Massachusetts family law attorney Jason V. Owens examines the secrecy surrounding the 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines.
UPDATE (7/19/17): The 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines have been released, along with the 2016-2017 Task Force Report. Check out our coverage of the major changes under the 2017 Child Support Guidelines here.
Few people seem aware that on August 1, 2017, the state of Massachusetts is likely to announce new Child Support Guidelines that will affect millions of Massachusetts residents for the next four years. Or perhaps the Guidelines will be announced on a totally different date. The lack of information about the 2017 Guidelines appears to reflect the state’s preference for secrecy for a process that would likely result in fierce controversy – if real public debate was allowed.
The new Child Support Guidelines will be the product of the 2016-2017 Child Support Guidelines Task Force. If you search http://www.mass.gov, expect to find just one reference to the 2016-2017 Task Force: a press release from the spring of 2016 entitled, “Child Support Guidelines Task Force Seeks Public Comment.” We blogged about the public comment story last year. Since then? The state has released no information – at least through the Trial Court website – about the Task Force, its report or the 2017 Child Support Guidelines.
Who is on the Child Support Guidelines Task Force? How were the members selected? Is the Task Force Report completed and avail be to the public? This basic questions remain shrouded in mystery on the eve of the announcement of the new Guidelines.
Table of Contents for this Blog
- Who are the members of the 2017 Child Support Task Force?
- Is the Task Force Report Done? Will It Be Released Before August 1, 2017?
- Why All the Secrecy Surrounding the 2017 Child Support Guidelines Task Force Report?
- Father’s Rights Represented on 2016-2017 Task Force, But No Similar Voice for Mothers
- Postscript Update (8/18/17): A Final Look At the 2016-2017 Task Force
- Child Support Task Force: Handpicked Experts in a Closed Process
- The Need for Transparency and Accountability with the Child Support Task Force
- The Need for Regional and Economic Diversity in the Task Force Members
Who are the members of the 2017 Child Support Task Force?
Determining who is on the 2016-2017 Task Force requires internet sleuthing. Unlike prior Task Forces, this year’s members appear to be drawn from outside the Trial Court:
- Jonathan E. Fields of Fields & Dennis – According to the Fields & Dennis website, “Fields Dennis & Cooper LLP is proud to announce that Jonathan E. Fields has been appointed as a member of the Massachusetts Trial Court’s Child Support Guidelines Task Force. The Task Force is responsible for conducting the quadrennial review of the guidelines required under Federal law. Jon joins the Chairperson of the Task Force, the Honorable Angela M. Ordonez, Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court Department, along with other members including representatives from the Probate and Family Court, the Department of Revenue, the domestic relations bar, and legal services organizations.”
- Fern L. Frolin of Mirick O’Connell – According to Mirick’s website, “Mirick O’Connell is proud to announce that Fern Frolin has been appointed as a member of the Massachusetts Trial Court’s Child Support Guidelines Task Force. The Task Force is responsible for conducting the quadrennial review of the guidelines required under federal law. Fern joins the Chair of the Task Force, the Honorable Angela M. Ordonez, Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court Department, along with other members including representatives from the Probate and Family Court, the Department of Revenue, the domestic relations bar, and legal services organizations.”
- State Rep. Shawn Dooley (R-Norfolk) – According to the Sun Chronicle, “State Rep. Shawn Dooley has been appointed to a task force examining state guidelines for child support. Dooley, R-Norfolk, said he was happy to join the group and said his appointment “came out of the blue” as it was not something he had asked for. He said Chief Justice Paula Carey of the Massachusetts Trial Court called him one day and asked him to serve. Dooley will be one of the few members of the panel who is not a lawyer. The courts are required to examine their guidelines for child support every four years. The panel will recommend changes, if necessary. “I was extremely honored to have been chosen by the chief justice for this role. It is nice to be noticed for my involvement with parenting rights as well as for my ability to work with differing groups to reach a consensus within the Legislature,” Dooley said.”
Field and Frolin are each highly-regarded family law attorneys at high-profile Boston firms. Representative Dooley, a Republican elected to represent the 9th District in Norfolk in 2014, is not a lawyer, but is the husband of noted Boston divorce attorney, Carolyn “CiCi” Van Tine of Burns & Levinson, an outspoken conservative voice on social media. (Dooley is a noted and passionate Father’s Rights supporter, making the phone call Dooley received “out of the blue” from Chief Justice Paula Carey, asking him to join the Task Force, a matter of curiosity for those who follow Trial Court politics.) Other rare snippets of information about the 2017 Task Force include the Linkedin profile of Colin M. Desko, who “attended Child Support Guidelines Taskforce Meetings” as an intern for the Trial Court in 2016-2017. Additional information is almost non-existent online.
