Child support overhaul targets ‘best interests of the children’

Ohio has more than 1 million children in system now, more than $4.9 billion in unpaid support.

Major changes just took effect in the way child support payments in Ohio are calculated — the first overhaul of the system since 1992. The law now better reflects the economic times and acknowledges the support that non-custodial parents bring to child rearing, officials say.

“It really takes a true look at the cost of raising a child,” said Michelle Niedermier, director, Montgomery County Job and Family Services. “It’s important for both parents to be involved in their child’s lives. While we are mandated to focus on the financial support, we also believe in emotional support as well, so we think it encourages families to work closely together and look out for the best interests of the children.”

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The system statewide covered more than 1 million children and resulted in more than $1.6 billion in collections last year, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

But problems in the system run deep, including more than $4.9 billion in unpaid support, some as far back as 1976. The old formula was sometimes blamed for non-custodial parents drifting into the underground economy to avoid wage garnishments.

Most of the debt — nearly 70 percent — is owed by parents who make less than $10,000 a year, child support enforcement officials say.

Niedermier said the new formula accounts for more factors such as credit for shared parenting time and out-of-pocket expenses associated with child care and medical bills.

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The reform changed the system in additional ways:

• Economic data used to calculate orders — some from the early 1980s — was updated. New data allow for the calculation of orders for families with combined income of up to $300,000, up from $150,000;

• Changed the minimum order to $80 a month, up from $50 a month;

• Allows state workers to update child support formula tables, rather than require lawmakers to approve updates;

• Capped allowable credit given for child care expenses so low-income support payers are limited to sharing half of child care costs; and

• Established a “self-sufficiency reserve” to make sure low-income parents don’t face child support orders that far exceed their ability to pay.

RELATED: Fraud, poor collection rates plague Ohio’s child support system

Montgomery County had nearly 44,901 active child support cases during the 2018 fiscal year. Greene County had 8,543, Miami County 7,556 and Warren County 11,820.

Bill Beagle, a Republican former legislator from Tipp City, helped work on the Ohio Senate bill while also chairing the Ohio Commission on Fatherhood.

“We became familiar with the amount of arrearages that dads have and some of the struggles that dads have … in making ends meet,” Beagle said. “We knew that there was a big problem.”

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The remade system will be fairer for the fathers and benefit their children, said Eli Williams, founder and CEO of Urban Light Ministries in Springfield. Williams runs programs in Clark and Montgomery counties for men striving to be good fathers, but who often fall short making child support payments.

“If it results in the child support payer being able to pay, that’s a good thing for his child,” he said. “Whereas, if it’s out of reach … and they just bail on it, that’s not helping anyone.”

Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed the bill last June, and the updated law took effect March 28.

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The changes, however, are not retroactively applied across-the-board. The new rules apply to new child support orders, and those cases that undergo a triennial review.

“This rule going into effect doesn’t mean that all cases that meet the standards will be automatically updated,” Niedermier said. “We will still be doing the reviews on that three-year cycle as has been the practice, or upon request if there’s a significant change in either household.”

The law — which had broad but not unanimous support — will eventually do what lawmakers intended, Beagle said.

“We think by having awards that recognized the appropriate income levels and expenses, you’re going to have a better collection rate, which means you’re going to have more money there to support the children, which is ultimately what we need,” he said.

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