Time vs. money: Sweeping child care reform proposed

·4 min read

Mar. 23—CONCORD — Lawmakers are proposing sweeping changes to the state's formula for determining child support payments — currently third-highest in the nation — that would factor in how much time each parent spends with the child.

"The joint custody of children is best for society as a whole," said Rep. Patrick Abrami, R-Stratham, sponsoring one of the two key bills to alter the formula (HB 1647). "Today's child support approach in New Hampshire is way out of sync with joint parenting."

But the mother in a landmark 2018 New Hampshire Supreme Court decision said this legislation would unfairly reduce payments to her and other lower-income parents.

"This undercuts everything that I have tried to accomplish over seven years," said Vivian Girard, who is still fighting in court over finances since her divorce from Robert Silva.

"You are going to force us to rely more on the taxpayers for that burden."

The Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in Silva v. Silva overturned a lower court essentially saying the joint parenting arrangement would play no part in how much child support Girard should receive.

The justices said that because Girard had monthly income of $2,872 and household expenses of $4,370, Robert Silva had to pay more child support.

Since that decision, courts have not been routinely accounting for custodial time in child support orders.

Abrami and some parents said that is part of the reason New Hampshire's monthly payments of $1,035 are higher than every other state but Massachusetts ($1,187) and Nevada ($1,146).

"This topic has been kicked down the road since 2016," said Michael Dinan, a divorced father of two daughters who lives in the Portsmouth area. "The higher-income parent is the one who is suffering."

Abrami's bill would make how much time each parent spends with their child part of the support calculation.

"This doesn't change how much child support is given out. This reallocates how the child support is given to each parent," Abrami told a House Finance Committee working group Monday.

Under Abrami's bill and one pending in the Senate (SB 431), the parent who spends less time with the child would have to pay commensurately more in child support to make up that difference.

"We are righting a wrong," said Brenda Towne of Bedford, who led an advocacy group with more than 5,000 parents.

New Hampshire is one of only nine states without a presumption that parenting time will be factored into a child support order.

As a result, New Hampshire, which received a "C" in 2014 from the National Parenting Organization for the fairness of its child support system, has gotten an "F" since 2019, Towne said.

Low-income impact

Many of the changes Abrami presented came from a 2018 Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH report that made recommendations for upgrading the state's child support laws.

Abrami's bill, which the House initially endorsed last month, would expand the buffer for the lowest-income parents, so they would not pay more child support.

About 8% of the 30,000 child support orders processed through the state involve these lowest-income parents, according to Lisa Dekutoski, state director of child support services

Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, said she's concerned that lowering child support orders for some parents will cause a hit on the state budget.

New Hampshire receives $8 million a year in federal matching dollars based on child support orders that involve the state.

It's quite likely state public assistance payments could go up for parents who receive less in child support if this becomes law, Wallner said.

"I don't have enough financial information. I am fairly sure there will be more child care costs for the state," Wallner said.

"Is this new process worth what it should cost? I couldn't defend it, I would put it to study and spend the next several months trying to figure it out. To me, this feels irresponsible for us to pass it on."

Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn, said bringing joint parenting plans back into the process is critical.

Vivian Girard, the poster case for the current system, said during a hearing last month that this bill would create rigid "calculators" that don't consider all individual family circumstances.

"It does not fit every lifestyle," Girard said. "You are just going to create more appeals, more court cases and more pain for families. This is not just a law; this is my life."

klandrigan@unionleader.com