The last time a Child Support Task Force convened, in 2013, all of its members were employees of the Massachusetts Trial Court Department: “Hon. Paula M. Carey, Chief Justice of The Probate and Family Court (Chair); Hon. Anthony R. Nesi, First Justice of the Bristol Division of the Probate and Family Court; John Johnson, Chief Probation Officer of the Hampden Probate and Family Court; and Evelyn Patsos, Esq., Family law Facilitator and Deputy Assistant Register from the Worcester Division of the Probate and Family Court.”
Are there any judges or Trial Court employees on the 2016-2017 Child Support Task Force? The public does not know.
Is the Task Force Report Done? Will It Be Released Before August 1, 2017?
Who are the members of the 2016-2017 Task Force? All we know is that Chief Justice Hon. Angela Ordonez will chair a group that includes Attorney Jonathan E. Fields, Attorney Fern Frolin and State Rep. Shawn Dooley. Are there more members? Maybe. How were the members selected? Again, we do not know.
The 2012-2013 Task Force Report was announced on June 20, 2013, six weeks before the 2013 Child Support Guidelines became official on August 1, 2013. When was the 2016-2017 Task Force Report completed? When will the 2017 Child Support Guidelines be announced or become effective? The public is limited to educated guesses.
We have every reason to believe that the 2017 Child Support Guidelines will be announced in less than three weeks, on or about August 1, 2017, and that they will become effective on or about August 31, 2017. What we don’t know is what changes to the Child Support Guidelines will be recommended through the shadowy Task Force process.
Why All the Secrecy Surrounding the 2017 Child Support Guidelines Task Force Report?
Under the law, the Task Force Report is not the last word in the creation of the state’s official Child Support Guidelines. Rather, the Task Force Report includes recommendations and proposed changes to the current Guidelines. The final version of the new Guidelines must be approved by the Chief Justice of the Trial Court, Paula A. Carey. As the former Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court, Carey is all too familiar with chairing the Task Force. However, as the Chief of the entire Trial Court system, Carey no longer chairs the Task Force. Instead, that distinction goes to Carey’s protégé, Hon. Angela M. Ordonez, who filled Carey’s seat as the First Justice of the Norfolk Probate and Family Court before before eventually succeeding Carey as the Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court Department.
It may be fair to assume that the the Task Force Report was completed on or about June 20, 2017, keeping with the historical schedule of Task Force Reports being completed in June, with new Guidelines announced in August. Perhaps we can also assume the Task Force Report’s proposed changes to the Guidelines would result in public scrutiny – during the two-month period between the Task Force Report and the new Guidelines go into effect – if the Task Force Report was publicly released before August.
Is the 2016-2017 Child Support Task Force Report being withheld because the Trial Court wants to avoid public scrutiny in advance of the issuance of new Child Support Guidelines? We have no way of knowing. Perhaps there are more mundane explanations.
All we know is that the Trial Court isn’t saying. Information requests sent to the Trial Court’s designated email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, have not been responded to in months.
Father’s Rights Represented on 2016-2017 Task Force, But No Similar Voice for Mothers
Although we cannot be certain if there are additional members of the 2016-2017 Child Support Task Force, we do know that Rep. Shawn Dooley (R-Norfolk) is closely associated with the National Parents Organization (NPO), a leading national Father’s Rights group. In 2014, Dooley appeared at a special event in Watertown, MA sponsored by the NPO, which the group touted by saying:
Meet with newly elected Representative (and longtime member) Shawn Dooley, R-9th Norfolk District.
In 2015, Dooley was lauded by the NPO for co-sponsoring “An Act relative to Child-Centered Family Law”, a controversial bill that would have made shared physical custody presumptive in Massachusetts, and which ultimately died in the state senate last year. Dooley’s wife, well-known divorce attorney Carolyn “CiCi” Van Tine, told media in 2014 that “fathers are at a disadvantage” in Massachusetts family courts. Dooley’s history of strident Father’s Rights advocacy, coupled with the phone call he received “out of the blue” from Trial Court Chief Paula Carey, have made Cooley’s selection for the Task Force a point of interest for court watchers who believe Carey and Ordonez have adopted a pro-father agenda at the expense of Massachusetts mothers.
