Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. II. Locating NCPs

05/01/1998

While computerized information systems have undoubtedly improved the ability of IV-D agencies to locate absent parents overall, they are only as effective as the quality and timeliness of the information put into them. Therefore, they are most likely to help in locating NCPs who hold a regular job, reside in one place, and own assets. Information systems are less useful for locating low-income NCPs who are not connected to the mainstream economy or to government social programs.

Interviews with PFS participants and staff revealed that substantial numbers of these NCPs had sporadic work histories, punctuated by long periods of unemployment. Often when they did work, the PFS participants reported that they did so off the books. For these men, unemployment insurance records, IRS files, and credit bureau histories are of little use. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that information systems lag behind the individual’s current circumstances, and low-income NCPs tend to hold onto jobs for shorter periods of time than their middle-class counterparts.

Other databases typically relied upon by CSE agencies are designed to locate assets — department of motor vehicle records, for instance, and bank accounts. Interviews with PFS participants revealed that many of them did not have valid driver’s licenses, let alone cars, and that they did not have any credit or bank accounts. And low-income men, unlike their female counterparts, are less likely to participate in the welfare programs that bind recipients to the government.

The unstable living arrangements of many low-income NCPs also frustrate CSE agencies’ attempts to reach them. Addresses in the system are not always current, and often are those of relatives or friends with whom the NCPs periodically stay. Service of process rules in most of the PFS sites require that, at the very least, notices of impending hearings be sent by certified mail (although in some sites regular mail is sufficient); certainly, some of these notices never reached the intended recipients. On the other hand, relatively few letters that were sent were returned as undeliverable by the postal service — far fewer than the number of NCPs who did not show up. This suggests that many notices were delivered, but to relatives or friends who may or may not have encouraged the NCPs to comply.

The experience in Montgomery County, where CSE staff home visits led to an increase in the appearance rate at hearings, attests to the potential payoff to moving away from the usual practice of office-based investigation to a more community-based approach. During their outreach efforts, staff first contacted the CPs for leads and then had the staff follow up by visiting addresses and talking with other family members, neighbors, and landlords. This presence in the neighborhood led to new leads on addresses or employment; information on illness, death, or incarceration; and "filtering" of the word that NCPs should contact the CSE agency through informal networks of family and friends. As the sharp rise in appearances at hearings indicates, there is a payoff in increased success in locating NCPs.