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Child support and reentry: basic facts and promising practices.

To ensure a successful reentry, correctional staff should be sure to check the box on child support when preparing a client checklist. It makes no difference whether the client is young or old, male or female, divorced or never married--if he or she is a parent, there is a strong possibility that there is a child support case or order. And while most clients will be very aware of their child support case and the details surrounding it, some will not know they have a child, much less a child support order. Either way, if not addressed, a child support order with mounting arrearage can become a major barrier to successful reentry.


The child support program has a clear mission: to ensure that the financial, medical and emotional needs of children are met by their parents. But as with any social program based on the family law of 54 separate states and jurisdictions, things can get complicated. This article provides the corrections professional a set of basic facts about child support, answers to frequently asked questions, promising practices that many states implement, guidance on how to begin a conversation with the local child support agency, and how to find more child support information and contacts.

Child Support 101: Four Basic Facts

Fact number one. Child support obligations are often present for parents who do not live with their children. If the client's family has used welfare or Medicaid--and in some states, food stamps--the case must be referred to the child support agency when a parent is not living in the home. If there has been a divorce or legal separation, child support has most likely been established. If the children have been in foster care, there is likely a child support case and frequently two cases--one for each parent. Lastly, child support agencies are required to have outreach programs and make services available to any parent who applies. Many custodial parents, who may not need welfare or Medicaid, apply directly to receive child support services. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 65 percent of all families in which parents do not live in the same household are in the child support enforcement system. That percentage increases to more than 80 percent for low income households.

Fact number two. Child support obligations do not stop just because someone is unemployed or has no income. Many people assume that when they become unemployed or incarcerated that the child support order will automatically stop. Once a case is open and an order is established, the obligation does not go away. Arrearage can mount quickly, and many states charge interest. In addition, child support continues to be a legal debt even after children are adults. It is not unusual for someone leaving prison to be facing thousands of dollars in child support debt.

Fact number three. The child support program has many tools to enforce payment of support. Most people know that state child support agencies can garnish employee wages, but they may not know that tax refunds, including "stimulus" refunds and Earned Income Tax Credit refunds can also be withheld to pay child support. Child support payments can also be withheld from lottery winnings, workers' compensation payments, Social Security and disability benefits, and insurance settlements. Driver's licenses and many professional and recreational licenses can be suspended, passports can be denied, and bank accounts can be encumbered.

Fact number four. The child support system is highly automated. Employees have access at the federal and state levels to a large number of databases that can be used to locate individuals and their places of employment. These databases include Department of Motor Vehicles records, tax records, state vital records, prison and jail records, and all federal employment, military and veterans records. The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), a program office within the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, is responsible for the National Directory of New Hires (NDNH), a repository of all the new hires, reported wages and unemployment insurance data in the country. OCSE also has a database of all the child support cases and orders called the Federal Case Registry (FCR). All of these databases are constantly being matched, and whenever new information shows up, it is sent to the state that has responsibility for that child support case. It is very hard to hide from the child support system, and the child support agency has the ability to act on a case even if the noncustodial parent does not show up in court.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: My client said he or she did not know about this child support order. Is that possible?

The person posing the question is sometimes skeptical, not knowing if he or she is dealing with a "deadbeat" dad or mom who cannot be trusted. The answer is that it is entirely possible for a parent to not realize they have an order. When a child support obligation is being established, the defendant must be given notice of the legal action taken and the steps necessary to protect his or her rights. However, because child support is usually a civil process rather than a criminal proceeding, the notification requirements can be by mail to the last known address or even through publication in a local newspaper rather than by personal service of process. Additionally, even if the notification is received, many individuals ignore court summons either because they do not understand them or because they are afraid to go to court. When a defendant does not show up, the child support proceedings may go forward without him or her being present.

Question: How can my client be responsible for child support when he never even knew he had a child?

