Massachusetts family law attorney Jason V. Owens examines the secrecy surrounding the 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines.
UPDATE (7/19/18): 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.
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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 Ofcer 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.
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.
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, email@example.com, have not been responded to in months.
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.
About the Author: Jason V. Owens is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.
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