Child Support Services
THE CRITICAL PARTNERSHIP: CHILD SUPPORT SERVICES AND FATHERHOOD
When child support agencies and fatherhood programs become trusted partners, children are the greatest beneficiaries. Everyone wins. An over-all reduction in operational costs occurs including: court costs, incarceration costs, and Child Support Services (CSSD) staff involvement. At the same time, custodial parents experience an up-swing in hopefulness buoyed by consistent receipt of child support payments and contributing non-custodial fathers cease to elude parental responsibility because they become better payers and feel better about themselves as men and fathers. Most importantly, children experience the involved and responsible fathers that they deserve.
The vast majority of low-income fathers who enroll in fatherhood programs, regardless of educational status or income, exhibit a sincere desire to play active roles in their children's lives. However, navigating the multi-tributary child support system is daunting for fathers; therefore, it is consistently one of the most sought-after fatherhood program services.
With limited education and minimal job skills, low-income, non-custodial fathers typically are not equipped emotionally or financially to support their children. Although it is reasonable to expect fathers to financially provide for their children, the prevailing question is, "Can and will they do it alone?" Experience has shown that low-income fathers without support systems often struggle and fail to carry out parental responsibilities.
Yet child support is a critical source of income for single mothers and their children. For poor custodial families, child support is 10% of family income and 40% for those who receive it. Each year the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides to the federal register for publication the poverty guidelines for use for administrative purposes, such as determining financial eligibility for certain federal programs. For 2010, the poverty guideline for the 48 contiguous states and District of Columbia indicated that for families of two, $14,570 income or less was the poverty guideline. For families of three, it was $18,310 and for families of four, it was $22,050.
When the court has ordered child support and fathers do not pay, enforcement procedures are initiated. At the onset of enforcement many fearful, low-income fathers retreat and hide from their responsibilities, surviving in an underground economy. If they are caught and every child support enforcement measure has been applied and if they have no means to pay, fathers are charged with failure to pay and are incarcerated, often repeatedly, in a local detention center.
Distrust, fear, and misunderstanding keep many fathers, if not most, in hiding which exacerbates the problem. In spite of its efforts, the DSS Child Support Services Division (CSSD), unfortunately, remains unsuccessful in its attempts to reach all fathers court-ordered to pay support or to collect all payments. Nor has CSSD been able to consistently address the numerous barriers which impede low-income fathers from providing financially for their children. One of the largest stumbling blocks for CSSD is the lack of a comprehensive understanding of the history and plans of these fathers. Fear of incarceration or penalties prevents most fathers from directly contacting CSSD, which further hampers enforcement workers in their quest to clarify fathers' circumstances.
Where CSSD has experienced low quantities of responses, fatherhood programs have received very positive results from outreach, applied services and counseling. Fatherhood programs have not only demonstrated highly positive outcomes with fathers but also succeeded in working with public child support agencies, playing an important role in collecting proper assessments of low-income fathers' circumstances, identifying barriers to payment and, more importantly, making visible their sincere desire to be active and involved parents. Non-custodial parents' interaction with CSSD has often been a frustrating, unresponsive and unsympathetic experience. It is obvious that the organizational structure and mandates of these two types of agencies is very different, with fatherhood programs purposefully designed to build trust, educate, be non-judgmental, and simplify system navigation. In their initial interaction with fathers, program staff investigate and produce a thorough assessment of fathers' standing in the Child Support Services system, as well as determining the existence of a child support payment order. Collecting this array of information is a requirement for enrollment in fatherhood programs.
Both organizations, CSSD and fatherhood programs, highly desire satisfying results for all concerned. Building partnerships between the court system, CSSD and fatherhood programs, opens a very promising pathway toward achieving this outcome. Working together and employing strategies for outreach, communication and enforcement can truly initiate cultural change designed to stabilize the lives of children.
As a result of established inter-agency partnerships, fathers can readily access services offered by both organizations. Enrollment in fatherhood programs introduces fathers to alternative-to-incarceration programs, navigating the CSSD system and classes in parenting, financial and sustainable employment skills. For its part CSSD provides fathers with easy to understand information in a friendly, helpful, non-threatening environment and a guaranteed pathway between child support enforcement workers and fatherhood counselors, both focused on supporting alternatives to incarceration for eligible fathers. With smooth flowing partnerships in place and accurate information collected fatherhood program counselors and fathers will be able to map out problem resolutions and direct fathers toward consistent financial and emotional provisions for their children.
Barriers faced by fathers
"I can't see my child."
There are four general reasons causing fathers to experience difficulties in seeing their children: (1) conflicts with the mother (custodial parent); (2) being unaware of the connection between legal paternity and legal right to visit; (3) lack of familiarity with the putative father registry and establishing legal paternity; and (4) inconsistent or absent child support payments.
