Working with Low-Income Cases: Lessons for the Child Support Enforcement System from Parents' Fair Share. A. Review Setting and Procedures

05/01/1998

Typically, the reviews were held in a clean, reasonably well-maintained building, in a courtroom setting. In some buildings, there were metal detectors, armed bailiffs, and other trappings of the justice system reminiscent of criminal hearings. Usually, an area was set aside (either within the courtroom or in a nearby area) for prehearing interviews. In most sites, the reviews were held in an area also used for other types of hearings (most commonly other family law cases) so there were often crowds of people in the building and parents with young children.

Generally, NCPs called to a review were told to appear at the beginning of the morning or afternoon hearing docket. Often many NCPs (and in some cases CPs) would arrive at one time, so there was a sense of frantic activity to prepare the cases for their appearance before the hearing officer (or sometimes a judge). When NCPs arrived, they were logged in and told to fill out information forms about their current residence, employment, and resources. Usually, individuals were then interviewed by a CSE staff member and — if they appeared to be potential PFS referrals — a PFS staff member would seek to learn whether they were eligible for the program.

In most reviews, the judge or hearing officer was willing to allow cases to be heard as staff were ready to present them and did not insist on their appearing in the order listed on the court docket. This allowed CSE and PFS staff time to determine the appropriateness of NCPs for PFS and, in the context of the demonstration, conduct random assignment. (If the PFS research procedures were not part of intake, this potential for a bottleneck would not exist.) One approach was to hear non-public-assistance-related cases first or to give staff the discretion to hold the cases of NCPs who looked appropriate until a final determination was made. Given the usual scarcity of courtroom time and the busy schedule (and status) of hearing officers and judges, staff were aware that PFS procedures would be overridden if they did become a bottleneck. To avoid this, reserve staff were usually available and in some sites the number of staff committed to the intake process was set to be able to cover peak flows of cases. This led to an appearance of overstaffing during other times of the day.

As individual cases were ready for a hearing, they were brought before the hearing officer. Each hearing usually lasted 5 to 15 minutes and the NCP was not represented by counsel. Normally, the hearing began with the hearing officer asking the representative of CSE (either an attorney or other staff person) the facts of the case. This short recitation usually focused on the amount of the order, payments, and arrearages. The hearing officer would then ask the NCP whether this was correct, and in most cases the NCP would not dispute the CSE records.The hearing officer would then ask the NCP about his financial and employment circumstances. At this point, the NCP might inform the court of employment, plead unemployment or insufficient funds to pay support (which do not override his obligation to pay support), or present information about inability to work (disability, medical conditions, recent incarceration).

Typically, the court and CSE staff did not have the means to independently verify information received from NCPs during a hearing. Administrative records on employment (the unemployment insurance wage reporting) were often several months old (though recent reforms requiring reporting of new hires will make them more current), and normal court routines did not allow for confirmation calls to employers.

In certain circumstances, there were reasons why an NCP might falsely report a job when he in fact was not working or not working at the job reported. If the court’s response to a report of employment is to order the CSE agency to issue a wage-withholding order and the court does not require a purge payment and/or jail, then an NCP who wishes to evade child support could fabricate a job and be released with an admonition to keep the CSE agency informed of future job changes, and the CSE staff would be left holding the bag when the job turned out to be invented. Further, if an NCP wished to avoid being referred to PFS because of its participation requirements, he might similarly invent a job to appear ineligible for the program.

In all sites, if a job was reported, court and CSE staff tried to get enough specific information from the NCP on the employer (name, address, phone, supervisor) so they would later be able to issue a wage-withholding order. After recognizing the problem of false reporting, in at least one site staff changed their usual practice and would put a case on hold briefly while they telephoned the reported employer to verify the job.