More Hawaii parents look to modify child support payments
By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer
Hawai'i parents owe $515 million in overdue child support and the total is expected to grow as the poor economy and rising unemployment continue to squeeze family budgets.
In the past fiscal year, the number of requests filed by parents to amend their child support obligations increased 25 percent, according to the state Child Support Enforcement Agency.
As CSEA deals with those requests and a rising tide of child support arrearages, the agency is beset by its own budget restrictions and worker furloughs, further straining an operation that is ranked last among all states and U.S. territories in collection of overdue child support.
In 2009, there were 2,208 requests submitted to CSEA to modify child support obligations, compared with 1,780 requests in 2008, according to the Department of the Attorney General, which oversees the child support agency.
State Family Court, which also handles requests to amend child support, doesn't track the number of such motions submitted annually, but Judge Michael Broderick said he's noticed an obvious increase in the requests coming before him.
"Anecdotally, I can tell you that in the last 18 months, the number of parents seeking reductions in child support payments has increased significantly," Broderick said.
"The reasons they give are almost always the same. They have either lost a job or their income has been reduced."
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last week reported that nearly one out of every six workers in Hawai'i was unemployed or underemployed in 2009.
Broderick said custodial and noncustodial parents — those who receive child support payments and those who make them — are struggling in the bad economy.
"It's been interesting to me that in most of these cases, the other parent is very understanding. The mother will say to me, 'Judge, the economy is what it is,' " he said.
Child support is based primarily on the gross income of both parents, with certain adjustments allowed. The average Hawai'i payment totals $3,289 annually, according to Bridget Holthus, special assistant to Attorney General Mark Bennett.
Thomas Farrell, a former deputy attorney general whose private practice specializes in family law, also reports receiving more inquiries from parents about reducing the amount of child support they must pay.
"Here's the dilemma: The poor guy who's lost his job, taken a pay cut or been furloughed doesn't have the money to hire a lawyer to go to court to seek a modification of child support," Farrell said.
"These people are tapped out and when they hear what's involved, they say, 'Thanks a lot, but I can't afford it.' "
Going to the Child Support Enforcement Agency with a request to reduce child support doesn't require the services of a lawyer, but can be a time-consuming process, the attorney said.
"The problem with going to CSEA is you don't have any control over when they're going to act," said Farrell, who used to represent the agency.
A Family Court order to reduce child support is retroactive to the time of the change in the parent's finances, but a CSEA modification takes effect only when the agency determines that such a change is warranted, Farrell said.
Until that determination is made, child support continues to be withheld from an individual's paycheck regardless of wage cuts or other changes in income, he said.
"It's one thing if you lose your job — there's nothing to withhold — but if you've been furloughed five days a month or had your pay reduced, the same amount of money as before is still garnished from your paycheck," he said.
And as noncustodial parents fall behind on child support obligations, the workload increases at CSEA, the agency charged with collecting back payments and forwarding them to custodial parents.
At the end of federal fiscal year 2009, the agency reported 88,129 enforcement cases on its books, or about 380 cases per CSEA worker, Holthus said.
Mandatory work furloughs for state employees "have decreased the number of days on which CSEA can perform its work, including making collections, processing transactions and providing customer service," she said.
The amount of child support arrearages by Hawai'i parents dropped by $59 million over the past four years, but the total still tops a half-billion dollars. Bennett told legislators earlier this year that workers at the agency have one of the highest caseloads in the country.
Agency budget cuts have been offset by temporary increases in federal stimulus funding, Holthus said.
Even before furloughs were implemented last year, CSEA struggled to make the collections. It's a common problem in every state, but Hawai'i has had a particularly dismal record in recent years.
In 2003, the state was ranked last among all states in collecting child support arrearages, with uncollected debts totaling $533.3 million, according to the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement.
CSEA was collecting money in 41 percent of all arrearage cases, ranking Hawai'i last among 54 states and U.S. territories but still ahead of the District of Columbia in 2003.
In 2005, Hawai'i slipped below D.C., with arrearages totaling $574 million, according to federal statistics.
Bennett's office said that total arrearages have since dropped to $515 million, but the state still ranks last in collections, with money collected in 46.5 percent of arrearage cases.
Holthus pointed out "the percentage of cases with arrears collected has increased ... by 4.27 percent between 2006 and 2008, and by 5.5 percent (estimated) between 2006 and 2009."
Bennett has bridled in the past about the method used by federal authorities to compile the statistics.