federal government; one-third to the state.

For Claudia Fauntleroy of Petersburg, Va., the notice was akin to getting a $25 parking ticket in the mail. Her immediate reaction? ``You've got to be kidding me.''

Fauntleroy said she would be glad to pay the fee if it would help customers get better service, but she has spent too many hours waiting in lines for help she termed inadequate to think that will happen.

``I see this system and I really wonder why I'm paying this,'' Fauntleroy said.

State officials fought the assessment, which will get the federal government about $172 million over five years. Even as they lobby Congress to overturn the fee, state officials try to get parents to look on the bright side.

``The fee works out to $2 a month for those who are going to have to pay it,'' said Nick Young, who oversees Virginia's child support efforts. ``I don't think you could hire an accountant, a lawyer, a paralegal and a caseworker to work on your child support cases for $2 a month anywhere else.''

States get involved in child support cases when something has gone wrong and emotions run high - on both sides. The non-custodial parent has fallen behind in making payments, or refuses to pay child support. The state helps locate the non-custodial parent and it takes steps to ensure payment, such as by withholding money from a paycheck or an income tax refund.

``I think it's fair to say that services provided are a good buy at $25, but of course, $25 to these families are maybe milk and Pampers for a week,'' said Larry McKeown, who oversees South Carolina's child support program.

For poor families with one parent, child support collections amount to about a third of their income, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy, a liberal research group.

Congress approved the fee as part of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. Some states have already begun collecting the fee. Several other states will begin collecting it after the new fiscal year kicks in on Oct. 1. Those states include Virginia, South Carolina, Iowa, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Overall, the federal government estimates that about 3.8 million families will pay the $25.

States have the option of paying the costs, charging the custodial parent, or charging the non-custodial parent.

Two states Florida and West Virginia have announced they will cover the $25 cost.

The large majority of states have opted to make the custodial parent pay.

Young said that the child support owed in Virginia by the non-custodial parent averages between $6,000 and $7,000. If the state were to add the $25 fee to that tab, it would likely never collect.

``They'll say 'add it to my bill. Have a nice trip,''' Young said.

As a result, taxpayers would end up footing the bill for a program they're not directly participating in, so most states consider it more fair to assess the fee to the custodial parent, he said.

Young said that Virginia would use proceeds from the fee to improve customer service. Depending upon the size of a state's caseload, the fee will generate anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to several million dollars each year.

Some child support directors also say the fee creates a sense of ownership for customers, and as a result, they may be more cooperative with staff. Families also pay a $25 application fee to get a state's help in obtaining child support.

The $25 annual fee is just one of several changes that Congress approved last year for child support programs. State officials are most concerned about a change that will lower federal payments to the states by an estimated $1.6 billion over five years.

The federal government awards states that meet certain performance measures. In the past, when states spent that money on their child support programs, it generated a match from the federal government. Congress voted to no longer let states use the bonuses to leverage additional federal funding.

In comments submitted to a House Ways and Means subcommittee, state child support officials said the change ``will very likely lead to a dramatic downsizing of the work force, resulting in much higher caseloads per worker and fewer cases being worked successfully.''

So far, many states' governors appear intent on making up for the cut. The Lewin Group conducted a survey of 28 child support directors, and the researchers noted that 24 governors had proposed full replacement of the lost federal money. Many child support directors are worried, however, that the full replacement may not continue in future years.

Some members of Congress are also considering repealing the $1.6 billion cut. The House Ways and Means Committee scheduled a briefing for Monday to learn from child support officials about how less federal money could affect collections in individual states.