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Serving Noncustodial Parents: A Descriptive Study of Welfare-to-Work Programs

Publication Date
Nov 30, 2000


The Welfare-to-Work (WtW) Grants Program, authorized by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, provides federal funding to states and local organizations to help welfare recipients and other low-income parents move into employment, stay employed, and improve their economic situation. Low-income noncustodial parents (NCPs) (mainly fathers) of welfare children are among the main target groups for WtW services, along with custodial parents who are receiving cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and moving from welfare to work. This focus reflects policymakers' growing interest in strategies to increase the employment and earnings of noncustodial fathers and thereby improve their ability to provide financial support for their children and play an active role in their lives.

WtW grants represent a new source of funding for local work-focused services to NCPs. This report describes 11 local programs funded by WtW grants, in terms of the types of organizations operating the programs, the range of services offered, and the interagency collaborations in effect. No single strategy or set of services predominates. Rather, local grant recipients have discretion in developing and implementing program models, within the parameters of the WtW regulations. Thus, the experiences of these programs illustrate a variety of strategies and approaches that are being implemented around the nation and highlight key issues that must be addressed to serve this population group.


  • DeKalb Fatherhood Connection, Atlanta, Georgia
  • Full Employment Council's Concerned Parent Program (CPP), Kansas City, Missouri
  • Houston Works, Houston, Texas
  • Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization (IRFFR), Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • LA County Noncustodial Parent-to-Work Program, Los Angeles, California
  • LA Veterans in Progress Program, Los Angeles, California
  • Milwaukee County Private Industry Council WtW Competitive Grant Program, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Minneapolis FATHER Program, Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Nevada Business Services, Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Wisconsin Department of Corrections NOW Program, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Yakima SHARE Program, Yakima, Washington

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The main goals of these WtW-funded programs are employment and job retention. The priority for these programs is to help the NCP find and keep a job. However, each program also consciously recognizes the goal of increasing child support payments. Other goals, such as improving parenting skills or upgrading job skills, are generally considered secondary, although in at least one program (the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization), family connections and improved parenting are the top objectives.

The availability of WtW grant funds spurred an interest in, or added further impetus for, serving NCPs. In some of the sites visited, the grants encouraged the initiation and development of programs for fathers; in other sites, the grants represented a new source of funds to expand or enhance preexisting programs focusing on fatherhood and child support.

A variety of organizations are implementing programs for NCPs. Six of the programs reviewed are operated by workforce development agencies; the other five are administered by other types of agencies, including nonprofit community-based organizations and a corrections department. This suggests that various types of organizations can implement and operate programs for this group.

These WtW programs bring together a wide range of partners to meet the varied needs of low-income NCPs. The program partners include workforce development agencies, community-based organizations, child support enforcement agencies, the courts, and TANF agencies. Collaboration has occurred in designing and funding, as well as in operating, the program  in particular, especially in recruiting and referring eligible fathers, and in providing special services, such as legal assistance or treatment for mental health or substance abuse. Coordination is promoted when partnering agencies agree on the goals of the program and when WtW funds are available to encourage more formal collaboration.

Many of these WtW programs involve child support enforcement agencies. The role of the child support enforcement agency varies among the programs and includes providing direct referrals from the agency or court, providing flexible child support payment options for program participants, and designating staff to work with participants on child support issues. Making a commitment to the service-focused NCP program, however, requires a paradigm shift for the staff of the child support agency, since their primary mission is to collect child support.

Funding sources greatly influence the program designs and the collaborative partnerships. All these programs are funded totally or partly by WtW grants, particularly competitive grants. However, some of the programs are funded by other sources as well, such as the Fragile Family project, which targets young fathers. Programs must operate within the constraints of overall budgets and special financial and eligibility requirements of the various funding sources.

These programs are each serving a relatively small number of participants, but provide intensive client-focused services for special target groups. Most of the programs had served between 100 and 200 participants by mid-2000. Within the WtW eligibility criteria, some of the programs target specific types of NCPs, for example, homeless veterans, incarcerated parents about to be released, parolees and probationers, or fathers under the age of 25.

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Recruitment is a critical program design feature and a challenge for programs serving low-income NCPs. For most of these programs, recruitment is one of the most difficult implementation challenges. The population is difficult to identify and hard to reach. When contacted, many NCPs are uninterested, or averse to participating, usually because they distrust programs that might be affiliated with child support enforcement agencies or the corrections system.

Programs use a combination of outreach and recruitment strategies and do not rely only on receiving participant referrals. Most of the programs establish formal and clear procedures to receive direct referrals from other agencies (e.g., child support enforcement programs, courts, and correctional facilities). In addition, many use mass mailings, public service announcements, neighborhood canvassing with literature and brochures, and presentations at community events and organizations. To build their base of participants, most programs work very hard to establish and maintain trust within the low-income community.

Programs generally adopt a "carrot-and-stick" approach. These programs primarily rely on voluntary participation by some or all of their NCPs. Nevertheless, some of the programs have B mandatory features that bring parents into the program in the first place. Courts can require a person to participate in a program, for example, as a condition of parole or as part of a child support enforcement action. Even the programs that are highly mandatory, though, provide individualized employment and job retention services along with supportive services and case management.

Positive incentives. The services available through the programs are the most common incentive for participating  primarily the employment services, but also transportation assistance, vouchers for work-related expenses, and other support services. Some programs are able to help get child support payment orders modified or to arrange for relief from payment arrearages. Programs that provide these options find them useful for encouraging both recruitment and ongoing participation.

