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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

Child Support Orders: Problems with Enforcement
Paula G. Roberts

Problems with the System from the Custodial Parent's Point of View

Despite these changes, the child support enforcement picture remains bleak. Most of the studies of the IV-D system give it low marks for performance.70 Since 1984, there have been more than 12 studies by the General Accounting Office (GAO), detailing deficiencies in the IV-D system.71 The GAO has been particularly critical of the poor performance in interstate cases.72 In these cases, the problem of locating the noncustodial parent is more difficult, there are complex legal issues regarding jurisdiction to enter or enforce an order, and enforcement of cash and medical support is even more problematic because the employer is also usually located in a different state.

If the noncustodial parent lives in a foreign country, the situation is even more complex. To date, the United States has not ratified any of the treaties that would permit the international establishment and enforcement of support obligations.73 Custodial parents must usually hire foreign counsel to establish an order if they want results.

Data from the Census Bureau (Table 3) confirm that very little overall progress has been made in the past decade in changing the number of mothers who have support orders and actually receive collections.

Data compiled annually by the Department of Health and Human Services indicate serious deficiencies in the IV-D program which probably contribute to the bleak picture painted by the Census Bureau. A collection of any kind at some time during the year was made in only one-third of IV-D cases with an order of support.74 While income withholding is having some impact in IV-D cases, many of the other remedies are either not being used or are not very effective (Table 4).

Wage withholding seems the most effective method of obtaining payments but is clearly not in place in more than half of the cases with orders. Other methods—such as liens, bonds, and lottery intercepts—do not even account for one percent of the collections. The failure of these methods may reflect underutilization by understaffed state agencies. Or it may reflect the difficulty of implementing federal mandates in a system traditionally governed solely by state law.

As a result, some custodial parents now turn to private collection agencies. These agencies may charge an application fee. They will only take cases in which an order has been established and there are arrears owed. Many will not take a case if the family now receives AFDC or received AFDC in the past. These private collection agencies make their money by taking a percentage of the support collected (usually 25% to 33%), thereby reducing the resources available to raise the child. For these reasons, they do not seem to offer a viable alternative source of help for most low—and moderate—income mothers.

Noncustodial parents are also unhappy with the system. Of particular concern is the question of access or visitation. Many fathers believe that the problem of nonpayment of support is tied to denial of access to the children. If fathers were given regular access and decision-making authority in their children's lives, they argue, fathers would pay more support.75 Evidence to back up this position is mixed.76 Moreover, withholding of financial support clearly hurts children. Obligated parents should not be able to hurt their child in this way simply because they cannot agree with the custodial parent about proper access. For this reason, most policymakers agree that alleged interference with access should not be grounds for withholding support.77

Nonetheless, as Kelly points out in her article in this journal, there are good reasons for encouraging contact between children and their parents after divorce. Attention needs to be paid to developing mechanisms to resolve access problems.

To summarize, until recently, every state had its own unique child support enforcement system. Each system required a custodial parent to possess significant personal and financial resources to obtain or enforce a child support award. Starting in 1975, Congress began changing the system by requiring states to enact virtually identical laws in a number of areas. This "federalization of family law" has had a great impact on how paternity is established and how support awards are enforced. The federal law has also caused the creation of state agencies which provide low- or no-cost services to custodial parents.

Nonetheless, each state's system is distinctive, and no state has a truly effective system in place even for IV-D cases. This multiplicity of systems also makes interstate establishment and enforcement of support obligations problematic. As a result, despite nearly two decades of federal and state activity, there has been very little improvement in the likelihood that children will actually receive child support.