Father Knows Best

Critics of Minnesota's child-support system object to quick fix

Carrillo calls this calculus "hidden alimony" and "lifestyle support." He argues that because the cost estimates are so much higher than actual expenditures on kids, custodial parents end up pocketing the difference, while the parents paying child support are reduced to "living in their cars."

In reality, hard numbers on the current guidelines' effect on parents' standard of living are hard to come by. There's no statewide database of child-support cases, and not all the data from the county include incomes. The Department of Human Services did conduct a preliminary survey on the impact of the new guidelines and found the differences to be negligible. If the non-custodial parent starts off with more money, he or she still fares better than the custodial parent, even after paying child support.

No one can say exactly how "Shared Responsibility" would affect payment amounts. (The new guidelines will apply only to new cases. Child-support orders already in place will stay the same.) RKIDS has run its own numbers and concluded that there would be an increase in about 80 percent of cases, with the biggest jump facing families with more than one child. But when the Department of Human Services studied a random sampling of cases now in the system, they found that about half would go up and about half would go down.

The "Shared Responsibility" model is poised to pass, if not during this legislative session, then the next. But tension is building: The Senate Judiciary Committee has already held two public hearings on the issue and may add a third in January. In November, the first hearing ended with a room full of people, mostly careworn men, still eager to be heard.

At the second hearing, in early December, about 25 people spoke, most of them fathers who pay child support or their current spouses. As the hearing got under way, state Sen. Leo Foley, the committee chair and a Democrat from Coon Rapids, reminded the room that he wanted to hear specific objections to the bill and concrete recommendations for changing it. What he heard instead was personal story after personal story, all of them heartrending. It became clear that statistics about average spending habits and relative standards of living were of little consolation to those who already feel betrayed and just want to see their kids.

Bob Carrillo and other members of RKIDS were at both hearings. And while victory has so far seemed elusive, they believe their voices will eventually be heard. "They can't just ignore us," Carrillo concludes. "We've ambushed them with the truth."

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