The NPO is a fierce critic of what it calls “excessive child support” across the United States. In 2013, the NPO cheered the reduction in child support under the 2013 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines as a “victory”. There is little doubt that Dooley will press the 2016-2017 Task Force for lower child support on the NPO’s behalf in 2017.
Despite Dooley’s clear association with the Father’s Rights movement, the 2016-2017 Task Force does not appear to include any representation of Massachusetts mothers. Fields and Frolin are both well-known and widely respected family law attorneys; however, neither appears associated with Mother’s Rights or has a reputation for opposing Father’s Rights groups. Other Father’s Rights groups of note in Massachusetts include the Fatherhood Coalition, which actively opposes nominees to Massachusetts Probate and Family Court who express insufficient support for shared parenting arrangements.
To date, no Mother’s Rights groups appear to have gathered the political clout that the National Parents Organization and Fatherhood Coalition now wield over the Trial Court, Governor’s Counsel and Child Support Task Force. The Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association’s takes no position on child support on its legislative “areas of concern” page and does not appear to be represented on the 2016-2017 Massachusetts Child Support Task Force.
Postscript Update (8/18/17): A Final Look At the 2016-2017 Task Force
(Editor’s note: the remaining sections of this blog were included as an update on August 18, 2017 and contains information not known at the time the original blog was published on July 14, 2017.)
Now that we have the 2017 Child Support Guidelines in hand, it seems appropriate to provide an update to this blog. We should start by noting that the final roster of the Task Force was far larger than we ever imagined. According to the Task Force report, it included:
Rachel B. Biscardi, Esq. – Deputy Director of the Women’s Bar Association & Woman’s Bar Foundation of Massachusetts (Boston, MA)
Jennifer Clapp, Esq. – Attorney at Grindle Robinson LLP (Wellesley, MA)
Hon. Kevin R. Connelly – Associate Justice of the Plymouth Probate and Family Court
Rep. Shawn Dooley (R) – Massachusetts State Representative for the Ninth Norfolk District
Jonathan E. Fields, Esq. – Attorney at Fields and Dennis LLP (Boston, MA)
Fern Frolin, Esq. – Attorney at Mirick O’Connell (Boston, MA)
Ruth J. Liberman (Unknown)
Linda Medonis, Esq. – Deputy Court Administrator for the Probate and Family Court (Boston, MA)
Dolores E. O’Neill, Esq. (Unknown)
Arron Pridgeon – Social Worker, Department of Children and Families (DCF) (Greater Boston, MA)
James J. Richards, Esq. – Attorney at Lee & Rivers, LLP (Boston, MA)
Michelle A. Yee, Esq. – Judicial Case Manager, Essex Probate and Family Court (Salem, MA)
As we have noted in multiple blogs, the 2017 Child Support Guidelines appear to include real steps forward for Massachusetts family law, offering clarity and increased fairness on issues ranging from college expenses to health insurance costs. Nevertheless, it is possible to be satisfied with the result while disappointed with the process. Nothing in the 2016-2017 Task Force Report explains how the twelve members of the Task Force were selected.
Child Support Task Force: Handpicked Experts in a Closed Process
Most members of the 2016-2017 Task Force appear to be selected from the direct orbit of Task Force Chair, Hon. Angela M. Ordoñez, who is the Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court. Prior to her appointment, Ordoñez was First Justice of the Norfolk Probate and Family Court, which could explain Clapp and Dooley’s selections to the Task Force.
Overall, the 2016-2017 Child Support Task Force appears to include little geographic diversity across Massachusetts. The overwhelming concentration of voices appear to come from elite Boston law firms and organizations (Fields, Frolin, Richards, Biscardi) and subordinates to Ordoñez within the Trial Court, such as Medonis and Yee. (It is not clear what role Pridgeon of DCF played on the Task Force, and neither Ruth J. Liberman nor Delores E. O’Neill appeared to be licensed Massachusetts attorneys according to the Board of Bar Overseers attorney look-up page.)
