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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


Table 3 graphically illustrates that, despite enormous efforts, the state-based approach to reforming child support enforcement has failed. Further emphasis on this approach alone—as recommended by the U.S. Commission—will simply doom a large part of another generation of children living in single-parent families to poverty or near poverty. This state-based approach also runs the risk that the federal government will pour even more money into a state-based system which has yet to show that it is capable of significant improvement.

Yet, reaction to the Downey-Hyde proposal demonstrates that a move to federalize the whole child support enforcement system has the potential to engender so much opposition that all efforts at reform could be stalemated. This result—like insistence on a pure state-based model—has terrible consequences for another generation of children. A CSA system could alleviate some of the problem but, in the current fiscal climate, it is hard to envision Congress authorizing a CSA unless payments collected from noncustodial parents offset most of the cost. Greatly improved child support enforcement is a fiscal prerequisite to CSA. So we come full circle. Insisting on full federalization dooms CSA.

Before giving in to despair, a middle ground must be developed. A plan needs to be put forth which strengthens that part of the state system which can be strengthened and moves to the federal level those functions which truly do need to be federalized if a CSA is to be implemented. Some will disagree with different pieces, but the following is suggested as a rough outline of how to structure a reform proposal.


  1. Leave establishment of paternity at the state level. Require every state to offer voluntary establishment of paternity by affidavit at the hospital (for newborns) and the birth records agency (for other children). Require states to streamline contested case processing and provide federal funding for genetic testing research so that the cost of genetic tests is low and their reliability is high.
  2. Develop a much greater capacity to locate parents at the state level. Require every state's child support computer system to have the ability to access data in every other computerized data base maintained by the state. Make this expanded state data base available to the computerized child support system of every other state so parents can be located across state lines. In addition, allow states access to federal records—including federal tax returns—when information about parents' income and assets is needed so that proper support awards can be established and then enforced.
  3. Enact a national child support guideline based on the percentage of income model so that the children of similarly situated noncustodial parents will be similarly supported. As Garfinkel's article in this journal issue indicates, there is much debate about which guideline is best. However, if one's goal is ease of administration, the percentage of income guideline seems best. It also addresses the problem inherent in the income shares model that awards go down when custodial parent income goes up, creating a work disincentive like the one which plagues the AFDC system.
  4. Leave the establishment and modification of support orders at the state level so that the issues can be addressed in the context of property distribution, custody, and visitation. Require that states use the national guideline as a rebuttable presumption of support to be paid. Also require all states to adopt UIFSA so that interstate cases can be handled expeditiously.
  5. Establish a national registry for child support orders within the IRS. Every time a new order is entered, an abstract (containing the basic information needed for enforcement) would also be entered in the national registry. Modifications would also be entered in the registry as made.
  6. Transition the enforcement of all child support orders from the states to the IRS. The process could begin with new orders, adding old orders as they are modified. Or interstate orders could be done first, followed by new orders and modified orders. Over a decade, this should bring most orders to federal enforcement and phase out state activity in this area, leaving states to focus their resources on establishing paternity and obtaining orders.
  7. Authorize the IRS to administer wage withholding for child support. Supplement this with a quarterly payment system (either in advance or retrospectively) for the self-employed. Require automatic use of all other IRS collection mechanisms against those who do not pay.
  8. Have the IRS keep records and disburse the payments (including CSA payments) to custodial parents. This system would provide universal, federal service at the collection and distribution end. Parents would be free to use the private system or the public system before that time to locate the noncustodial parent and his or her assets, establish paternity, and set or modify the support obligation. More affluent parents, especially those with significant property to distribute, would be free to pursue their rights under current state laws. Once the issue came down to collecting what is owed to children, however, the public system would be mandatory and swift.

We owe this much to our children.