In the busiest branch of the courthouse, in what were traditionally criminal proceedings, parents litigate over the “science and math” of parenthood: paternity and child support. Almost all low-income parents—both custodial and non-custodial—appear in the Paternity and Child Support (P&S) Branch of the D.C. Superior Court pro se. Meanwhile, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) represents the District of Columbia in initiating and establishing orders against the non-custodial parents of children receiving Temporary Assistance for Need Families (TANF) or Medicaid (also known as “DC Healthy Families”). OAG sets the calendar, negotiates consent agreements, and litigates disputed cases, sometimes without the custodial parent’s participation. Unaware of their rights, non-custodial parents often give up without a fight and consent to orders that do not reflect all the facts or which they cannot afford to pay. Those that do demand a hearing struggle to present necessary facts or make legal arguments. Custodial parents, often unrecognized as a party to the action, struggle for a voice at all. Magistrate judges are forced to make sense of the imbalanced, often imperfect information presented as evidence in their attempt to impose fair support orders.
Recognizing the need for scrutiny and reform within the P&S Branch, the DC Access to Justice Commission, the Legal Aid Society of DC, and Bread for the City joined forces to shine a light on this previously under-scrutinized branch of the D.C. Superior Court. The new initiative that resulted from this collaboration – the Child Support Court-Based Legal Services Project – is modeled on the success of a similar project in the Landlord-Tenant Branch of the D.C. Superior Court, in which Legal Aid has also taken a lead role. Capitalizing on their experience in representing both custodial and non-custodial parents to Legal Aid and Bread for the City established a court-based community legal services office, currently operating in its pilot phase. Thanks to Administrative Order 11-07, issued by Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield on May 27, 2011, public interest attorneys can now provide temporary, same-day representation of low-income District residents in child support matters before magistrate judges. After screening for residency and income-eligibility, attorneys from Legal Aid and Bread for the City are available to counsel, advise, and temporarily represent both custodial and non-custodial parents in paternity and child support proceedings. In the pilot phase, we are currently covering one magistrate judge’s calendar twice a week. So far, we have represented several non-custodial parents on a temporary basis, given advice to many more, and expect the numbers of parents seeking help to increase steadily over time.
Some question the wisdom of representing people often branded “dead-beat dads.” However, we only assist parents, custodial and non-custodial, with legitimate legal issues; a non-custodial parent merely seeking to avoid his child support obligation would not qualify for assistant by the project. Furthermore, many parents, including those without primary custody, are struggling to stay out of poverty and face serious, often systemic barriers to a fair and accurate support obligation. Three clients I’ve recently served through the project personify the types of clients we’re able to assist at the courthouse:
H.R. was in court for his second child support hearing. Even though the custodial parent was no longer receiving public benefits, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) was still representing her in the case against H.R. According to OAG’s initial calculation, H.R. owed over $400 a month in child support. This calculation, however, was based on a number of erroneous factors. I entered a temporary appearance and informed the magistrate judge that H.R. in fact shared custody with the custodial parent and that their child was currently living with H.R. for the four months of the summer. In addition, I was able to convince the court to use more updated, accurate income information for H.R. rather than annualizing overtime holiday pay. H.R. will return to court in the fall to present further evidence of his income and their custody arrangement before a permanent order is entered.
Before we met P.P., he had already successfully requested genetic testing from the court and had obtained results excluding him as the father of the child at issue in the case. OAG, however, still considered P.P. to be the child’s legal father because he had signed a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity at the hospital when the child was born, and therefore refused to consent to dismiss his case. After receiving our advice the day of his DNA Review Hearing, the magistrate judge continued P.P.’s case for him to seek legal counsel, and we then accepted him for extended representation. I entered an appearance at his next hearing and successfully argued for the court to disestablish paternity, terminate P.P.’s child support obligation, vacate his arrears, and dismiss his case.
D.M. is disabled from an on-the-job accident several years ago. He continued to pay his $400 child support orders from his workmen’s compensation checks while he received them, but now that his only income is SSDI, he struggles to meet his own basic needs on less than $800 a month. To make matters worse, Social Security erroneously has been deducting $500 from his checks for the last several months, leaving him with less than $300 for food, shelter, transportation, and his substantial health needs. I entered an appearance on behalf of D.M. and reduced his monthly obligation to $50. In addition, I raised the possibility of D.M.’s minor child receiving derivative benefits through his SSDI, an amount that could vastly exceed his current order and even include a lump-sum back payment.
These are the kinds of folks we believe should (and hope will) benefit the most from the court-based advice and representation. In the end, we do this for the children, which is why I am proud to count myself among Legal Aid’s court-based attorneys.
Our ultimate goal for the project is to reduce childhood poverty and correspondingly improve child well-being within the District. This is most likely to happen when non-custodial parents believe their order is fair and accurate, which in turn is more likely when the process is thorough, efficient, and transparent. Client by client, our work on the project will ensure that parents have access to justice and that, in the end, children actually receive the support they need and deserve.