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Child support director aims to put families first.

Byline: Barry Bridges

Sharon A. Santilli "loves" child support. And that's likely a good thing, since as director of the Rhode Island Office of Child Support Services she spends her days managing a staff that enforces child support orders, locates parents and establishes paternity.

Her legal career had a traditional start. A graduate of Northern Illinois College of Law, Santilli first went to work with a personal injury firm in Chicago. When she returned with her husband to her native Rhode Island, she practiced law in Johnston and then in East Greenwich before joining the Department of Human Services as legal counsel in 1988. Two years later, Santilli was named deputy chief of child support services, and she assumed her present position in 2004.

"People say when you come into child support that you either hate it and get the heck out, or you're hooked. I was hooked," she said. "I'm so glad I landed here, I can't even tell you."

She recently spoke with reporter Barry Bridges about the complexities of her job, recent changes in the field, and the new child support guidelines that took effect on Sept. 1. ***

Q. Is the role of your office primarily one of enforcement?

A. It's a lot of things. First of all, while the office is part of Rhode Island's Department of Human Services, it is funded under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement oversees the child support program, and we have certain mandates and performance measures that we must abide by. My annual budget here is $9.5 million, with 66 percent of that covered by the federal government. That funding requires that all of our work relate to child support.

Child support services started in the '70s as a cost recovery program for custodial parents who were receiving, at the time, AFDC. The purpose was to get money back from noncustodial parents, typically dads, to reimburse the state. But today, 85 to 90 percent of child support collected goes directly to custodial parents and families, whether it's a mom or a dad.

Sometimes that child support, coupled with a job and maybe assistance from the state with child care or Medicaid, will allow a family to become self-sufficient. In my opinion, that should be a primary focus of the department.

Q. How large is your staff and its caseload?

A. Not large enough. We have around 70 people, 10 of whom are attorneys. I sometimes break it down by specialty. We have those who focus on paternity, others who establish support orders, and those who enforce those orders.

We have a caseload of about 51,000. In the fiscal year ending this June 30, we collected about $95 million in child support. As I said, a large percentage of that went directly to families. So you can see it's no longer a cost recovery program; it's a family first program.

With those kinds of numbers, we have to have highly automated processes to meet all of our federal requirements. But there are due process protections. If we're going to take someone's driver's license or put a bank lien in place, that person is going to get notice and will have plenty of time to do what needs to be done to come into compliance.

Q. Are there any surprises in the new child support guidelines?

A. The new guidelines are effective September 1, and attorneys should be on the lookout for a couple of things. First, the guidelines will probably result in some lower orders. Lawyers should take a look at the chart and think about whether they want to file a motion to modify. Second, they should be aware of a change in the way child care expenditures are handled.

We review the guidelines religiously every four years. Although states may choose any type of guideline methodology, Rhode Island uses the income shares model where we look at the gross income of the mom and the dad. Our philosophy is that a child is entitled to the lifestyle he or she would have had if the family were intact.

Q. What else is new?

A. One new law from the General Assembly this year mirrors federal regulations and basically provides that courts cannot consider incarceration as voluntary unemployment. We also no longer need to get an inmate's permission to file a motion for relief from a child support order; we can trigger it through a data exchange with the Department of Corrections. We will file the motion and have a video conference for the inmate to be heard. The court still decides whether the inmate has assets or resources such as a bank account or property.

My office tries to be fair to both sides and favors right-sized orders based on the income of the parties. We don't want unrealistic orders running for people who are receiving SSI or for those who are incarcerated. We are about enforcement, but we're about providing services for the noncustodial parent as well.

Q. Are there any "hot issues" in child support?

A. One issue involves same-sex marriage and same-sex relationships as they relate to voluntary acknowledgments of parentage, which are done at the hospital. I'm really pushing for Rhode Island to enact the Uniform Parentage Act to address the questions involved, because the hospitals don't know what to do. We conduct hospital trainings every year and give as much guidance as we can, but if the law doesn't support it, there's nothing we can do.

The Family Court is now requiring something like an adoption process, with home studies and all of that. People can't afford it. The Uniform Parentage Act would address some of these issues and put them to rest.

Q. How have things changed in your 30 years here?

A. It hasn't always been an equitable program. When I first started in 1988, there was a different philosophy and it was very much about enforcement. I feel as though my biggest accomplishment here has been changing that philosophy. We're here for families.

Yes, we enforce because that is what we have to do. If you have a bank account with $50,000 and you owe the custodial parent $20,000, yes, we're going to take that. On the other hand, if you are unemployed or homeless or on SSI, why would we pursue that particular case?

And of course the UHIP project has impacted us significantly, because we share so much information with other departments and are therefore an integral part of the computer systems. I spend about a third of my time on those issues right now, almost a year later.

Q. How do you manage what would seem to be a stressful job?

A. It's a matter of seeing successes over the years. I love to see programs implemented and actually working, and we're always doing something new. Sometimes my staff tells me I have too many balls in the air. But I say at least they don't all fall down at the same time. It just keeps you going. I can't get depressed about the bad stuff. It's challenging, but we find a way around it and come up with a new procedure.

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Title Annotation:Sharon A. Santilli, Director of Rhode Island Office of Child Support Services
Author:Bridges, Barry
Publication:Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 7, 2017
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