Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. II. Arranging Reviews of NCPs’ Status and Eligibility for PFS


One of the primary aims of federal CSE legislation has been to introduce speed, regularity, and predictability of results to individual child support disputes. The 1984 CSE amendments required states to adopt procedures to process child support matters expeditiously, noting that courts had been unable to handle the growing volume of child support cases without long delays. Expedited processes have been interpreted to include both administrative and judicial processes, and many states have moved in varying degrees to reduce their reliance on the courts. While some have continued to locate primary responsibility for CSE in the courts, others have moved to a quasi-judicial system in which hearing officers or referees typically hear cases in a courtroom setting; and still others have moved to an administrative system in which most aspects of child support cases are handled by the CSE agency, with minimal involvement by the courts.

The seven PFS sites represent in microcosm the diversity of child support systems nationally. Alone among the PFS sites, Hampden County, Massachusetts, has a court-based system, in this case Probate Court, in which only judges can preside over child support cases. The courts, however, generally handle only cases involving paternity establishment and the setting of initial orders, since enforcement — with a few high-profile exceptions — is handled through the state Department of Revenue.

Four of the sites operate a quasi-judicial system in which referees or hearing officers preside, but under close supervision by the courts. Memphis’s CSE agency is housed in the Juvenile Court, and its staff are answerable to the chief judge. All child support matters are heard by referees in courtroom settings, although the CSE agency relies on nonlawyer staff to represent the county’s interests. In Jacksonville, where all cases are heard in the Family Court, the system was changed during the course of the demonstration to allow a hearing officer to preside over child support cases in addition to the regular judges. Contract attorneys are responsible for service of process and scheduling of court dockets. In Trenton, hearing officers hear cases in the Family Court. Court personnel schedule paternity establishment and first-time orders, while the Probation Department, a unit of the court system, schedules and handles all enforcement cases. In Los Angeles, CSE functions are lodged with the district attorney’s office, whose lawyers oversee the scheduling of court dockets and represent the county. Cases are heard in the Superior Court by referees.

The systems in two of the PFS sites are primarily administrative. In Montgomery County, Ohio, the local CSE agency administratively processes paternity and new support orders, as long as they are uncontested. Contested actions are heard by referees in the Juvenile or Domestic Relations Court, but these tend to be time-consuming since the prosecutor’s office, which represents the county, requires that delinquent obligors be prosecuted for contempt, a quasi-criminal proceeding. Kent County, Michigan, has the most thoroughly administrative CSE process. The local CSE agency, which is actually a part of the court system, administratively handles all aspects of child support cases, with referees (employed by the agency) presiding and hearings held in the agency. The only exception is for contempt actions, which are referred to the Circuit Court.

Because of these reforms, local child support agencies, especially those that have moved away from a strict court-based model, have a variety of options for in-person reviews of the child status of NCPs who are potential referrals to PFS. For example, in Michigan options run from requests to contact staff from the Friend of the Court office, by phone or in person, to formal meetings with these staff in the Friend of the Court office, administrative hearings before referees, judicial hearings before a judge of the Circuit Court, issuance of bench warrants for arrest of NCPs for contempt of court, and formal arraignment before a judge once arrests are made. The choice of the type of forum has a variety of implications.