Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. C. Speeding Up the Hearing Process


Under the initial plan for the demonstration, local staff instituted a contempt of court hearing for NCPs identified as potential PFS referrals. In April 1994, MDRC and site staff began to draw samples of potential PFS referrals from the default lists (NCPs who were not paying and were linked to an AFDC case) and by July over 600 had been identified. However, through the end of July none of these NCPs had reached the stage of a contempt hearing and the courts had made no referrals to the PFS program. Local staff identified two sources of this problem: delays in relaying information on the large number of NCPs to be called for hearings to the prosecuting attorney’s office (which put cases on the court docket) and the three-month minimum time needed to schedule and hold a contempt hearing.

Responding to the first source of delay, local CSE staff developed a way to make mass referrals of scores of NCPs to the prosecuting attorney through an automated data file rather than in the traditional way of individual referrals on paper. This plan was complicated by the different computer systems used by the CSE and prosecuting attorney’s offices, but after several weeks of work it was put in place and lessened this source of delay.

The process of holding contempt hearings was lengthy for several reasons. First, before CSE staff could refer a case to the prosecuting attorney they had to have a postmaster’s verification within the last 30 days that an NCP was receiving mail at a specific address so there was a likelihood he could be personally served. Once a case was referred for a hearing, it was assigned to an attorney who scheduled an office appointment for the NCP to appear and explain why he was not making payments. (For example, the NCP might have reported that he was receiving SSI or incarcerated, which would stop the process of scheduling a hearing.) However, only about 15 percent of NCPs appeared for these hearings.

If the NCP did not appear for the office appointment or failed to provide a satisfactory explanation for nonpayment, the attorney proceeded to schedule a hearing and then schedule an appointment for the CP to come in and sign a formal complaint. In public-assistance cases, even if the CP did not appear the case could proceed without her signature on the complaint because she had assigned her rights for support to the state as a condition of AFDC receipt.

Next, unless the NCP had signed a waiver of notice, he had to be personally served and proof of service provided the court. In practice, the NCP was normally given four-to-six-weeks’ notice (usually served by the sheriff’s office). Law enforcement officials would appear at the address listed on the notice and try to serve the NCP. If he was not at that address, they did not have the resources to follow up on leads, even if there was information on his whereabouts. The notice ordered the NCP to appear on a specified date before a magistrate of the Juvenile or Domestic Relations Court.

At the contempt hearing, poor NCPs often requested appointed counsel, which could result in a 30-day adjournment of the case. Finally, contempt hearings were relatively time-consuming, with courts typically able to hear approximately two cases per hour.

This protracted process for contempt hearings led the local staff to shift to a different type of hearing three months into PFS sample intake: a review hearing for the purpose of determining eligibility for PFS. Since the magistrates presiding over this type of hearing did not have the authority to find NCPs in contempt of court, the notice requirements were substantially less — only seven days and personal service was not required. Notice was typically mailed to NCPs 10 to 15 days before the hearing. Staff also made other changes in standard procedures to shorten delays in holding a hearing. These included consolidating cases under a single attorney, eliminating the prehearing office conference, and dropping the practice (not legally required in public-assistance cases) of calling the CP into the prosecuting attorney’s office to sign a complaint.

Although these changes did speed up the process of holding hearings, much unavoidable work remained, indicated by the fact that 30 different forms and documents were required to get a case on the docket and before a magistrate. Further, the shift to a less formal hearing had implications for the percentage of NCPs who attended, as discussed below.