Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. D. Increasing the Appearance Rate at Reviews


Local staff report that approximately 50 percent of NCPs ordered to appear for a contempt hearing typically appear. After the shift to a less formal review hearing, the percentage of potential PFS referrals appearing as ordered dropped substantially below this rate, in the range of 30 to 40 percent depending on the month. The drop occurred because of the shorter and less certain method of serving notice, the "less serious-sounding" purpose of the hearing, and the initial practice of dismissing the hearings of NCPs who did not appear at the review. The dismissal occurred because of the presumption of local staff that NCPs who did not appear at the review had not received notice of the hearing, which implied that the address in CSE records was incorrect and the case should be dismissed and referred to the Parent Locator Service to seek a current address. Over the course of the demonstration, local staff found ways to address these problems.

Starting in mid-1995, staff made a major break with the national CSE tradition of office-bound enforcement and instituted home visits prior to scheduled hearings. The change provided a way to address all of the problems cited above that were producing a low appearance rate at the hearings; over time they produced an appearance rate of approximately 70 percent. This was substantially higher than during the initial period when contempt hearings were used, even though in those hearings NCPs could face sanctions for nonappearance.

In August 1995, CSE managers agreed to let local PFS staff follow up on the mailed notice of the review with an in-person visit to NCPs at their reported address to remind them of the hearing. CSE staff provided PFS staff with docket lists of NCPs approximately one week in advance of the scheduled hearings. Home visits were made toward the end of the week prior to the reviews, which would provide enough time for the reminder to get to the NCPs through friends and family if they could not be personally located, but not so long that it would be forgotten in the press of other events.

Because there was some initial concern about the safety of the staff making these home visits, this duty was assigned to males who were experienced in making home visits for other social service programs; they were often interracial teams, and they carried a cellular phone. Before beginning the home visits, staff would call each CP to ask her if she had information on the residence or employment of the NCP. This produced more current or more accurate information on his location and activities than was previously available to the agency. On days when home visits were scheduled, two PFS staff persons would collect a county car at approximately 8:30 a.m. and begin a series of visits. In early 1996, for example, approximately 20 to 25 NCPs were scheduled for each review docket, a number that usually could be visited in a day. Staff making the visits observed that the reported residences of NCPs tended to cluster in a few neighborhoods within downtown Dayton.

The goal of the home visit was to leave a written reminder of the hearing with the NCP or a person who agreed to give the notice to the NCP, or — if this was not possible — in the door of a residence where it was likely the NCP lived. Unlike sheriffs doing personal service for contempt hearings, staff making the home visits would not stop their search if an initial address turned out to be invalid. They sought information on the whereabouts of the NCP from residents at the initial address, neighbors, and rental property owners or real estate agents. This questioning might turn up a lead on a new residence, information on the NCP’s place of employment, or evidence that the NCP was in jail, in the hospital, in a treatment facility, or even deceased.

Exhibit 11 shows what happened on home visits during the first six months of 1996. Staff were able to find a place to leave the reminder notice in 80 percent of the cases. In 7 percent of the cases, staff were able to leave the notice with the NCP himself and personally remind him of the hearing and its importance. In another 31 percent of the cases, staff left the notice with a person who agreed to give the notice to the NCP. In 24 percent of the cases, this person reported that the NCP lived at the same address while in 7 percent of the cases the NCP lived elsewhere. In 42 percent of the cases, staff were not able to leave the notice with a person but did leave it at the door.

Exhibit 11
Results of Home Visits in Montgomery County
(January to June 1996)
Result of Visit     Percentage or Number  
Notice left at a residence (%)     80  
  Left with NCP   7  
Notice left with family member or friend who reports that NCP (%)      
  Lives at the address   24  
  Lives elsewhere   7  
Notice left at door of residence (%)     42  
Notice not left (%)     20  
  NCP moved and address unknown   5  
  NCP in jail or prison   2  
  Other reason could not be delivered   13  
Total number of NCPs on the hearing dockets     351  

SOURCE: MDRC calculations from logs maintained by site staff.

Usually this occurred after verifying that the housing unit was occupied and obtaining corroborating evidence (from a name on the mailbox, neighbors, or some other source) that the NCP actually lived there.

Two other statistics support the importance of home visits. Most strikingly, the percentage of NCPs appearing at the review hearings rose from 41 percent in the first six months of 1995 (before home visits) to 69 percent in the first six months of 1996 (after home visits) and the break in the trend was immediate and sustained. Although the causal link is less clear, 73 percent of those NCPs for whom a notice could be left appeared at their hearing, as opposed to only 19 percent of those for whom a notice could not be left.

Beyond these numbers, the staff experience suggests that the home visits had a major effect. When local staff left the notice with a household member, it was most commonly the mother of the NCP and she often expressed an interest in helping her son resolve his problems with child support and promised to urge him to attend. Even in cases in which the notice was left at the door, messages from friends and neighbors could be an important impetus to attend. One NCP told PFS staff he came to the hearing because his neighbors told him "two guys were asking for him" in a serious way. Obviously, the impact of a personal visit ("we know where you live") can be substantial.

The home visit approach also allowed local staff to make other changes that reinforced the importance of attending the hearing. Prior to the home visits, the hearings for those NCPs who did not appear were dismissed on the presumption that service never occurred because the addresses were inaccurate. With the home visits, CSE and PFS staff could often bring current information on residence and evidence the NCP did know of the hearing before the magistrate handling the review.

Typically, the magistrate first conducts reviews for all NCPs who appear as ordered. Following this, the magistrate asks CSE and PFS staff whether they have evidence that NCPs who did not appear knew of the hearing and whether they wish to recommend referring their case to the prosecuting attorney for a contempt hearing. In cases in which staff making the home visit gave the notice directly to the NCPs or a close relative or friend who agreed to give the notice to the NCPs, the magistrates generally accept the staff’s recommendation that a contempt proceeding be instituted. In cases in which the notice was left at the door, the staff and the magistrate assess the strength of the corroborating evidence that the NCPs actually live at the address where the notice was left and reach a decision on whether to refer their case to the prosecuting attorney for a contempt hearing.

With this change in the way the CSE system responded to nonappearance, NCPs who had notice of the hearing and chose not to appear ran a much higher risk of sanctions, including being found in contempt of court and facing a possible jail sentence. As word of this change filtered into the community, NCPs who received notice of a hearing were more likely to take it seriously and appear and those who did not were more likely to be pursued further.