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Q&A with Adrienne Noti, Senior Program Analyst at the Office of Child Support Enforcement

Many people released from prison have a substantial amount of debt to repay, and child support is often a significant part of these financial obligations. The following feature is a Q&A with Adrienne Noti, Senior Program Analyst at the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Administration for Children and Families. OCSE recently released three fact sheets in its Project to Avoid Increasing Delinquencies series, which promotes innovative strategies for improving the collection of child support. In this Q&A, Noti discusses these promising practices and their effect on incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals and their families.

CSG Justice Center: Can you describe the work of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement and how it engages with state and local agencies?

Adrienne Noti: The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) partners with federal, state, tribal, and local governments and others to promote parental responsibility so that children receive reliable support from their parents. OCSE helps child support agencies in the states and tribes to develop, manage, and operate their programs effectively and according to federal law. In working with state and local agencies, the federal child support program promotes economic stability, facilitates healthy relationships, supports responsible fatherhood, and connects parents to jobs.

How does this work relate to individuals who are incarcerated or returning to communities from incarceration?

Because the majority of federal and state prisoners are parents, state and local child support programs necessarily play an active role in working with incarcerated parents so that their support orders reflect their current income.

Each state has different procedures for establishing child support orders, though all states are required by federal law to have numeric guidelines that must be followed. Generally, child support orders can be modified when a noncustodial parent’s ability to pay changes substantially. Child support programs typically rely on one of the parents to request a modification of the child support order. It is important for parents facing incarceration to seek a modification quickly because falling behind will result in arrearages that must be paid. On average, for poor families receiving payments, child support accounts for 40 percent of the family’s income and can make a huge difference to the family.

What are some of the major challenges or barriers that incarcerated parents face in complying with child support orders?

Generally speaking, the two biggest challenges are lack of awareness that child support orders do not automatically stop upon incarceration and then figuring out how to request that the order be modified to reflect the parent’s actual ability to pay while incarcerated. As a result of these twin challenges, many incarcerated parents leave correctional facilities with unmanageable arrears that generally can’t be modified. This debt presents barriers to reentry—particularly with regard to employment and housing—in that it hinders payment of regular support payments, leads to uncollectible debt, limits work opportunities for noncustodial parents, increases the likelihood that noncustodial parents released from incarceration will enter the underground economy, and interferes with parent-child relationships. Without assistance, parents may not know how to request a modification of a child support order or they may be unaware of the consequences of a build-up of arrears.

How about the perspective of government agencies—what are some of the challenges in developing policies and programs that address incarcerated parents and child support?

From the federal perspective, one challenge is developing effective policies or programs given the variety of state and local child support programs and modification laws. We know the trend at the state level is to assure that child support orders are appropriate by facilitating modification of child support orders. While it was once common to treat incarceration as “voluntary unemployment” and prohibit the modification of child support orders, now the vast majority of states permit modification (although some states have legal barriers that prevent modification of orders for incarcerated parents). In fact, many states have programs that provide direct outreach or assistance to facilitate modification.

Another challenge that states face is continuing innovations with tight budgets and fiscal uncertainty. However, we do know that collaboration is key to successful programs and that child support programs with strong local partnerships are most successful. Collaboration between child support programs, fatherhood programs, domestic violence advocates, and corrections institutions is integral to a successful reentry. This may include, for example, having child support program staff co-located in a correctional facility to assist with modification, attending reentry fairs, and matching data so that both correctional facilities and child support programs are aware of which incarcerated parents have existing child support orders. Without collaboration, it is unlikely that any of these programs, acting alone, will prevail in assisting incarcerated parents with a successful reentry.

How can modification of orders benefit all those involved: parents, their families, and agencies?

Families need child support that they can count on, especially for low-income families. Child support orders should reflect the parents’ actual ability to pay. If orders are set too high, parents are less likely to comply, which, in addition to the adverse financial consequences, may also have a negative effect on the relationship with the children. No one—including the child support programs whose performance are, in part, measured by compliance with child support orders—benefits from orders that are set too high. Child support policies that help parents stay current, make regular payments, and modify orders where appropriate will help families escape poverty and give children the resources they need to grow up strong and healthy. Approximately 40 percent of states have developed specific modification assistance or review and adjustment programs designed to simplify the process and assist parents with requesting a change in their orders to more accurately reflect current income.