Fathers who have never married mothers of their children are generally unaware of the significance of registering to establish legal paternity. Many with no legal child support obligation enroll in fatherhood programs because of difficulties they have faced securing visitation approval. An assessment conducted by a fatherhood program counselor commonly reveals the primary issues which must first be addressed when fathers hope to increase visitation with their children. If fathers cannot afford legal assistance and are reluctant to meet with CSSD representatives, they may experience the misdirection of neighborhood hearsay, and uninformed family and friends. Unfortunately, most of this type of information is neither accurate nor will it aid them in gaining visitation rights. Fatherhood programs deliver accurate information on the significance of establishing legal paternity, the connection between legal paternity and legal rights, the putative father registry, as well as, supplying relevant forms and contact numbers for proceeding.
Additionally, the fatherhood curriculum is purposefully designed to address expectations, rights and responsibilities once legal paternity has been established. Transition points in the curriculum offer excellent opportunities to highlight the partnership between agencies by featuring CSSD attorneys who explain the process of establishing child support, setting of the order, factors considered, and actions for fathers to take when jobs are lost or illness occurs. The "safe" environment of a fatherhood program site is ideal for CSSD attorneys to clarify these complex processes and encourage participants to ask questions and share concerns. By being contributors to fatherhood programs, CSSD personnel dispel many myths and misperceptions for the fathers while simultaneously gaining a clearer understanding of their plight. The curriculum emphasizes what to expect, with emphasis on the importance of communicating with the agency while assuring fathers that the partnering agencies support their success.
Both formal and informal strategies are needed to achieve success. Child support enforcement agencies are not designed to address these issues; however, key elements of fatherhood programs include gaining the trust and cooperation of mothers once formal steps are in process. Effective fatherhood curricula include lessons about parenting, co-parenting and effective communication, as well as mediation of conflicts and establishing agreements with the custodial parent. By working informally to improve the relationship with the mother, program staff can begin to help fathers gain access to their children leading to formally established visitation. Relationship and communication breakdowns between fathers, mothers and other family members are likely to occur when fathers have not demonstrated parenting skills or gained mothers' trust. Fathers may begin to experience improved relationships with mothers once child support payments become consistent, and noticeable improvements occur in parenting and communication skills.
However, when children's mothers remain uncooperative despite efforts on the part of fathers, counselors working in fatherhood programs will be able to present options to obtain a legal right to parent when fathers cannot afford an attorney. Fatherhood curriculums typically include being a self-represented litigant and procedures for obtaining legal visitation rights and enforcement of any existing legal visitation rights.
"I can't pay my child support."
A leading reason for child support non-payment or payment shortfalls is unemployment or employment status changes. Being unfamiliar with navigating the complex system, fathers often do not know that their child support order can be modified or how to initiate the process. Unfortunately, fathers behind in their payments are far less likely to approach the enforcement agency for needed information and many may be hiding from the enforcement agency for fear of incarceration or other penalties. Most recognize that they cannot hide forever and the majority wants to do the right thing but lack confidence in what to do or where to begin. Most fathers view the child support system as complicated and often unsympathetic towards their circumstances.
Enrollment in a fatherhood curriculum ensures that fathers will receive clear and accurate information about modifying existing child support orders when significant changes in circumstances occur. With effective partnerships are in place between fatherhood programs and CSSD, complicated systems become approachable and fathers whose financial circumstances have changed or who are medically unable to work receive assistance and instructions to help them on the path toward meeting their obligations. Not all fathers who seek modification of an original order are low-income. Degreed engineers and professional athletes are just as likely to lose their jobs abruptly, leaving them with no means to pay child support.
Fatherhood programs include a thorough assessment of each father's situation and CSSD depends on those results to reveal underlying causes for support payment arrears. Information gathered in the assessment process includes the father's educational background, employment status and reasons for lack of support payments. The assessment also determines if a driver's license has been revoked and if a modification is possible, or the status of any contempt hearing.
If unemployment or underemployment is a father's leading barrier to payment of child support, problems with paying will continue. Low-income fathers face multiple barriers to employment: low education levels, limited work experience/skills, physical/mental health issues and history of incarceration. With minimal education and/or job skills they often need employment-related services to set them on a positive path toward earning a livable wage and meeting financial obligations. Fatherhood program staff facilitate completion of wage-withholding forms immediately upon job placement to ensure documented and consistent support payments. Fatherhood programs teach job readiness and retention skills, assist with employment placement, and provide transportation to and from training classes as needed.
Another barrier to employment, and therefore a barrier to child support payment, is lack of a valid driver's license. Child support enforcement personnel are able to exercise some flexibility with the reinstatement of licenses.
Fatherhood program staff advises fathers on rules and procedures and works with them toward reinstatement. Often, a good-faith payment and proof of employment are enough to negotiate a license reinstatement agreement. Low-income fathers are a mobile population, so despite considerable efforts by CSSD, mail seldom reaches them. Even if they receive the correspondence, many will not respond. However, fathers enrolled in fatherhood programs are taught the general rules for reinstatement and state laws regarding provisional licenses and can access staff knowledge to begin the process or to gain a provisional license.
