Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. II. The PFS Participants’ Experience of the IV-D System


In PFS, where over three-fourths of the research sample is African-American or Hispanic, CSE issues are inextricably entwined with race. Communities of color, especially the African-American community, have long had a troubled history with law enforcement. The days of state-sanctioned police violence against members of these communities are within living memory; indeed, newspaper headlines remind us daily that police brutality remains a serious problem. African-American men are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated disproportionately in relation to their numbers, and in many black communities it is an article of faith that the criminal justice system is out to get black men. For those who share that belief, it is a small leap to the conviction, expressed by many PFS participants, that the CSE system is simply part of a larger pattern of persecution.

The institutional links between the CSE and regular criminal justice systems are, of course, real. Most PFS sites report that the majority of NCPs arrested for outstanding child support warrants are originally detained as a result of regular police arrests for offenses unrelated to child support. Moreover, the racial and gender makeup of the staff in various agencies involved in the enforcement process echoes that of the criminal justice system, increasing the NCPs’ feelings of alienation. Court or administrative staff who process NCPs through the bureaucratic intricacies are often female, with an increasing proportion of males and a larger percentage of white staff as one goes up the hierarchy within the CSE agency and the courts. Most formal hearings are held in courtrooms presided over by white judges. African-American NCPs, in particular, are dubious about getting a fair shake from a system that looks very much to them like a part of law enforcement in general.

The NCPs in PFS overwhelmingly report feeling that they are not given a chance to be heard at their hearings. They perceive that the dice are loaded in favor of the CPs, not understanding that the lawyers facing them across the table are representing the state (more specifically the CSE agency and welfare department) and not the CPs. Eager to tell their side of the story, these NCPs often find that judges and court personnel are indifferent to the facts of their particular case, often because they are legally irrelevant to the issue of whether NCPs have met child support obligations. For instance, allegations that a CP refuses to grant visitation with the child or is squandering her money rather than using it to provide for the child are not germane to the question of whether there is a legal support obligation. Not understanding these concepts can lead to feelings of frustration and humiliation among NCPs.

Not surprisingly, many PFS participants display cynicism and hostility toward a system they view as unconcerned with the harsh realities of their lives and interested only in squeezing money out of them. Some, for instance, cited payment allocation rules under AFDC, requiring all but the first $50 of child support collected to go to the state to pay off the welfare debt, as justification for their noncooperation with the system. They were vociferous in complaining about the unfairness of having the bulk of their payments go to the state and federal government rather than to their children.

Such negative attitudes undoubtedly have an impact on the CSE system’s ability to gain even minimal cooperation from NCPs. In conducting the initial outreach to potential PFS-eligible NCPs, the program sites sent out thousands of hearing notices. But, as discussed elsewhere in this report, the appearance rate was generally low. Without the means to go after the nonresponders, the PFS sites were forced to rely on "voluntary" compliance in what appears from the outside to be among the most mandatory of institutions. No doubt many of those who did not show up were motivated primarily by the desire to avoid their obligations; for them, the most appropriate response may be to strengthen available sanctions with greater certainty of punishment. But these findings also suggest the possibility that some NCPs’ noncooperation is rooted in negative attitudes about the IV-D system that are carried over from their experience with law enforcement in general. For these NCPs, better outreach and education efforts might engender more cooperation with the system.