Including the mom and several legal minds. But the numbers (where wages and public assistance intersect) just aren’t working out.
I am sitting in a courtroom trying to represent my client. She is an immigrant from Ethiopia who does not speak English well but is remarkably adept at working within the Byzantine systems of the U.S. education and court systems. She has managed to get her learning-disabled son an independent education program within the Minneapolis public-school system (where others have failed) and to petition the court to order the father of her children to pay child support. She wants to work, and three lawyers and a judge are trying to figure out how to make that goal possible.
Present are the judge, father, father’s attorney, mother, mother’s attorney (me), an attorney from the county who is a party because the mother receives county assistance, and an interpreter. The county has the duty of trying to recoup from either parent (or both) some or all of the money it has paid to help support the two children. We are all bound by the “best interest of the children” standard, the sine qua non of all family court decisions involving children in Minnesota.
The issue before the court today is whether Mother can enter the workforce and pay her own way. She does not want to have to be subsidized by the county and taxpayers.
Father works as a nurse and earns a respectable income (over $22 per hour, but he can work only 32 hours at his current employment and is not guaranteed other work if he leaves this job). Mother works for minimum wage (at a fast-food restaurant). Mother receives assistance from the county for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medical Assistance.
Minnesota, by statute, has a formula for determining the parents’ share of child support, child medical support and child care support. For those of us who do not have Ph.D.s in math, the state provides a calculator that does the hard work: http://childsupportcalculator.dhs.state.mn.us. The figures thus calculated are the presumptive financial obligations of each parent. They are called “guidelines,” and the judge can depart from them as long as he or she issues a written order stating why the guidelines are not appropriate in a certain circumstance.
Child care in Minneapolis is estimated to cost about $1,000 per month per child. In this case, the county was paying $2,123 per month in child care for both kids (a figure right in the expected range), and the county wanted Father to pick up his share of the cost. According to the calculator, Father’s guidelines share of child care support would be $495 per month, on top of his child support obligation of $831 per month.
Without getting too deep into the weeds here, if Mother works full time (40 hours per week), the cost of day care would so greatly exceed what she could earn that the county would have to pay the child care providers more than the employer paid the mother. Father’s guidelines contribution, which would relieve some of the county’s burden, would have put his monthly support obligations to a point whereby he could not pay his reasonable, basic monthly bills (rent, utilities, food, car expenses).
As far as I can tell, the three attorneys (mother’s, father’s and county’s), the judge, both parents and even the Oromo interpreter all want Mother to work full time and for the kids to be at least minimally cared for. But nobody can find a solution. Everyone agrees that it is best, as a practical matter, but worst as a matter of policy for Mother to stay home with the kids.
We will probably come up with an ad hoc solution to this problem involving Father paying less than guidelines and Mother finding an unlicensed day care provider who charges less. And nobody argues that day care providers are overpaid.
Barry S. Edwards, of Minneapolis, is an attorney.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.