Effective January 19, 2017, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) adopted a final rule titled “Flexibility, Efficiency, and Modernization in Child Support Enforcement Programs.” 81 Federal Register 93492 (Dec. 20, 2016). This rule mandates numerous changes to the policies and procedures of state child support enforcement programs, but one change of particular importance to state trial courts involves the use of contempt procedures to enforce child support obligations. According to the Comments to the new rules, the change in the federal regulations regarding the use of contempt is intended to ensure that the “constitutional principles articulated in Turner v. Rogers, 564 U.S. 431 (2011)[addressing the rights of obligors in child support contempt proceedings], are carried out in the child support program, that child support case outcomes are just and comport with due process, and that enforcement proceedings are cost-effective and in the best interest of the child.” 81 FR at 93532.
An indigent parent in a child support case is entitled to appointed counsel only for contempt proceedings. But child support cases can be complex. Where should appointed counsel draw the line when representing these parents? Should they limit representation to the actual contempt proceeding or do they delve further? Is the underlying order valid? Is there a good cause to adjust the arrears or is there a change of circumstances justifying a modification of support? Judges must approve the fee applications for the time spent on cases, so counsel should take care to act within the scope of their representation.