Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. II. An Overview of This Report and Its Central Findings


PFS research on child support enforcement has several goals. First, it seeks to provide insights into the interaction between local CSE systems and noncustodial parents whose children are on welfare. The approach taken in this report is to analyze what happened when the seven sites in the PFS Demonstration sought to identify low-income, unemployed NCPs appropriate for PFS and refer them to the program. The report carries this story up to the point of referral of appropriate NCPs to the program. Later reports in the project will continue the story, examining the implementation of PFS’s enhanced CSE for NCPs referred to the program and estimating program impacts on payment of child support and other key outcomes.

Efforts to improve CSE have largely focused on noncustodial parents with income and assets. Location and enforcement techniques, such as matches of administrative records and automated enhanced enforcement actions, work best with the NCPs whose residence, employment, and financial resources are stable. PFS research suggests that a significant portion of NCPs whose children receive welfare do not fit this profile. They continue to pose enforcement challenges precisely because it is often difficult to determine their residence and employment. The information available to CSE staff suggests that they have few financial resources and are unlikely to pay much in support. Hence, in many jurisdictions these cases remain a frustration to CSE agencies, causing them to turn their attention to other cases. For many sites, therefore, the effort to refer unemployed, low-income NCPs to PFS represented a shift in policy. In the process of making this change, the sites encountered a series of administrative and policy challenges that are not unique to PFS. The ways in which they sought to address them provide lessons for other CSE agencies.

In PFS, local CSE staff were asked to review their caseload of NCPs with established support orders (and, in some sites, cases in which paternity was newly established) to identify NCPs who fit the PFS profile: linked to a custodial parent who is receiving or has received welfare, behind in child support payments, and without evidence of employment. Local CSE staff then called in these NCPs who were potential referrals to PFS for an in-person review of their case status (discussed in detail later in this report) to determine whether they were in fact appropriate for the program. The results of this review reveal the diversity of NCPs and illustrate the complexity of the CSE problem. It suggests the potential for an intervention like PFS to help local CSE staff determine what is happening with absent parents and develop the most appropriate response.

Some NCPs could not be served legal notice of the review or did not appear at the review, suggesting that the first key step in these cases may need to be an intensive location effort. The experience of the sites shows why local staff may have difficulty compelling NCPs to attend hearings and how an enhanced location effort might be effected. Normally, CSE staff do not have an in-the-community presence. Typically, they use the mail, phones, administrative records, and so on, to locate NCPs. As explained above, there are limits to the usefulness of this approach for NCPs who are poor and unemployed. Even when local CSE staff reach the stage of an arrest warrant, they are often dependent on the actions of other agencies with many other pressing — in some cases, higher — priorities. In part, this office-based style of enforcement is due to resource constraints that do not allow CSE agencies to extend their investigative work into the community. But it also reflects what appears to be an organizational culture in some sites that relies more on the authority of the legal process and less on legwork in the community than is the case with some other public agencies charged with enforcing major obligations. The case study of one site presented later in this report illustrates what occurs when new approaches are undertaken.

Many NCPs, however, did appear at their status reviews and CSE staff were able to sort cases and respond appropriately. For a substantial proportion of the NCPs who appeared at the reviews (probably between one-fourth and one-third), the review produced an enforcement success; the NCPs reported employment previously unknown to the CSE staff and actions were taken to put in place a wage-withholding order. In other cases, local CSE staff collected information about NCPs that they had not uncovered in normal practices — for example, that they were disabled or incarcerated, living with their child, or even deceased. (See Chapters 3 and 4 for details.) For these cases, the added effort allowed local CSE staff to update their records and see that a current support obligation was inappropriate (though past arrears could still be owed). For the remaining cases, between one-fourth and one-third of those who were tracked during a period of PFS intake, the NCPs were appropriate for PFS and were considered for referral to the program.

These findings suggest that agencies could put in place a PFS-style program as a standard response to cases that appear to fit their eligibility rules (based on what is known through standard CSE practices) and not be overwhelmed with the cost of providing services. The costs of the initial stages of program outreach and referral — which should be seen as part of the program — might turn out to be more than covered by the upfront "smokeout" of jobs and resulting payments, and the absolute number of referrals is likely to be much smaller than the initial pool of potential referrals for the reasons cited above. In effect, part of what makes a PFS-like intervention feasible is its success in helping CSE staff determine the current status of cases that would otherwise be unclear.

A second implication of this drop-off is that those NCPs who turn out to be appropriate for PFS often face substantial barriers to employment. Many lack education credentials, have weak basic skills and a work history with substantial gaps and periods of unemployment, have a criminal record and have been involved in underground or even illegal activities, and suffer from great instability in housing and limited social support networks. Further, few are receiving any form of cash assistance, leaving a sizable proportion strapped for money. For these NCPs, the standard CSE measures such as seek-work orders, purge payments (defined later in this report), or the threat of incarceration may be inadequate if the long-term goal is to get them in a position where they could pay child support.

In sum, the initial stages of the demonstration strongly suggest that a commitment to offering PFS-like services when appropriate appears to have a beneficial effect on many aspects of enforcement. It provides a means of smoking out unreported employment and resources and of identifying those NCPs against whom enforcement is inappropriate. It offers a service option in cases in which the problem is not enforcement but lack of opportunity, skills, or job readiness. In addition, a PFS-style program can serve as an adjunct to the CSE system and the courts in cases in which information on their status is costly to obtain. PFS participation requirements and the program’s monitoring of compliance can put teeth into the mandate to seek employment and pay support.

Before moving to the details of the PFS Demonstration and its implications for CSE practices, this report presents some background on the child support system and the legal and organizational context in which CSE and PFS operate. While this might seem like old news to some readers, we believe that some recent research on CSE has ignored these facts as they apply to poor NCPs and — as a result — has drawn inappropriate conclusions about how CSE does and can work for poor, unemployed NCPs of children receiving welfare. We then turn to the findings from PFS and conclusions for policy and program operations.