There are times when a mother has not informed the other parent, for any number of reasons, that they conceived a child together. In some instances, the relationship was fragile, and the couple may have stopped seeing each other before knowledge of the pregnancy. The mother may not want her child to be involved with a father who sells or uses drugs, has a criminal record or is in prison, or has been violent or controlling. If the mother applies for welfare and other benefits or decides she wants the father to provide support for the child, the fact that the father was never told about the child does not affect his legal obligation to pay support. However, if the father is still considered an alleged or putative father--that is, paternity has not yet been legally established--he should ask for a paternity test to determine if he really is the child's father before the child support order is finalized.

Question: How is the amount of the child support order set? How can someone with no income have a child support order?

Each state is responsible for developing its own child support guidelines (a calculation of how much a parent should contribute to the child's financial support) that must be used to establish orders unless it is shown, in writing, that doing so is not in the best interest of the child. Most state guidelines consider the needs of the child, other dependents and the ability of the parents to pay. The key here is "ability to pay." Courts ask defendants to bring information to verify their wages and other income as part of the child support proceedings. However, if the defendant does not show up or does not bring the required information, the courts or administrative proceedings rely on other information. If available, reports of previous earnings and income from the child support NDNH may be used. Without quarterly wage or other income information, the judge or administrative hearing officer will set the amount on some other basis. For example, if the parent worked in construction, an estimated income would be based on the going rate for construction at 40 hours a week. Other orders are set based on minimum wage. The most important action a parent can take to ensure the order amount is fair is to appear at the support order hearing with the documents requested in the notification of the hearing. When both parents appear and bring the necessary documents, the tribunal making the determination will be able to make a fully informed and fair decision.

Question: If my client doesn't tell an employer that he has a child support order, how can his wages be garnished?

State child support agencies have highly automated systems with the ability to constantly match information sources. Here is a typical scenario: An individual gains employment after incarceration. The employer is required to send the individual's "new hire" information to the NDNH. His or her record matches with a child support order on the FCR. The "hit" is sent to the appropriate state. The state then automatically generates an income withholding order to the employer, instructing the employer on how much child support to deduct and where to send it. The employer must comply or face penalties.

Promising Practices

With all the data matching and enforcement tools available to child support agencies, it is apparent why it is so critical to address the child support obligation as soon as possible. One of the major trends in the child support community is to work with corrections to address incarceration issues, recognizing the impact of incarceration on parents and their ability to provide financial support to their children. Many states are now determining the impact on their child support caseload--not just the number of incarcerated parents in the caseload, but what their criminal record will mean in terms of employment and future payment of child support. Although the proportion of incarcerated noncustodial parents in state prisons is only about five percent of the child support caseload at any given point in time, the cumulative impact is much higher. Washington state estimates that 31 percent of its "hard to collect from" caseload has a criminal record.

For many years, child support agencies around the country viewed incarceration as "voluntary unemployment" and would not allow the amount of the order to be reviewed and adjusted downward. No one wanted to "reward" someone for the criminal behavior or deny children the support they needed. This view has changed dramatically in recent years. Today, three-fourths of the states have laws that permit the reduction of child support orders during incarceration, thus avoiding the large arrearage problem upon release. Some states will reduce the current support to zero. Others set the amount very low and garnish commissary accounts, because they believe regular payments, even when they are quite small, remind parents of their obligation to their children.

Typically, the request for a modification of the child support order must come from the individual. This can be a difficult step for the incarcerated parent without some help from the outside. Most, if not all, child support enforcement (CSE) agencies match their caseload with the state correctional institutions, and some have even set up matches with local jails. More than half of all states have initiatives or processes in place to assist the incarcerated with their child support issues. Caseworkers are routinely sent to jails and prisons to help resolve paternity issues or take the forms necessary for requesting a review and adjustment of child support orders.

Another reason for directing attention to programs for incarcerated and released noncustodial parents is the growth in child support arrears. Research from several states suggests that a substantial portion of the arrearage can be attributed to incarceration and a criminal record. A 2001 study in Colorado found that roughly 18 percent of the total Colorado child support arrears were owed by individuals who were incarcerated or had a criminal justice history. Child support agencies are responsible for collecting arrears on behalf of the state and the custodial parent. Having large balances of uncollectible support is a no-win situation for the state, the noncustodial parent and even the custodial parent and child.

