Father Knows Best

Bob Carrillo does not fit the stereotype of a single father grappling with Minnesota's child-support system. He's not trying to dodge his financial responsibilities. He's not even trying to milk the system. In fact, he's sending money back--in protest.

A custodial parent of a teenage son, Carrillo receives $525 a month in child support from his ex-wife. Every month he writes her a check for $200 and sends it back. He says it's a matter of principle: He knows how much it costs to raise a kid, and he says $325 is an adequate supplement to his income.

Carrillo, who works as a financial consultant, has taken to fighting the child-support system from an office in the back of his comfortable south Minneapolis home. It is like working a second job. Fat manila folders are stacked six deep on his desk, newspaper clippings and charts are falling from the drawers, and there are a half-dozen cardboard storage boxes strewn on the floor. He has served on four government task forces relating to child-support and custody issues and is the communications director for Remembering Kids In Divorce Settlements (more commonly known as RKIDS), an organization that vehemently opposes the state's child-support guidelines.

In 1983 Minnesota was one of the first states in the country to adopt guidelines for child support. And to this day, the system is predicated on two factors: the income of the parent who pays and the number of kids involved. Non-custodial parents are ordered to pay a percentage of their income based on the number of kids they support--at most income levels, that amounts to 25 percent for one child, 30 percent for two, 35 percent for three, and so on. But an underlying assumption is that it's non-working parents, mostly mothers, who are being left with the kids (and being supported by the state), and Dad who is living away from the family, earning most of the money. Wayland Campbell, director of the child-support division at the Department of Human Services, believes the equation is antiquated: "The guidelines we're working with now are based on a model where Dad works and Mom stays at home," he says. "And I don't think that's true anymore--if it ever was true."

So after the New Year, Minnesota lawmakers will consider legislation based on a recommendation from the Department of Human Services, dubbed "Shared Responsibility," which is designed to spread the costs of child rearing more evenly. If, for example, parents have similar incomes, they will split childcare costs in half. If the parent paying child support makes twice as much as the custodial parent, then he or she can expect to shoulder two-thirds of the financial burden. The idea is to create the same dynamic that would exist in a two-parent household.

At face value, it seems like a change that would satisfy those who have long been lobbying against a process they contend is rife with gender bias. Most agencies involved in setting and enforcing child support have come out soundly in favor of the new guidelines, including the Children's Defense Fund, the Minnesota Association of County Social Service Administrators, and the Family Law Section of the Minnesota Bar. But Carrillo, and other groups who represent those who pay child support (often lumped together as "fathers' rights" groups), say the proposal is lacking. "It's tantamount to slapping a brand-new paint job on an old, rusted-out Chevy with a bad motor and a bad transmission," he says. "It's still burning too much gas and leaking way too much oil."

Simply put, those who object to the legislation believe that child-support payments, while more equitably distributed, are still way too high. To make his point, Carrillo points to numbers that come from other state agencies. For instance, a family that takes in a foster child with no special needs receives between $448 and $549 a month from the state. If the new child-support guidelines were to pass, a family making $45,000 a year would be expected to spend $625 a month on one child.

And then there are the intangibles to consider. For example, how does one estimate what percentage of the rent or mortgage is consumed by each member of a household? If it's Mom, Dad, and baby at home, do you divide by three or do you take the difference between a one-bedroom and a two-bedroom rental apartment? Do you figure that kids consume less living space than adults because they're small and can sleep in the spare bedroom? Or do you assume that they consume more because kids cause more damage and need to live in an area with lawns and good schools? Finally, and most contentious, should child support cover the basic needs of a child or should it require parents to spend a statistical average, based on income?

"There's a huge disagreement on what child support is supposed to be. And some people think that it should be what I'm going to call unflatteringly a 'minimum' amount, for what a child needs," Campbell observes. "Our approach is not that, but what parents spend on their children. The children should not suffer because their parents are divorced but should be afforded the standard of living that their parents would provide if they were together."

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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