Incarceration stops fathers from paying child support. Having enrolled in a fatherhood program, fathers will be able to connect with program staff that is able to attend non-payment, contempt hearings and verify fathers' enrollment as an alternative to incarceration. Through observing the success of alternative to incarceration programs, child support agencies have witnessed that not all fathers are unwilling payers destined for punishment.
A huge advantage of enrollment in fatherhood programs is receipt of coaching and guidance through knowledgeable staff leading fathers toward resolution of child support problems, information about services, job readiness, job skills and, ultimately, employment. Like other evidence-based diversion programs, fathers who consent to enroll in programs will be required to meet requirements and failure to do so will result in incarceration. Access to critical services increases the capacity of fathers to pay and sustain payment; in most cases it is warranted and should always be provided in a manner able to be utilized by this population.
Lack of understanding or fear of repercussions from a child support agency will cause fathers to remain in their underground lives, avoiding seeking help until the contempt hearing has already occurred. In most jurisdictions, when a father fails to appear at his contempt hearing, an arrest warrant is issued for "failure to appear." Day-to-day living with an active warrant becomes very stressful, especially when pursuing legitimate work. Is it any wonder that fathers are extremely hesitant to take this step when simply walking into an office could result in incarceration? Some fathers have said that they are even afraid to call the child support office, believing that their phone calls will be traced and their whereabouts discovered. Almost all of them recognize that the warrant must be dealt with in order to move forward.
For fathers unable to pay support and overwhelmed by the intricate system, the fatherhood program becomes a temporary safe haven where they can receive information and begin the process of resolving their outstanding warrant. The key word is "temporary," because in order to be approved for enrollment, all candidates are informed that the first requirement is addressing the outstanding warrant. Once the father consents to dealing with the warrant, he will be enrolled and staff will facilitate the process. At this juncture, the importance of the partnership between the fatherhood program and the child support agency rises significantly. In the collaborative environment of inter-agency partnerships, the criteria and steps to resolve an outstanding warrant without incarceration can be discussed and agreed upon. Often, fathers must turn themselves into the court and consent to enrollment in the program as an alternative to incarceration. In other situations, if a payment plan can be agreed upon, the court appearance involves a consent order to dismiss the warrant.
"How can I be a father when I am in jail?"
Being emotionally and financially active in a child's life is severely limited when fathers are incarcerated and barriers to support payments loom larger. Custodial parents often reach out to fatherhood programs for intervention because they want enforcement of requirements for fathers to work, go on wage withholding, and make consistent payments.
Each year the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides to the federal register for publication the poverty guidelines for use for administrative purposes, such as determining financial eligibility for certain federal programs. For 2010 the poverty guideline for the 48 contiguous states and District of Columbia indicated that for families of two, $14,570 income or less was the poverty guideline. For families of three, it was $18,310 and for families of four, it was $22,050. For custodial families that fall in this poverty guideline, child support represents 10 percent of family income and 40 percent for those who receive it.
Close collaboration between child support agencies and fatherhood programs can introduce options for fathers incarcerated solely for non-payment of child support. At a sentencing review hearing, with the consent of the child support agency in place, the father can be ordered to enroll in a fatherhood program as an alternative to incarceration. This type of order requires the father to participate in classes, employment placement, and other relevant services interpreted in the initial assessment interview. Applying the results of the intake assessment, the trained and competent fatherhood program staff are prepared to identify most of the major issues contributing to the inability of individual fathers to maintain employment and consistently pay support. Before being released to the program, staff must determine whether or not the fatherhood program has the capacity to deliver the unique set of services needed by each father.
Jo Beasley, Assistant Director Regional Operations, SC DSS, CSSD has said, "In the past, neither we nor the courts, had an alternative other than incarceration to handle noncompliance situations. Now fathers can opt to enter fatherhood programs rather than jail. Once a participant enters into a fatherhood program and has a successful outcome this is what I see: child support payments are paid; the custodial parent receives child support; calls to CSSD for enforcement are reduced since payments are being received; family court does not issue contempt citations; and court dockets are reduced. Studies have clearly shown that fathers who pay child support are more engaged in the lives of their children. It's a win-win for all involved."
The output of inter-agency partnerships ultimately affects the children who receive the greatest benefit of involved and responsible fathers; however, there is no doubt that the economic impact in overall system operational costs is equally impressive. The vast majority of low-income fathers who enroll in fatherhood programs truly want to positively contribute to the lives of their children. Those whose goals are not aligned with responsible fatherhood will not be enrolled, because the overall goal of fatherhood programs is supporting fathers who desire to be active and involved. With Child Support Services as a key program partner, fathers gain access to services and critical information putting them on the path toward becoming reliable payers. Many low-income fathers and families are unable to singlehandedly navigate the complex CSSD system. Agency partnerships bring impressive efficiencies and incrementally expand positive results and increase the potential for a broader scope of services with minimal increase in staff time or resources.