In August 2006, OCSE published two "must read" reports for corrections professionals who want to understand how child support can impact their clients and how they can help them navigate the child support system. These reports are Incarceration, Reentry and Child Support Issues: National and State Research Overview and Working with Incarcerated and Released Parents: Lessons from OCSE Grants and State Programs. These resource guides cover a wide range of topics from research findings to guidance on forming collaborations with the judiciary and correctional institutions, conducting data matches, developing materials for outreach, the modification process, and policy development. Although no longer available in print, these publications are available through the OCSE Web site at

State-Specific Interventions

OCSE is continuing to develop innovative practices that can address the special child support issues of incarcerated parents. Through its discretionary grants program, six demonstration grants directly related to incarceration were awarded between 2006 and 2008. These grants were made to the District of Columbia, Maryland, California, Indiana, Colorado and Tennessee.

District of Columbia (2006). The Child Support Services Division (CSSD) of the District of Columbia receives listings of incarcerated individuals from the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. CSSD compares the listings with its caseload and then determines whether the individuals are eligible for modification. If they are, CSSD contacts both the custodial and noncustodial parents to inform them of their actions. Finally, CSSD submits motions to a judge in the D.C. Superior Court so that they can be signed in chambers (i.e., without a court hearing).

Maryland (2006). The Maryland Child Support Enforcement Agency established a program in Prince George's County to aggressively and proactively review and, if appropriate, modify child support orders for noncustodial parents and assist them in obtaining employment when released.

California (2007). in Kern County, the Child Support Agency and the Parole Office of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation targets parolees and those newly released from prison. The "On-The-Way-Out" program has installed a teleconferencing kiosk in the local parole office so child support staff members have immediate and direct access to newly released and paroled noncustodial parents. This allows participants to provide current case-relevant information directly to a child support professional upon prison release, as well as establish the process by which the state CSE office will promptly act upon the information provided.

Indiana (2008). The Sagamore Institute for Policy Research was awarded a grant to identify incarcerated individuals with child support orders early in the process. Offenders are being assisted by the Sagamore Institute with having their child support orders modified. Upon release, offenders are referred to a work program, which is funded through a different grant opportunity.

Colorado (2008). Building on its years of experience in the field of incarceration, the State Child Support Enforcement Agency was awarded a grant to use automation to quickly identify cases that match with incarceration records. Those orders are flagged for possible review and adjustment, using new streamlined procedures developed under a previous grant.

Tennessee (2008). This grant has several components. In Knoxville and the surrounding counties (Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Judicial Districts), an early identification system is being developed to stop arrearages from accruing during incarceration. The state is also building a statewide clearinghouse to facilitate information exchanges between the state's DOC and CSE agency. In addition, it is developing a telephonic process for inmates whose orders are being reviewed.

The 2008 grantees will incorporate lessons learned from the earlier projects to support strategies necessary for an inmate's successful engagement with child support: early identification of the order, a review and adjustment of the order to ensure arrears do not accumulate, and, upon reentry, a referral to job services. At the point of employment, careful consideration must be given to the amount of the child support order so that the parent is fully engaged in the process of supporting his or her children without further impoverishing the parent and thus discouraging participation in the job market.

Early in 2009, OCSE provided a grant opportunity linked to the Prisoner Reentry Initiative, a joint Department of Labor and Department of Justice effort to address reentry. Under that grant opportunity, OCSE, through the state child support enforcement agency, will fund the child support casework activity for those enrolled in the PRI grant programs. These grants were awarded to Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

These 2009 grants are building on the models developed by PRI grantees in Kansas and Minnesota (2007 grantees). In positions funded through PRI, CSE caseworkers report that the prison intake facility is an ideal setting for their work. While all the other background work is being conducted, they can do their own background work on child support issues. When a child support order is identified, the CSE caseworker works with an individual to begin the process to modify the order downward so that arrearage does not accrue and the client will not have to grapple with an unmanageable amount of support.

