June 20 marked the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Turner v. Rogers case. (See the July 2012 Child Support Report.) Mr. Turner, the noncustodial parent, was ordered to pay $51.73 per week in child support. Over the course of several years, he was held in civil contempt for nonpayment and incarcerated a number of times.
After the last hearing, Mr. Turner appealed. He alleged that his constitutional rights were violated. He argued that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment required the state to provide him with appointed counsel in a civil contempt hearing that could lead to incarceration. Neither the custodial parent nor the state child support program was represented by an attorney at the hearing.
In Turner, the Supreme Court held (based upon the circumstances in his case) that a state does not necessarily need to provide counsel to a defendant in a child support civil contempt proceeding, as long as the state provides adequate procedural safeguards. The Supreme Court said that due process does require an express finding by the state court that the noncustodial parent has the ability to pay the purge order based upon the individual facts of the case. Last month, I issued policy guidance for state child support agencies implementing the Turner decision and information about alternatives to incarceration.
As a result of the Turner v. Rogers decision, state child support agencies and courts are examining their civil contempt procedures. The goal is not to eliminate contempt procedures in cases where it may be appropriate, but instead to implement fair and cost-effective procedures that assure that families receive reliable child support payments, improve fairness and access to justice for parents without an attorney, and reduce the need for jail time. Incarceration may indeed be appropriate in those cases where noncustodial parents can afford to support their children but willfully evade their parental responsibilities by hiding income and assets. However, jail is not appropriate for noncustodial parents who do not have the means to pay their child support debts.
The first step to reducing the need for contempt hearings is to set accurate child support orders. The research is clear that setting realistic orders based on actual income can actually improve compliance, increasing both the amount of child support collected and the consistency of payment. The research says that compliance falls off when orders are set above 15 to 20 percent of a noncustodial parent’s income.
On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. For the 30 million Americans who don’t yet have health insurance, this law will offer an array of quality, affordable, private health insurance plans to choose from starting in 2014. Those who can’t afford insurance will get tax credits that make coverage affordable.
Already, 34 states including the District of Columbia have received 100 percent federally funded grants to set up health insurance marketplaces, known as exchanges, which will allow individuals and small businesses to compare and choose private health plans. Each state will take the lead in designing its own menu of options. In the child support program, we know that our medical child support responsibilities are evolving. We look forward to working with child support professionals in the coming months and years to develop medical child support policies that complement state health care policy decisions and work for families.