SALT LAKE CITY — Just over 4 in 10 Americans relying on court-ordered child support receive the full payment, while others get a portion — if they get any money at all.
But a new report suggests that some simple changes in communication can get more financial support to children who need it, and possibly even improve the relationship between the children and noncustodial parents.
The changes are based on behavioral science, the study of factors that influence human behavior, and the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement is working with the research organization MDRC to devise new strategies based on research.
So far, the strategies seem to be working.
Georgia was able to get hundreds more parents to meet with child-support workers by making its communication to parents more friendly, by providing reminders in advance of a scheduled meeting and by treating the parents as customers instead of debtors. The staff reported the parents reacted positively to the materials and new training, with one parent saying that a staff member "talked to me like I was a human being."
“The culture is changing for the child-support industry, and we are trying to transition from an enforcement culture to a service culture,” said Tanguler S. Gray, director of the Division of Child Support Services in Georgia.
While to Liesa Stockdale, the director of Utah's Office of Recovery Services, there is "no one big magic solution that is going to solve the child support problem," other states can learn from Georgia and other states that working to better serve families.
With child support ordered for 87 percent of custodial families — impacting 15 million children nationwide — millions of children stand to benefit from the innovations.
Identifying the problem
About three-fourths of the nation's child support payments are collected by deducting it from the parent's paycheck, according to federal recovery officials, but much of the remaining total goes unpaid because the collecting office cannot find where the noncustodial parents work in order to garnish their wages.
As a result, the Census estimates 56.5 percent of custodial parents will either receive only partial or no payment.
"There are shortfalls, and you don’t always know where someone is working. We have a lot of really good location services, we just don’t know where that person is," Stockdale said.
Jessica Boles, a 34-year-old mother of two from Salt Lake City, doesn’t know where her ex-husband is and he hasn't paid child support for three years. She said she doesn't even want the money anymore.
"I make OK money, but it’s not like I’m living the life. But because he’s supposed to be paying, I’m not eligible to get food stamps or financial assistance," she said. "I just want this to end … I would like to buy (my son) new shoes."
Outdated technology has been the biggest obstacle for government recovery agencies tasked with tracking down parents.
"All of the child support systems are aging out at the same rate," Stockdale said. While the Utah office is going through an equipment and software update, they have been "working on equipment that’s been in place since the early '90s."
Still, Utah is in the top 10 for highest child support collections in 2016, according to the Office of Child Support Enforcement, with Pennsylvania at No. 1 and Louisiana in last place.
Government recovery agencies can file liens against bank accounts, deny passports, report to the credit bureau, go to court for civil enforcement, and in limited cases, jail time is a possibility — although that would practically guarantee a parent couldn't pay, according to Stockdale.
She said the Utah office has also tried recreational license restrictions, in which the debtor's hunting or fishing license is suspended.
"We’re not holding back; we’re doing everything in our power," Stockdale said. "It is hard to find incentives that are meaningful to people to get them to pay their support."
A day in court
The obstacles to collecting child support don't start with government agencies, however. Family law attorneys agree the problems begin when couples file the divorce petition, setting in motion a process that often doesn't take into account real-life challenges to supporting the children left in the wake.
Most states decide child-support amounts through the "income shares" model, which adds the parents' income together as if they were still sharing funds, and then calculates child support on what the noncustodial parent should contribute to the family based on their shared income.
To Shawna Woods, an attorney at Kitchens New Cleghorn LLC in Atlanta, Georgia, this model can be a problem.
"When you have a custodial parent that earns so much more, it's almost unrealistic for (the noncustodial parent) to pay," she said. Not only that, but "daycare costs are so ridiculous, and it's not taken into consideration in child support, which is just outrageous."
Some states do consider daycare; the calculation varies by state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
While Woods also thinks state child-support collections offices are overwhelmed with little resources, noncustodial parents are really at the disadvantage, she said.
"Most noncustodial parents do not have attorneys and they do not understand what to bring, what to ask for," she said. "We should have child support enforcement also provide representation."
Scott Trout, CEO of the fathers' rights-centered law group Cordell and Cordell, based in Saint Louis, Missouri, said preconceived “deadbeat dad” stereotypes and judges not understanding economic difficulties parents face contribute to unrealistically high custody orders.
