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December 22, 2014

State panel to review child support payments

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Posted: Friday, July 25, 2014 6:18 pm | Updated: 7:20 pm, Fri Jul 25, 2014.

MONTGOMERY — A state advisory board voted Friday to find an outside company to study Alabama's guidelines governing how much divorced parents have to pay for child support.

The 15-member Alabama Child Support Advisory Board voted unanimously to seek an outside firm to look at changes in the cost of living since the current guidelines were adopted in 2009.

The review could lead to an upward bump in child support awards, and the vote disappointed some fathers' rights activists.

“I pay $14,000 in child support, and it's tax-free for my wife,” said Kenneth Holder,  a Gordo resident who makes $78,000 per year as a school administrator. “It doesn't take $14,000 to raise my kids.”

Every four years, the board — composed largely of family law judges and lawyers — is tasked with reviewing the state's guidelines for child support. Any proposed changes go to the Alabama Supreme Court for approval.

Past reviews have led to increases in child support awards. Before 2009, a father making $3,000 per month — or $36,000 per year — could expect to pay $437 per month for child support for one child. In 2009, that went up to $579.

Many never make those payments, at least not in full. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, parents with custody of children collected only 62 percent of the $38 billion in child support owed them in 2011, the last year for which nationwide numbers are available.

Still, some divorced fathers, and groups that advocate for them, say the courts are asking for too much.

"It's too high," said Michael Polemeni, a member of the advisory board. Polemeni is a member and past president of the Alabama Family Rights Association. The group was originally founded as the Alabama Fathers' Rights Association, according to state records, but Polemeni said the group is not a fathers' rights group, and the group's website says women make up mostly half its membership. The group advocates for noncustodial parents.

Polemeni and other board members say he is on the board to fulfill a requirement to have a non-lawyer on the board. That requirement was imposed by a federal court after a suit against the state, Polemeni said.

Transcripts of the board's meetings show that Polemeni has asked the board to consider a number of changes to the system. He proposed capping child support at the amount the state pays foster parents, and he proposed putting child support payments on debit cards, with receipts for expenditures on the card going to the parent paying child support.

Committee members seemed disinclined to make major changes in the system, voting to limit their review to cost-of-living changes.

"I think we'd better keep what we've got, at least the basic philosophy," said Madison County Circuit Judge William Bell, a member of the committee. Broader changes could be “the biggest mess we've ever seen,” he said.   

Holder, the Gordo school administrator, spoke during the meeting's public comments period, as did another father who has paid child support. No one rose to speak on behalf of child support recipients.

The payment guidelines may not be the biggest issue facing recipients of child support, Susan Shipman, director of the Anniston-based women’s shelter Second Chance, said by telephone after the meeting.

It doesn't matter how much a judge awards, she said, if a non-custodial parent isn't paying.

"I don't think the repercussions for not paying child support are really enough to make a reluctant parent pay," she said.

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