Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. B. Fine-Tuning the Message


In several sites, program staff tried to raise appearance rates by more fully explaining in the letters sent to NCPs that PFS offered services and not just punishment, but appearance rates were only slightly raised. In some sites, local staff discovered that more opportunity-oriented notices were viewed skeptically by NCPs as a possible sting operation, until word reached the street that PFS was in fact as described. Similarly, when sites toughened the letters to include threats of arrest and incarceration, appearance rates improved only slightly.

This suggests that the CSE agency’s ability, both actual and perceived, to effectively follow through with sanctions against noncompliant NCPs — and not the fine points of the message about the PFS opportunity initially presented in a hearing notice — is a critical factor influencing compliance. It is clear that many low-income NCPs express great fear of being jailed for child support violations, despite the resource constraints on enforcement faced by most CSE agencies. The perception of risk is not congruent with the reality. The perceived risk of incarceration also appeared to increase when home visits were a part of the notice process. NCPs sensed that the CSE agency might be very likely to be able to find them and impose a serious sanction for noncooperation.

The implications for enforcement may be that a few well-placed arrests will spread the word that noncompliance is likely to be sanctioned and thus stimulate greater cooperation, especially when the disposition of cases for unemployed NCPs is a referral to PFS. Further, offering more convenient ways to comply — by dispersing hearing sites throughout the jurisdiction or by offering a variety of ways for NCPs to contact the CSE agency prior to the hearing — may well serve to increase cooperation.

Issues of compliance and cooperation continue with the referral to PFS. Thus, the procedures that local PFS sites developed to reduce the current support obligation on referral to PFS and retain a means to reinstate a higher obligation if participation was not satisfactory were also important.