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Handbook on Child Support Enforcement
Answers to Your Questions
Department of Health and Human Services
X. LESSONS LEARNED
The Child Support Enforcement Program was established as a part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 1975 with the objective of ensuring that children receive financial support from parents who are not living in their household. Since then, four general types of noncustodial parents have emerged:
Learning to work with these groups is changing the program's ability to collect child support and its attitude about other ways to help children and families.
Parents who are willing and able to pay support have their children's best interests at heart. These children likely will flourish and grow to responsible adulthood. If the parents miss a payment, a caseworker's early telephone call will often reveal the reason – a change of job or other circumstance, an error in payment identification – and the problem usually can be resolved.
For parents who are willing but unable to pay, a number of states have started programs for teaching job skills or finding employment. States are looking at the benefits of ensuring that child support orders are set at a realistic amount. Many states work with these parents effectively to ensure that child support debt does not drive them away from their children.
Parents who are unwilling but able to pay face strong enforcement tools, such as wage withholding, tax offset, passport denial, and asset seizures. Just as important, parents who have a close relationship with their children are more inclined to pay child support: removing barriers to access may lead to increased collections, and to a better chance for children to have a secure, successful adulthood.
For parents who are unwilling and unable to pay, an ideal program would give them the skills to earn enough money to support their children and help them discover the satisfaction of parenting. Setting fair support orders and helping these people acquire job and parenting skills might help them to make their children's lives, and their own, more rewarding.
To help reach its ideal, the program has several efforts under way. We want to make it as easy as possible for children to have the love and the financial support of both their parents. We want to ensure that child support orders are fair -- that noncustodial parents are not burdened by a debt they cannot pay -- and that children receive the support that their parents can afford. We want to ensure that people who bring a child into the world shoulder the responsibility that it entails.
Children need two involved parents:
Over the last four decades, the number of children growing up in homes without fathers has dramatically increased. In 1960, fewer than 10 million children did not live with their fathers. Today, the number is nearly 25 million. More than one-third of these children will not see their fathers at all during the course of a year. Studies show that children who grow up without responsible fathers are significantly more likely to experience poverty, perform poorly in school, engage in criminal activity, and abuse drugs and alcohol. Purely from the point of view of ensuring financial support, research suggests that there is a positive relationship between noncustodial fathers' involvement with their children and their payment of child support.
HHS supports programs and policies that reflect the critical role that both fathers and mothers play in building strong and successful families and in the well-being of children. Some programs reach out directly to fathers to promote responsible fatherhood and strengthen parenting skills. Other programs work to discourage young men from becoming fathers until they are married and ready for the responsibility. HHS also partners with states and with faith-based and community organizations to promote responsible fatherhood in local communities nationwide. And HHS researches the role that responsible fathers play in ensuring the healthy development of children. More information about many HHS initiatives promoting fatherhood is available at http://fatherhood.hhs.gov
Since fiscal year 1997, $10 million has been available each year for grants to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guam to promote access and visitation programs to increase noncustodial parents' involvement in their children's lives. Each state has flexibility in how it designs and operates these programs and may use these funds to provide such services as voluntary or mandatory mediation, counseling, education, development of parenting plans, visitation enforcement (including monitoring, supervision, and neutral drop-off and pick-up), and development of guidelines for visitation and alternative custody arrangements.
The 1996 welfare reform law recognized that two-parent, married families represent the ideal environment for raising children and therefore featured a variety of family formation provisions. HHS has approved grants and waivers for responsible fatherhood efforts designed to help noncustodial fathers support their children financially and emotionally. Under the Partners for Fragile Families demonstration, 10 states are testing ways for child support enforcement programs and community and faith-based organizations to work together to help young unmarried fathers obtain employment, provide financial support to their families, and improve parenting skills. Eight states have also received demonstration grants or waivers to allow them to test comprehensive approaches to encourage more responsible fathering by noncustodial parents. In addition, President George W. Bush's Welfare Reform Reauthorization proposal includes up to $300 million for programs that encourage healthy, stable marriages. These programs would incorporate research and technical assistance into promising approaches that work and may involve premarital education and counseling efforts.
Child support orders should be fair:
Child support orders that are set too high relative to low-income obligors' ability to pay contribute to child support arrears and, unfortunately, child support debt can drive a wedge between a parent and child. A number of states' guideline formulas rely on a “self-support reserve” for the basic living expenses of a noncustodial parent before a child support obligation is determined. The self-support reserve in most states, if it is used at all, can be considerably below the Federal poverty level for one person.
Another cause of child support orders not matching a parent's ability to pay is the establishment of orders by default. Default orders are written if a noncustodial parent fails to appear in the child support case being brought against him or her. All too often, a noncustodial parent will not get the notice of the proceeding, or will not understand that a fairer order might be written if he or she attends the hearing.
OCSE, with our various colleague agencies, is studying effective policies and practices for working with low-income noncustodial parents. Studies by the HHS Office of the Inspector General and others report on the large percentage of total arrears owed by low-income parents who may never have the resources to satisfy their debt. Preliminary outcomes have already reinforced beliefs that the most effective way to avoid arrears for low-income noncustodial parents is to make sure that they are a part of the order establishment process and that the process ends with a reasonable obligation.
States also may need to maximize access to and use of computerized wage data to find as much earnings information as possible for all cases, including cases established by default, and those in which a parent tries to hide income. Designing a system that sets fair and reasonable obligations to encourage rather than discourage child support payment will go a long way toward reaching that goal.
Enforcement, when required, should be effective:
In addition to actions that can be taken through law enforcement and judicial proceedings (such as citations for contempt of court, and filing of state and Federal criminal charges), over the years, Congress has provided the Child Support Enforcement Program with strong enforcement tools including: wage withholding, offsetting of Federal and state income tax refunds, and the ability to secure liens on property. In recent years, more tools have been added:
As you can see, we continue to learn new lessons with every passing year. We hope the Child Support Enforcement Program will serve the families who need it well: that children will have all of the love and the support -- both emotional and financial -- that both parents, working together, can provide for them.
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