What are some of the promising practices that these states have implemented?

There are several ways child support programs are innovating to improve outcomes for incarcerated parents. First, early intervention to establish appropriate orders is key. By working with parents before, and during, incarceration, parents learn that they can trust the child support program and that the child support program staff can be allies in assisting with a successful reentry. When parents are involved in setting orders and those orders are based on accurate information, parents are more likely to avoid default orders and arrears and to provide stable support after their release.

Strategies that child support staff can use to set appropriate orders cover a range of techniques, including visiting the facility or being stationed at the prison to meet individually with inmates. Other promising practices include producing videos or other materials that are shown to incarcerated parents, providing modification materials directly to incarcerated parents and assistance in completing the required paperwork, and offering child support assistance at sentencing or at prison intake. Other states have designed processes to make the modification process easier for incarcerated parents, such as by providing incarcerated parents with access to telephone hearings or videoconferencing in child support cases. Many states have reentry programs that provide child support services to parents after their release from incarceration, and many child support programs provide referrals and assistance in addressing many of the barriers to reentry, such as providing employment assistance and debt management assistance to reentering parents.

Can you tell us about the Project to Avoid Increasing Delinquencies (PAID) fact sheet series and its newest additions?

OCSE started the PAID Initiative in 2006 to increase the collection of current support and to prevent and reduce arrears so child support will be a reliable source of income for more families. The PAID fact sheet series shares research and innovations in the core child support functions (locating parents, establishing paternity and child support orders, and collecting support in order to promote stable child support payment throughout childhood).

The newest addition, the Realistic Child Support Orders for Incarcerated Parents fact sheet, highlights opportunities to promote reliable child support payment by encouraging incarcerated parents to engage with the child support system, reducing or suspending orders during incarceration to avoid arrears, and offering post-incarceration child support services. As a companion to this PAID fact sheet, the accompanying chart reviews state modification practices, laws, and policies for incarcerated noncustodial parents.

Several other PAID fact sheets may be of interest to the reentry community, including Access to Justice Innovations, Establishing Realistic Child Support Orders: Engaging Noncustodial Parents, and Providing Expedited Review and Modification Assistance. Additionally, the entire Child Well-being and Family Self-Sufficiency fact sheet series highlights the family-centered direction of child support agencies and features Engagement of Fathers From Birth, Economic Stability, and Employment Programs.

What are some of the ways the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement engages with state and local agencies to reduce unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment of support?

OCSE encourages alternatives to the routine use of incarceration for nonpayment of support. As a response to a recent Supreme Court case concerning incarceration for nonpayment of support, OCSE has recently produced two policy documents that may be relevant to the reentry community. In Turner v. Rogers, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a state does not need to automatically provide counsel to a defendant in a child support civil contempt proceeding, under the specific facts of the case, as long as the state provides adequate procedural safeguards.

OCSE released an action transmittal, AT-12-01, which describes screening and other procedures that IV-D programs [services provided under Title IV, Part D of the Social Security Act] should use in light of Turner. Using Turner as a guidepost, the action transmittal urges state IV-D agencies to implement procedural safeguards when utilizing contempt procedures to enforce payment of child support and encourages IV-D agencies to individually screen cases prior to initiating or referring any case for civil contempt.

OCSE also released an information memorandum, IM-12-01, which describes promising and evidence-based practices to help states to increase reliable child support payments, improve access to justice for parents without attorneys, and reduce the need for jail time. Many state child support programs have implemented proactive and early intervention practices to address the underlying reasons for unpaid arrears and to avoid the need for civil contempt proceedings leading to jail time. As states have found, providing frequent review and adjustment presents another opportunity to avoid unnecessary incarceration. Other practices that assist parents in meeting their child support obligations include debt management, employment programs, alternative dispute resolution and case conferencing, and self-help judicial access resources.