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Bar News - May 9, 2008


NH Child Support Services: A Resource for Attorneys

By:
 
Kevin Landry in his office
at the DCSS

Kevin Landry, chief staff attorney of the Child Support Legal unit at the Division of Child Support Services (DCSS), which is a part of the NH Dept. of Health and Human Services, says his unit can offer attorneys invaluable help in navigating the choppy waters of child support litigation. "We are always available to answer questions regarding child support, whether by phone, email or even at court," said Landry.

DCSS is strictly governed by federal authority, which limits its activities to child support issues. Governed by Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, the Division would face sanctions should it engage in activities other than the establishment and enforcement of child support orders. DCSS has no authority to expend efforts in areas such as visitation and custody. "In fact," says Landry, "if we don’t abide by the letter of the law, we could lose our federal funding." Two-thirds of the division’s funding comes from the federal government. The other third comes from the state.

 
Attorneys and support staff at Child Support Legal, DCSS
"I don’t think the private bar realizes what a valuable resource Child Support Legal is," he continued. "Attorneys can always call on us for help in preparing cases or in going into court. Also, we can be a good source of information for attorneys, especially for any case in which DCSS is involved—we are all available and willing to talk to an attorney to help in any way we can."

Landry believes the division is an especially valuable and neutral resource because it doesn’t represent either party—it simply applies the law, without favor or prejudice. "We enforce court orders. We don’t issue them. We work with parties to settle cases, but short of agreement we bring the issues before the court for resolution. The court may order deviations from the law—we have no such authority," he said. "Everything we do is driven by the statutes."

State law provides child support guidelines (abiding by federal statute) and DCSS seeks orders in accordance with the guidelines. If every couple would agree to having DCSS be the intermediary for child support, a lot of the trouble between parents could be prevented, Landry believes.

"If DCSS collects the money, the friction often occurring over child support could be lessened, many times eliminated. The parties don’t have to deal with each other on the support issue and DCSS will keep an accurate accounting of the support payments," said Landry.

The Processing of a DCSS Case

All DCSS establishment cases begin at the district office for each county, said Landry, and then are referred to the legal office in Concord for court filing. "The legal unit is i=nvolved in the initial establishment of support orders on behalf of DCSS and once an order is established, it is sent back to the district office for enforcement by other DCSS staff.’

"At present DCSS has a combined establishment and enforcement caseload of about 37,000 cases," he went on. "That number remains more or less constant and the cases are not limited to individuals in the midst of either divorce or separation. Many of the people that we provide services to were never married."

Either party can seek DCSS services. "Also, the majority of our clients are not public assistance cases; I think there is a misconception about this point," said Landry. Only about 17 percent of our cases come from TANF clients (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). The rest involve people who do not receive public assistance but do have a need for child support services, which includes the establishment of paternity."

Working with the Family Division

When Bar News asked how the creation of the family division had affected his department, Landry said there has been a positive transition. "We have always worked very well with the superior court and have continued that relationship with the family division."

Furthermore, DCSS has worked with the family division on projects that have had a positive effect, getting orders established more quickly and therefore back to DCSS for enforcement much faster, says Landry—within a day or two of court hearings. "The money for child support gets to the family much faster as a consequence," Landry said. One project was the establishment of the referee position which hears and resolves IV-D cases in about half the time. "It takes less than two months from start to finish now," said Landry. "By setting up the marital masters’ program, the federal government greatly expedited the whole child support procedure."

Considering the huge volume of clients the department deals with on a regular basis, Bar News wondered whether all the work in court is done by the department’s lawyers. "No," said Landry. "The enforcement work is performed very effectively by child support officers, who are not lawyers." These non-lawyers get special training, including an appearance before a "moot" court, since they do represent DCSS in actual court settings.

Trends in the Economy

As to how the current economic conditions are affecting collections, Landry says that it is logical that when people are out of work or have to take lower-paying jobs, the child support orders are reduced. "It’s hard—not only is the obligor’s standard of living affected, but the obligee and the children are affected. The division tries to work with both sides for a satisfactory solution."

On another front, the obligor must realize that according to the law, he/she cannot withhold child support as a punishment (of the other party) for not getting his/her court-designated visiting rights. The obligor must return to court to address any such issues and will be held in contempt by failing to obey the child support obligation already in place.

Landry emphasizes that when anyone calls Child Support Legal—attorney or party—he/she will get a "live" voice. "And if the person who answers the phone cannot answer your question, you will always get a call back from someone who can."

As for career opportunities, Landry remarks that attorneys may be unaware of the opportunities within the division, but, "It’s a great place to work," he says. "I think that it is nice to be able to concentrate in one specialty area. And the work is very rewarding."

Contact Kevin Landry at: 271-7816 or online at klandry@dhhs.state.nh.us.

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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