Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. 2. An Overview of Child Support Enforcement


Child support was originally the domain of state courts, in which traditional precepts of family law were used to resolve what were considered private disputes. Historically, most cases were brought to the attention of the system only if the parent legally entitled to support filed an action to enforce this right. Judges followed no uniform standards in setting awards, so that there were wide variations in the amounts ordered, even among similarly situated parties. Recent research suggests that, as a result, awards for NCPs generally were set at lower levels than many absent parents (usually the fathers) were actually able to pay, and their children paid the price. As divorce rates and births outside marriage began to increase rapidly, the inequities and inefficiencies of the child support system became a matter of public concern.

It was with the aim of introducing greater standardization of enforcement, producing more child support payments, and reducing growing welfare costs that the federal government began to play a major role in child support, starting with the 1975 amendment to the Social Security Act creating the federal Child Support Enforcement, or IV-D, program. While states and localities retained primary responsibility for administering the IV-D system, the newly created federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) was charged with approving state plans for delivering services and providing oversight, monitoring, and technical assistance. Federal funding for IV-D programs, in the form of matching funds and incentive payments, was also authorized. And AFDC recipients were required, as a condition of continued eligibility for benefits, to assign their rights to support to the AFDC program and to cooperate in finding their child’s father. Through these measures, it was hoped, some AFDC costs would be offset with increased child support collections, and some families might be prevented from going on assistance.

Congress has responded to the continuing need to improve CSE performance on the state and local level with a variety of measures that expand the federal oversight role. Many of the reforms are designed to strengthen the capacity of IV-D systems through automation. For instance, federal matching funds at a rate of 90 percent were made available to states to develop automated information systems. The Federal Parent Locator Service (FPLS), providing ways to match CSE cases against other federal administrative records, was established. The 1996 welfare law continues the trend toward easing access to information on individuals. Among other things, states are now required to obtain access to private and public records on individuals without the necessity of a court order, and state IV-D agencies must exchange information with an expanded list of state and federal databases. States must also give administrative subpoena power to their IV-D agencies.

Other measures addressed speed and standardization of results. Performance standards for paternity establishment were set; states were encouraged to develop expedited processes for establishing and enforcing support orders; they were required to develop and use uniform guidelines to determine award levels; and they had to review support levels and make appropriate modifications at least every three years in public-assistance-related cases. The new welfare law takes these efforts a step further by strengthening in-hospital paternity establishment requirements and mandating that states establish centralized collection and disbursement units.

Enforcement techniques have been progressively strengthened over the years. Immediate and automatic income-withholding has been made the rule; and tools such as tax intercepts, property liens, and license revocations are becoming more widely used. The 1996 welfare law requires states to use a variety of administrative enforcement mechanisms that depend on automated case processing instead of case-by-case handling. Liens must now be able to be issued administratively, and states must have the authority to withhold, suspend, and restrict occupational and driver’s licenses.