He added that the recent recession contributed to financial struggles for noncustodial dads in a system that doesn't accommodate for such outside economic forces.
"There's a significant number who are trying," he said. "It’s a broken system that expects 100 percent enforcement and ignores the efforts the guys are making."
In addition to making the lives of children more comfortable, regular payment of child support also helps noncustodial parents stay involved in their children’s lives, says Samara Gunter, an associate professor of economics at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
Gunter's research has found there is less contact between a father and child when the father does not pay child support, and she believes that small changes in how child support is withheld can benefit both parents and children.
Paying child support in person changes how noncustodial parents experience those payments, Gunter said. But, “There are tremendous benefits to our current system of withholding child support from wages. It’s been responsible for a dramatic increase in collections relative to the late 1980s and early 1990s before these systems were in place.”
Instead of silently deducting child support like a tax, the system could be tweaked in small, positive ways, such as adding a message on a pay stub that says "Thank you for supporting your children" next to the withholding amounts.
Gunter recognizes that child support may be contentious in adversarial parental relationships, and being aware of the payment might make the paying parent "more angry" at the former partner, but overall, being conscious of the payment is better for everyone.
"There are unintended consequences of impersonal systems," Gunter said.
"We want people to be aware of the payment they make and what it’s for. If we made people more aware of the payment, they’re more likely to be involved in their families' lives," she said.
The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement has contracted with MDRC to introduce the Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services Project to explore new ways to get people to pay child support.
Dan Bloom, director of MDRC, formerly known as Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, has overseen studies in seven states and Washington, D.C., this past year. The first of these studies was the Georgia report, released in February.
The Georgia team experimented with a few approaches to get people to come into the child-support office to discuss their case.
First, they redesigned the letter of notice when a child-support order has been filed. It highlighted the chance for parents to have "a say in the child support process" ... and was written to be motivating and non-adversarial, the study said.
The letter also included a calendar magnet for the initial appointment date, and a reminder was sent later.
For the initial meeting with the noncustodial parent, the staff was trained to use a script to soothe the parent, to help reduce the amount of the ordered payment if appropriate and to use a checklist to sign parents up for online automatic payments and support.
When parents received the materials the office previously used, 15 percent came to the office to meet with a staff member. But among parents who received the revised materials, 23.3 percent came to the meeting, the report said.
The 8.2 point increase from the intervention group works out to a 54 percent improvement in effectiveness when compared to the control group, which received the agency's standard mailing, according to the report.
Bloom said these changes are "a million little things that seem obvious but they’re not." Other ideas to improve engagement include scheduling meetings so parents don't have to miss work and reducing paperwork.
"Are we asking people for a lot of information that will be hard to compile but you don’t really need it all? If we can streamline that, they might be more likely to come to the meeting, and not get overwhelmed and shut down," he said.
Other MDRC reports are pending from Ohio, California, Vermont, Colorado, Texas, Washington, and Washington, D.C.
In addition to MDRC's findings, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement is pursuing other ways to boost child support compliance. They include the Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration, which helps parents find jobs so they can afford child support, and the Procedural Justice-Informed Alternatives to Contempt, which helps parents avoid contempt of court charges for delinquent child support payments. And the agency says the programs are working.
“Thousands of parents participated in this study and became employed. … Many of the participants also understood their roles as parents and caregivers better … and having better jobs and enhanced parenting skills increased the parents’ abilities and desires to pay their child support more consistently,” wrote Monique Richards, the public affairs specialist with the federal Administration of Children and Families.
The program was launched earlier this year and is showing “positive early results,” according to Richards. A full report on the program will be published later this year.
At the Division of Child Support Services in Georgia, Gray oversees some 411,000 child-support cases, 18 percent of which are considered “hard to serve.” The improvements her office saw after making changes in how the staff communicates with parents represents about 240 families that may be better off now because of their efforts.
The work requires a “culture change,” Gray said, since in the past, some child-support workers had a collection mentality. Today, the focus is on how the office can help noncustodial parents, who are overwhelmingly male. (Ninety-three percent of child-support orders in Georgia are paid by men.) By helping the men to pay, they’re also helping the mothers and children, as well, Gray said.
“We’re trying to build stronger families for a stronger Georgia,” she said. "This is a big deal. In my opinion, it's a win-win-win for the citizens of Georgia that we serve."
Contributing: Jennifer Graham