Getting Blood From Stones: Results and Policy Implications of an Empirical Investigation of Child Support Practice in St. Joseph County, Indiana Paternity Actions

Date01 October 2018
Published date01 October 2018
Margaret F. Brinig and Marsha Garrison
Today, there is consensus that the current system of allocating and enforcing child support obligations does not work well for
disadvantaged families, most of which are nonmarital. Nonmarital children are less likely to have support orders established
than marital children, and they are much less likely to experience full payment. In this article, we report data on child support
awards and enforcement associated with a sample of paternity actions brought in 2008 or 2010 in St. Joseph County,
Indiana. We found that child support practice in St. Joseph County promotes limited contact between children and their
absent fathers, nonpayment of prior support obligations, and the accrual of arrears that can never be paid. These results
strongly support recent changes in federal child support regulations and programs that postdate the orders in our study. Our
results also demonstrate both the need for additional reforms and the difculties that lie ahead as the states begin to g rapple
with applying the new standards.
Key Points for the Family Court Community:
Child support enforcement among the very disadvantaged neither makes fathers more responsible nor collects signi-
cant money
It also makes contact with their children less likely and results in the amassing of arrearages that will never be paid
While recent federal legal changes move in the right direction, we fear that local agencies are still unable to calculate
incomes when none can be shown, and, as with credit for other paid support orders, resort to shortcuts that are inaccu-
rate and unproductive
Keywords: Child Support; Child Support Enforcement; Empirical Research;Indigent Fathers; Nonmarital Children; Pater-
nity; Poverty; and Unmarried Parents.
Today, there is consensus that the current system of calculating and enforcing support obliga-
tions does not work well for disadvantaged families, most of which are nonmarital. Nonmarital chil-
dren are less likely to have support orders established than marital children, and they are much less
likely to experience full payment.
In this article, we report data on parenting time, child support calculation, and enforcement
actions in a population of nonmarital children for whom paternity actions were brought in 2008 or
2010 in St. Joseph County, Indiana. The computerized, court-based record system we utilized to
collect data gave us access to information on parental characteristics and child outcomes that other
researchers investigating child support practice in disadvantaged populations have been unable to
access. Our research thus offers an unusually data-rich window into current outcomes in a popula-
tion where problems are large and new solutions are desperately needed. Our ndings demonstrate
that recent changes in federal child support regulations and programs, which postdate the orders in
our study, were very much needed. Our ndings also demonstrate the need for additional reforms
and the difculties that lie ahead as the states begin to grapple with applying the new standards.
FAMILY COURT REVIEW, Vol. 56 No. 4, October 2018 521543
© 2018 Association of Family and Conciliation Courts
Ensuring that child support orders are entered and enforced against nonresident, deadbeat
has been a guiding principle of U.S. support law for the past half century. Current law and
practice generally derives from a federal initiative, inaugurated in 1975, designed to raise support
values and increase the likelihood that a support award would be paid. This initiative stemmed from
sharp increases both in the number of single-parent families
and in the cost of public assistance to
these families.
Due to similar demographic shifts and increased public-assistance burdens, many
other industrialized nations initiated comparable changes in child support law and practice during
the same period.
The rst major U.S. legislation, enacted by Congress in 1975, established the federal Ofce of
Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) and required the states to create their own child support
enforcement agencies as a condition of receiving reimbursement for public assistance to needy chil-
dren and their families (Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC]).
The new federal law
required parents (typically mothers) applying for AFDC benets to assign their child support claims
to the state as a condition of receiving assistance. It required the new support agencies (popularly
described as IV-D agencies because they originated in Title IV-D of the federal Social Security
Act) to establish support obligations for absent parents of federal-supported children, collect support
from those parents, and provide a parent-locator service equipped to search state and local records
for information on parents who could not be found. To reduce applications for public assistance,
the 1975 law also made IV-D services available to all parents who paid a reasonable fee.
The 1975 requirements were expanded by the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984
and Family Support Act of 1988.
These new laws required the states to change the method
by which child support orders were calculated. Support determination had previously relied primarily
on judicial discretion to produce an award value; under the new federal rules, states were required to
adopt guidelines that took into account all earnings and income of the absent parentand used spe-
cic descriptive and numeric criteriato produce a presumptive award value.
CSEA also required
the states to add new enforcement weapons to their arsenals, including immediate wage withholding,
the imposition of liens against nonpaying obligors, the deduction of unpaid support from federal and
state income tax refunds, and statutes of limitation permitting the establishment of paternity up to
eighteen years after a childs birth. This package of requirements was further expanded by the Per-
sonal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996,
which mandated innova-
tions in paternity establishment, expanded informational resources used for parent locating, required
certain expedited procedures for routine cases, and provided funds for programs to improve unem-
ployed fathersjob prospects and to support fathersaccess to their children.
In response to these various federal mandates, state child support law and practice have shifted
dramatically. Before the 1975 law was enacted, parents seeking support were invariably forced to
nd the obligor parent themselves and to pay for legal assistance in establishing and/or enforcing a
support award; today, 5060% of all support orders are obtained through the IV-D program.
Before federally required innovations in paternity establishment, paternity was often not established;
indeed, in 1979, the ratio of paternities established by IV-D ofces to the number of nonmarital
births was .19.
Today, paternity is established in 100% of IV-D cases.
The shift in law and prac-
tice has also dramatically increased child support collections. In scal year 1977, state IV-D agen-
cies served fewer than a million cases and collected less than $1 billion. In scal year 2015, these
same agencies served nearly 16 million children and collected $28.6 billion.
Increased child support collections serve a range of goals. Child support payments lift approxi-
mately a million family members out of poverty every year.
Because of child supports positive
effects on labor supply, welfare participation, fertility, and marriage decisions, every dollar of sup-
port paid also lifts the household income of recipient families by a much larger amount.
over, because fathers who pay child support are more likely to spend time with their children,
it is
possible that the federal child support program has increased parentchild contact for at least some

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