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Support levels high in Mass.
Support levels high in Mass.
Wednesday, July 18, 2001
By Martin Luttrell
Telegram & Gazette Staff
WORCESTER-- Mark Gilbert recalled yesterday how he saved his daughter
from a tub of scalding water and shielded her from her mother's fists, taking
the blows meant for the little girl.
     But when his wife accused him of abuse -- falsely, he maintains --
the court awarded her custody of his child and sentenced him to a life of
poverty, according to Mr. Gilbert.
     The Fitchburg resident told his story yesterday to a panel of judges
in Worcester Superior Court [link]. He was one of several men and women
who gave sometimes emotional testimony about their experiences with the
state's child support laws.
     A few women at the hearing asserted that the laws are fair and just,
and do protect children. But the clear majority yesterday -- men and
women -- argued that child support payments awarded by Massachusetts'
courts are among the highest in the country and are unfair to men.
     The hearing was one of five being conducted throughout the state to
take oral and written comments on the current judicial guidelines for
child custody cases.
      Those guidelines are being reviewed by the state's Trial Court. Once
the hearings are concluded, Judge Barbara Dortch-Okara, chief justice for
administration and management, will decide what, if any, changes will be
     Any changes would go into effect in January, according to Mary Jane
Moreau, director of planning and development for the Administrative Office
of the Trial Court. She said federal law requires that state child support
guidelines be reviewed every four years.
     Dr. Edwin C. Holstein, president of The Fatherhood Coalition, a
nonprofit organization that advocates for fathers' rights, said after the
session that the hearings mark the first time public comment has been
solicited as part of the guideline review process.
     "This wouldn't have happened without our pressure," he said. "Since
these guidelines were promulgated in 1986, the reviews have been done in
secrecy. We applaud Justice Barbara Dortch-Okara for opening this up.
     "We're talking about $1.4 billion being paid in Massachusetts. ... We
believe this should be the first step in a dialogue. True dialogue means
sitting down at a table."
     Judges use the state's child support guidelines to help determine how
much money the parent granted custody of a child should receive. The
current guidelines are based largely on the income level of the
non-custodial parent and the number of children, although judges do have
some discretion to increase or decrease the amount.
     Under the current guidelines, noncustodial parents must pay between
15 percent and 33 percent of their gross weekly income for child support,
depending on the number of children. Those percentages increase for older
     Mr. Gilbert, who said he worked as a rape crisis counselor until his
involvement with The Fatherhood Coalition, told the judicial panel that
the courts do not recognize that men suffer abuse at the hands of their
spouses. He said that he makes $8.30 an hour and pays $130 a week --
nearly 40 percent of his gross income -- in child support.
     Megan Christopher and Jennifer Valienti, lawyers who have represented
domestic violence victims, urged that child support payments not be
     "I strongly oppose any change in the guidelines that would lessen
child support payments," Ms. Valienti said.
      "We're talking about support for children, not punishment for
noncustodial parents," she said. "... Many women are fearful to even apply
for child support because they think it will mean visitation rights for
the abuser."
     Ms. Christopher said her agency, South Middlesex Legal Services,
looks closely at how its clients spend their money, including child
     "It's a constant effort to maintain themselves and their children,"
she said. People who receive this support cannot afford things that most
people take for granted. The cost of housing and energy have increased
dramatically. The cost for a multi-bedroom apartment is astronomical."
     But some testified that the courts are stacked against men in custody
cases, and that women exploit the system, refusing to work while their
ex-husbands take on additional jobs to make ends meet.
     "There seems to be a major prejudice in the courts," said Maureen
Tallen. "There are more good men than bad. The guidelines amount to
spousal support. Twenty-nine point nine percent of my husband's income
goes to child support. That's nearly two times the New York guidelines.
     "I adore my stepson," she said. "His mother won't buy him
Rollerblades or a skateboard. We have that at our house, and if we send
them home with him she'll throw them out."
     Christi Berry testified that her husband's ex-spouse is living with
another man and receiving child support, and is demanding more. "She
chooses not to work even though she got assistance in getting an
associate's degree," she said.
     "Women are responsible for their actions. It's not all the fault of
men. She's raping the system."
     Additional hearings will be held today in Lawrence and on Tuesday in
T&G Home:
Copyright 2001 Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp.



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