Naturally, as South Shore attorneys, we were heartened to see the inclusion of Hon. Kevin R. Connelly on the Task Force. A native of Kingston, Connelly is currently an Associated Justice on the Plymouth Probate and Family Court, and appears to be the only member of the Task Force with a substantial South Shore connection. That said, looking at the overall composition of the Task Force, one might surmise that Judge Connelly’s selection to the Task Force was based on the professional background he amassed before taking the bench. Like so many other members of the 2016-2017 Task Force, Connelly was a partner and top attorney for prominent Boston family law firms – including White, Inker, Aronson, P.C. and Sally & Fitch LLP – before taking the bench in 2013.
Clearly, Judge Connelly deserves enormous credit for entering public service when his pedigree would have ensured decades of private sector success. He certainly deserved his spot on the Task Force. Indeed, in principle, there is nothing inherently wrong with constructing the Task Force from prominent heavy-hitters from many of Boston’s best-known law firms. That said, the lack of regional and economic diversity on the 2016-2017 Task Force is somewhat troubling, when one considers the profound legal power of the Child Support Guidelines and the lack of transparency surrounding the work and composition of the Task Force.
The Need for Transparency and Accountability with the Child Support Task Force
It is no secret that the Massachusetts statutes for married and unmarried parents directly incorporate the Child Support Guidelines into every case involving child support in Massachusetts. Like all statutes, these laws were passed by elected officials in the legislature who answer to voters. Unlike a statute, which requires a vote by a legislature, a state regulation can become law without a vote by elected officials. However, most state regulations are created by specific agencies – such as the Department of Children and Families – who are staffed by executives who must answer to the public in various ways.
The Child Support Guidelines are a different animal, however. Unlike a statute, which is voted on by elected officials, the Guidelines are drafted every four years by unelected officials. And while one could technically view the Guidelines as a “regulation” issued by the state’s Trial Court, the reality is that the Trial Court simply rubber stamps the Task Force’s recommendations each year.
Here are the basic facts:
- The entire membership of the Task Force changes completely every four years
- The selection process, criteria and every other element of the appointment process for the Task Force are conducted in secret without public oversight
- The process is controlled by the Chief Justice of the Probate & Family Court, an unelected official who is themselves appointed by another unelected official, the Chief Justice of the Trial Court
- Neither the state nor the Trial Court appear to issue any press release or make any public announcement of the members of the Child Support Task Force when selections are made
- The public generally does not find out who the members of the Task Force are until the new Guidelines are completed
- Because the Task Force’s work is performed in secret, the public cannot react to the Task Force’s work until the new Child Support Guidelines are unveiled
- By the time new Guidelines are unveiled, the Task Force is effectively dissolved
- Where most Task Force members are privately or separately employed, public accountability is nearly impossible.
In short, a hugely important, bedrock part of Massachusetts family law is completely revised every four years by unelected officials without public oversight. Even when the Task Force generally gets things right, as seems to be the case in 2017, the lack of transparency surrounding the creation and operation the quadrennial Task Force review remains an ongoing concern.
The Need for Regional and Economic Diversity in the Task Force Members
As noted above, the 2016-2017 Massachusetts Child Support Task Force amounts to an all-star team of Boston area leaders in the field of family law. By and large, the credentials of the members (those we were able to identify, at least) were impeccable. That said, both the geographic and economic make-up of the Task Force was highly concentrated around Boston law firms who cater to the state’s wealthiest citizens.
It is important to note that many of the Task Force’s most prominent members are extremely active in the community, providing pro bono work for low-income residents. It is simply unfair to tar these members as being out of touch with lower income residents. That being said, we must also acknowledge that prominent attorneys pick and choose their pro bono work; they may be exposed to some low-income cases, but most simply cannot relate to the day-to-day grind of family service officers, DOR attorneys, lawyer-of-the-day volunteers, legal services providers and the other, less glamorous members of the legal world who toil every day in probate courts across Massachusetts.
Greater regional diversity would have likely impacted some of the steps taken by the 2016-2017 Task Force. The inclusion of more members from areas like Barnstable County, New Bedford and Fall River, Worcester, Brockton and Lawrence may have caused the Task Force to reconsider the design of the new 2-page Child Support Worksheet Guidelines, which includes a great deal of new math compared to prior worksheets. In regions where college degrees are sparse, filling out the new worksheets is likely to be challenging.
Every county in Massachusetts features respected members of the bar. In the future, the Task Force should consider appointing Task Force members from outside the Boston beltway, not only for the infusion of outside ideas, but because the needs and concerns of Massachusetts residents vary throughout the Commonwealth. A more geographically diverse Task Force will be better equipped to address the entire state.
About the Author: Jason V. Owens is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.