Requirements and sanctions. In mandatory programs, sanctions usually take the form of a threat of incarceration or child support collection activity and are most likely to be imposed through the courts, child support enforcement agencies, or correctional systems.

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All these programs conduct some type of employability assessment. Employment information (job history, skills, and vocational interests) is collected, along with some personal and family information. Staff may also assess health, reading and math ability, interpersonal skills, and self-esteem, either through case interviews or by administering a formal test or other instrument. In all of the programs, participants are required to sign personal responsibility contracts outlining their obligations in the program (specifically to participate in employment services, establish paternity, and pay child support).

Programs use two basic approaches for providing case management: a single case manager or a team of specialists. Staff feel that NCPs need "comprehensive" and "intensive" case management services; therefore, program staff often have small caseloads or share case management responsibilities among multiple staff or even with other agencies.

Employment preparation and postemployment services are the core program activities. Most of these programs focus on moving NCPs into jobs quickly and provide support services necessary to maintain employment.

Job search and job readiness assistance are the primary employment services in these programs. Job search assistance is primarily provided through individualized, one-on-one meetings with program staff, but a few programs with somewhat more participants hold group job readiness workshops. Job search services are provided primarily under contract by community-based organizations with experience serving disadvantaged people (although not necessarily NCPs), although some programs provide services themselves. Contracting allows programs to draw on the expertise of different organizations and to serve NCPs with special needs (e.g., substance abuse problems and homelessness). Under both arrangements, NCPs can be referred to existing job search services provided at the Employment Service or One-Stop Career Centers.

Some programs offer pre-employment education, vocational training, or on-the-job training, but participation in these services by NCPs is low. NCPs are interested in finding unsubsidized employment quickly (in part because of their need to pay child support) and are much less interested in job training or school.

All these programs consider postemployment job retention services a key program element. To promote job retention, these programs continue to provide assistance to the NCPs once they find a job, usually by contacting the person at least monthly. There is less focus on career advancement and upgrading skills.

Parenting and relationship services are not a priority in all programs, but most provide access to some type of assistance. A few of the programs place a B emphasis on parenting, improving access and visitation, and improving relationships with the other child's parents. In these programs, the services are fully integrated into the program model  primarily through regularly scheduled peer support sessions and individual counseling sessions. Parenting and relationship issues are not as central in other projects, although most address them as they arise through individual counseling sessions or referrals to parenting workshops and mediation services. A few incorporate parenting issues and instruction into other workshops that dealt more broadly with work readiness. Because NCPs generally do not have a good understanding of the child support enforcement system, some programs also systematically worked with participants on child support issues  often with designated staff from the child support enforcement agency.

Given the extent of employment barriers faced by low-income NCPs, most of these programs make specialized services available to participants through referrals to other organizations with expertise in the appropriate area. Most programs offer referrals for substance abuse problems, mental health issues, housing assistance, and anger management.

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A variety of public and private organizations can establish and operate programs for low-income NCPs. Programs for NCPs can be provided through a variety of different structural models, bringing together widely varying local partnerships and services. Because each locality operates within a different service environment and economy and serves a different clientele, no single model is necessarily preferable, nor is there a presumptive agency that should be the lead administrative entity.

Programs can benefit from collaboration and coordination among agencies. This is a population with many problems  personal, legal, and employment-related. No single agency is likely to have the expertise and experience to address the wide combination of issues and problems. The availability of WtW funds helped to provide an impetus for bringing local agencies together for a common purpose: improve employment outcomes so that NCPs can better fulfill their responsibilities to pay child support and take a more active role in the lives of their children.

Recruitment is a critical challenge and a major component of programs serving NCPs. For many NCPs, this can be a first step in improving their employment and earnings potential, but programs must gain their trust. While the expanded eligibility criteria in the 1999 WtW amendments significantly broadened the pool of eligible participants and eased recruitment difficulties, these efforts continue to require constant attention, effort, and resources. Programs that are most successful in recruiting participants use multiple outreach and recruitment approaches, with particular attention to developing referral arrangements with other agencies serving large number of NCPs.

A combination of positive inducements and pressures may prove more successful than either a completely voluntary program or a harshly punitive program. Involving both the child support agency and the courts  which can provide both "carrots and sticks" for participation  appears to be important for addressing both recruitment and program retention. Most programs used a mix of both positive (child support payment options, comprehensive program services) and negative incentives (threat of incarceration) to encourage participation. Once NCPs are participating, though, individualized employment and support services provided by professional staff with small caseloads are important.

Helping NCPs understand and negotiate the child support enforcement system may be an important program service. Based on discussions with program staff, many low-income NCPs lack accurate information about the child support system, including how payments reach the children and how special payment plans can be arranged. While the programs in this study did not consistently emphasize this issue, some designated staff to assist participants on these issues -- reportedly in a less adversarial way than traditional child support agency staff.

Programs that provide employment-related services to low-income NCPs should ensure that a range of services is available to address the varied problems of these people and their families. NCPs are interested primarily in obtaining a job quickly. However, other employment and support services can improve their long-run economic status, earnings, and child support payment. Ongoing case management, counseling, and job placement assistance can improve job retention and ensure an effective transition to a new job. Job training and education activities could complement regular employment and improve skills. Some NCPs also may need a range of other support services in order to sustain regular employment and fulfill their parenting responsibilities. These services include mental health or substance abuse treatment, child care or transportation assistance, legal services, and housing assistance.

Parents | Fathers
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)