Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. IV. Using the Review to Assess NCPs’ Circumstances

05/01/1998

In planning PFS, one of the most frequently mentioned frustrations of CSE — for agency staff and judges — is the inability to be certain whether NCPs brought into a review for nonpayment present a support enforcement problem (they have the means but will not pay) or are there because of limited employment opportunities (unemployed or underemployed because of their inability to get and keep a job). With traditional enforcement tools (sanctions or seek-work orders), the judge or agency is forced to choose which type of error to risk: letting NCPs presenting an enforcement problem off the hook or subjecting those with few employment opportunities to sanctions. Judges and agencies traditionally had to resolve this dilemma based on local and state laws and procedures, political pressures, and their own implicit theories about the characteristics and behavior of NCPs.

PFS offers a way for judges and agency staff to avoid this dilemma: assume an NCP’s problem is one of limited opportunity and refer him to the PFS program; if, in fact, he has a job or the ability to get a job easily, the program participation mandate can smoke out this fact. NCPs who are employed will face a decision: report their job to the system and begin paying support or fail to comply with the PFS service participation mandate (because they are busy with work) and be referred back to regular CSE where staff will now have evidence that this case presents an enforcement problem. In essence, the PFS program staff become a monitoring arm of the court, a capacity that court staff have previously not had. Judges and hearing officers value the assurance they receive that someone (the PFS staff) is following up to track the NCPs and prod them into working to meet their support obligation.

While PFS does lessen the complexity and uncertainty of the review, the PFS sites still faced many issues in conducting reviews. This section presents an overview of how the sites assessed the circumstances of NCPs appearing for hearings and describes how staff resolved various problems that arose in conducting the hearings. It then summarizes what local staff discovered about the circumstances of these NCPs.