At times, the CSE worker finds a case or order for individuals who were not aware that they had a child support obligation. In those instances, the caseworker explains how child support works and the critical role child support plays in the financial security of children. They can also refer the parent to other resources to help them learn more about parenting.

Starting the Conversation With CSE

As with all collaborative efforts, it starts with one agency contacting another. It does not really matter who takes the initiative, just as long as it happens. For those correctional institutions wanting to begin collaboration with child support, there are some key topics that will help shape the conversation.

Ask the CSE agency if they take any steps to work with incarcerated parents to address child support issues. Do they have caseworkers who routinely come to the facilities to meet with parents? Have they developed any special outreach materials for inmates? If not, this might make a great first project to undertake since the CSE agency will want to ensure the materials meet the needs of inmates.

Ask the CSE agency to identify policies that would affect incarcerated parents. Some of the most pertinent questions are: Does the CSE agency match its records against prison and jail populations to locate parents in order to establish paternity and child support orders? Does the CSE agency conduct DNA testing before paternity is established for a father in prison? Is there a process for reviewing and adjusting orders for fathers in prison? Does the state view incarceration as "voluntary unemployment?" What is the amount of a minimum child support order when someone has no financial assets and cannot earn income in prison?

Ask about debt forgiveness, which means reducing the arrearage that may have accumulated during incarceration. If child support debt is owed to the custodial parent, only that parent can forgive the debt. There are examples of custodial parents who have worked with the CSE agency to forgive debt that accumulated during incarceration, largely because the released parent is participating in a program designed to ease his or her reentry. If the debt is owed to the state to reimburse a public assistance program, however, there is often some discretion. A state must have the legal authority to forgive the debt, which often requires legislation. Roughly one-third of the states have initiatives or processes already in place to reduce state-owed debt (money owed to the state to reimburse public assistance programs). The forgiveness programs are generally designed so that a portion of the debt is written off for regular payments made for a set period of time. As the payments continue, the debt is lowered.

Ask if there are special programs or fatherhood groups that can assist your client in the reentry process. Many fatherhood groups have forged alliances with CSE agencies, and they are invaluable to those learning how to navigate the child support system. Many of these programs are already working with formerly incarcerated individuals and have developed skills and expertise in working with this population.

Finally, do not forget to ask if the CSE agency is developing any grant proposals pertaining to incarceration and reentry, or if it would like to partner with you as you develop your proposals. There have been many grant opportunities in the past couple of years specifically for incarceration and reentry. Demonstration grants often require partners because it often takes several programs working collaboratively to achieve goals. When developing grant proposals related to incarceration and reentry, keep the child support agency in mind.

Information and CSE Contacts

The OCSE home page is available at There you can find a link to all OCSE publications, many of which are available in Spanish. Also on the OCSE home page under the heading of "State Child Support Agency Links," you will find two links to the state CSE agencies. Under the first link "homepages," there is a map that allows you to locate the child support agency Web site for each state. Under the second link "contact information," you will find the main numbers of the state child support agencies. You can also use the contact information link to locate OCSE regional office staff. They can help you learn more about individual state policies and programs regarding incarceration, and they can also help you set up meetings and establish relationships with state CSE agency staff.

At a time when government resources are being stretched and services are scaled back, there is no better time for child support and corrections to collaborate. CSE agencies have become sensitized to the impact incarceration and a criminal record has on a parent's ability to find and retain employment in order to meet the financial obligations to their children. Those in corrections have become aware of the effect a neglected child support case can have on someone's chances of a successful reentry. More and more, child support and correctional agencies are finding ways to engage the offender in the process by addressing realistic ways to collect child support and arrears that also allow the parent sufficient resources to become stabilized upon reentry. Working together, the child support and correctional systems can help offenders successfully reenter their communities and families. That success will help children get the financial and emotional support they need from their parents to become productive and successful adults.

Karen Anthony, MPA, is program specialist in the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, Administration for Children and Families. Linda Mellgren, MPA, is senior social science analyst in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Both offices are in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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Author:Anthony, Karen; Mellgren, Linda
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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