CHEYENNE — The state House Judicial Committee passed a bill Thursday that would reduce child support payments for low-income parents in Wyoming.
The bill’s intent seems counter-intuitive, but it should bring in more money for children. In many cases, parents obliged to pay child support won’t pay anything if they cannot afford the court-mandated amount, said Brenda Lyttle, child support enforcement director with the Wyoming Department of Family Services.
Under the terms of the bill, the amount the parent is ordered to pay may be less, but there’s more of a chance the order will be enforced, she said.
“All the enforcement methods in the world won’t help if the person doesn’t have the money,” Lyttle said.
Parents who fail to make payments can have their driver’s license suspended, liens placed on their bank accounts or face jail time. The penalties seldom lead to payments, Lyttle said.
“What we’re seeing nationwide in the child support enforcement program is that lower-income fathers are getting orders that they cannot pay because they’re too high,” Lyttle said. “Instead of paying some, they’re paying none. And they’re hiding from us.”
It is better people get something rather than nothing, said Rep. Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs.
“As an attorney who does a lot of domestic relations, (the bill) is a really good thing. We see a lot of low-income folks who are just buried and can’t pay,” said Donna Sheen, attorney with the Wyoming Children’s Law Center.
Lyttle said the new rates are known as “right-size orders.” The bill says that the cost of raising a child dropped from 36 percent of income to 32 percent of expenditures for low-income families. It’s not actually costing less to raise a child, Lyttle said, but the formula used to derive the averages changed.
Federal law requires states to review the child support program every four years. The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services worked with economist Jane Venohr to assess a new payment rate based on the monthly amount families spend on children. The rate takes into consideration costs of food, clothing, medicine and expenses like dance lessons for families with higher incomes, Lyttle said.
The difference is that the old formula looked at the effect of the total cost of big-ticket items to families. In her new formula, Venohr assessed the effects of monthly payments on big-ticket items instead of the overall, long-term cost. Other states throughout the nation are using Venohr’s study as the litmus for deriving the new rates, Lyttle said.
“This method seems to be more accurate,” she said.
Families with larger incomes will not be subject to the lower rates.
Parents with higher incomes will be obliged to pay more in child support, Rep. Keith Gingrey, R-Jackson, said.
The new rates for families in higher income brackets come due to annual increases in wages and inflation, Lyttle said.
The committee also passed a bill that would allow the state to collect more money for victim restitution.
Long-term restitution payments from offenders to victims don’t currently go into the state’s victim compensation fund. If the bill becomes law, they will. The bill would provide a mechanism for the state to collect and disperse long-term payments made to victims who experience long-term mental or physical effects as a result of a crime. Gingrey said the bill was nothing more than clerical clean-up.
“It was kind of a loophole in the law,” said Cara Boyle-Chambers, director of the Division of Victims Services in the state attorney general’s office.
The state does not take a percentage out of the payments. Anyone who commits a misdemeanor or felony pays into the fund. A minimum $150 penalty is tacked onto any fine for misdemeanors or felonies and flows into the victim compensation fund.
If a victim is owed restitution by an offender who is unable to pay, the state will provide restitution from the compensation fund. There is a $15,000 cap for victims but an additional $10,000 for catastrophic circumstances. There is no cap on what an offender must pay. It depends on the crime.
The fund collects around $1 million from 600 claims per year, Boyle-Chambers said.