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Is Jailing Deadbeat Dads Effective?

A new trend in the human services field suggests it isn't. Instead of punishing noncustodial parents, officials are trying to help them find and keep jobs.

Throwing someone in jail for not paying their bills has never proved to be very effective at getting anyone to pay what they owe. After all, if you're in jail, you certainly aren't making any money. Yet for those who fail to come up with child support, holding them in contempt and tossing them into jail is still the standard avenue of recourse.

But there's good news: Some in the human services field are starting to pursue a more enlightened course when it comes to dealing with so-called "deadbeat dads." Vicki Turetsky, commissioner at the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), is pushing for more programs that help noncustodial parents find jobs, hang on to them and ultimately meet their child support obligations. Last fall, the OCSE launched demonstration projects in eight states that Turetsky hopes will encourage parents' "ability and willingness to pay."

Turetsky made the case for such programs during a June forum hosted by the American Public Human Services Association: U.S. child support programs, she said, serve one quarter of all children and half of all poor children, impacting 17 million American kids. Currently upwards of 45 percent of those families' budgets come from a noncustodial parent.

The idea behind these demonstration projects, Turetsky says, is to go from punishing nonpaying, noncustodial parents to working to get them back into the family fold -- at least financially -- through a "more cooperative and holistic approach," which includes much closer coordination between child support enforcement offices and children and family services agencies.

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There are some technical fixes that the OCSE would like to see made to the process as well. One of those changes involves the "fees" governments skim off of child support payments to pay administrative costs. Turetsky's office wants to see 100 percent of child support payments going to the families. It's a powerful disincentive to getting men to pay up, Turetsky says, leading them to take jobs where they are paid in cash so as to stay under the state's income reporting radar. In fact, President Obama's fiscal 2014 budget proposes investing $1.41 billion over 10 years to encourage states to turn over all child support collections to TANF families. The Obama administration estimates that the 100 percent payment will add up to an additional $1.7 billion in child support payments.

Also important is getting income right, Turetsky adds. Using an individual's "real income" vs. "computed income" will also encourage compliance. "The current system," she says, "just adds up to debt and discouragement."

Overall, though, the focus of these projects remains on employing a softer approach. "The routine use of contempt hearings is no substitute for a job," says Turetsky. The goal of the pilot sites is to significantly reduce contempt hearings and increase creative and positive strategies for engaging fathers in the hope that such engagement may even move beyond just finances. Essentially, argues Turetsky, child support shouldn't be a strictly law enforcement issue,"but rather should follow other trends in children and family services and swing around to a softer, more engagement and employment-oriented approach.

In fact, states and localities have been experimenting with a less punitive, more engagement and employment-focused approach for several years now, providing strong evidence that such approaches work.

For example, in Texas, where child support enforcement is under the aegis of the attorney general, the AG's office has launched a program called Noncustodial Parent Choices (NPC), which serves noncustodial parents who are behind in support payments by removing barriers to employment and helping fathers become economically self-sufficient. The program has been "highly successful," according to a U.S. OCSE report, bringing in nearly $30 million in its first four years of operation.

New York's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has piloted NPC-like employment programs in four cities and found that participants earned significantly more than the control group, resulting in equally significant increases in child support payments.

Not that hauling a deadbeat dad into court isn't sometimes necessary, but even in those cases it appears that a softer, more common-sense tack works better than jail time. Take Wake County, N.C. Those ordered by the court into a work program increased their child support payments over time, while those ordered straight to jail didn't, according to the OCSE report.

But it's more than just about employment, Turetsky emphasized in her June speech. In launching the eight site demonstration project, the director emphasized that "chase and enforce" will be the option of last resort, "early, customized engagement" will be the first.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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