Overall, Child Support Enforcement programs have been very successful over the past 25 years, with most states meeting the program’s goals of 60 to 65 percent participation. Unfortunately, a review of key program indicators, including performance measures and other raw numerical data, shows that the success of child support programs in many states has slowed to a crawl. In some cases, it’s even trending negative.
The importance of these services cannot be underestimated and changes to the success rate must be addressed. The support provided by non-custodial parents is essential to a child’s well-being and their ability to buy basic necessities. So what’s causing the slowdown – and how can we reverse the trend?
One of the main issues is that most state programs have already plucked the “low-hanging fruit” – exhausting the easy results gained through automation and other stop and seizure programs like driver’s license suspension and Financial Institution Data Matching (FIDM), where state programs and financial institutions conduct data matches to identify accounts of delinquent child support obligors. As these programs were implemented, and operations became more efficient, the program success rate rose. Now that these processes are program mainstays, the success rate that went along with it has leveled off.
Also at issue is the fact that the lower end of the economic spectrum is hardly addressed at all by the current program. This leaves a crucial, and growing, undeserved population.
To break it down, there are at least two distinct caseloads – approximately 65 percent in one and approximately 35 percent in the other. The former are cases that are served well by both the traditional judicial processes and automation the program has brought to income withholding, new hire reporting and FIDM. The other 35 percent are the underserved who are not threatened by income withholding, a judicial court hearing or punishment from the state. These families operate off the radar and child support is viewed as a hindrance to their life. It’s this population that needs to be addressed with a different engagement process.
For example, currently in Los Angeles County, a non-custodial parent who isn’t paying child support is served a court order to appear in family court. There are only four court rooms in all of L.A. County where child support issues are resolved, and about 70 percent of those ordered to appear in court never show up. Why is that? Hypothetically, what happens if the non-custodial parent is a landscaper or painter working off the books and a visit to the courthouse is 60 miles each way? (L.A. is a huge county!) They would have to miss work and lose the money they would make that day to appear in court to have a judge order them to pay child support.
Our current system is failing this portion of the population. It’s failing to recognize the situation these non-custodial parents are facing and is using the wrong tool to fix the problem.
Thankfully, new legislation has just passed that will hopefully address some of these issues. The proposed legislation aims to strengthen the Child Support Enforcement program and update current practices in order to increase regular, on-time payments to families, increase the number of non-custodial parents working and supporting their children, and reduce the accumulation of unpaid child support debts. Some of the ways these improvements will be attempted is through more/better parenting support through parenting classes, help finding jobs and allowing states more flexibility to design a system that best serves their clients.
The focus has to be on engagement and helping non-custodial parents feel more involved. This new legislation provides the support that will (hopefully) help these parents feel like they are part of their child’s lives and not just a source of money.
Twenty years ago, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births was 27 percent. Today that number has risen to 40 percent. Child support services is a growing need that for the most part, is very successful at meeting its goals and providing support. But we can’t lose sight of those being left out and underserved by a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to connect these fathers and mothers and increase their willing participation to support their children.