Tribal programs gaining in number and strength

Native American Navajo dancerTribal child support programs are growing by leaps and bounds. With the latest tribe—Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Bayfield, WI—joining us this July, the national child support program now boasts 56 fully comprehensive tribal programs and six more in the start-up phase.

Only 16 years ago, federal legislation created a path for tribal child support programs. Nine comprehensive programs (listed below) began their journey up that path, paving the way for the next 47 with more to come. These original nine have collected more than $160 million since 2001. Comprehensive tribal programs together collected over $42 million in FY 2012 alone.

These dollars to families are more important than ever. The Pew Research Center reported in June that Native Americans have a higher poverty rate (26 percent) compared with the national average (15 percent). Unemployment rates for Native Americans also rank higher than the national average.

To help tribes enhance services to tribal families, we have published a new OCSE competitive grant funding opportunity for comprehensive tribal child support programs. The Tribal Innovation Grants will help eligible tribes strengthen their innovative, family-centered services, including through partnerships with other programs. Applications are due Aug. 12, with a possible Sept. 1 start.

Our Model Tribal System (MTS) participation is gaining strength, too. Five tribes now operate the system: Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Modoc, Forest County Potawatomi Community, Mille Lacs, and Lac Courte Oreilles. Three more tribes are installing the system: Winnebago, Suquamish, and White Earth. In OCSE we are fine-tuning performance, planning enhancements and modifications, and of course, continuing to roll out the MTS to tribes that request installation.

Our goal is to widen the path further for new tribal programs each year. More tribal child support will mean more parental support for Indian children who need it the most—more money for food, clothing, school supplies, and opportunities to thrive in many ways.

Nine tribal child support programs led the way:

  • Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma
  • Forest County Potawatomi Community, Wisconsin
  • Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Wisconsin
  • Lummi Nation, Washington
  • Menominee Tribe, Wisconsin
  • Navajo Nation, New Mexico
  • Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, Washington
  • Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Washington
  • Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, South Dakota
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Engaging with both moms and dads

Mom and young daughter outdoorsUnlike many social services programs, child support regularly interacts with both parents. Child support agencies in states, tribes and local jurisdictions often provide educational materials, such as brochures, fliers, posters, videos, infographics and website information about what to expect and how to begin a case with the child support program. The agencies make these materials available for all parents.

Many child support agencies use early intervention methods, such as phone calls and mailings, to reach both parents. Reaching out to parents early in the child support process can encourage and empower both parents to interact with the child support program in a positive way. Some child support agencies work with both parents together.

Agencies may collaborate with partners as another way to ensure that all voices are represented (such as fatherhood groups, domestic violence organizations, and Hispanic organizations). Child support agencies often bring together diverse groups to collaborate on projects that help to engage moms and dads. In December 2012, I issued a Policy Interpretation Question document that explains that child support is in a great position to foster collaborations to help families holistically.

Our program routinely accepts applications for services from either parent, and enforces support against both mothers and fathers. Our program reaches out to engage both custodial and noncustodial parents whether they are moms or dads or another guardian such as a grandparent. We also collect data in OCSE that will help us understand parents of either gender. And we stay abreast of research in the field. We know, for example, that in 2011, an estimated 18.3 percent of custodial parents were fathers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Populations Reports (“Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2011”).

Child support professionals follow trends as well. Pew Research Center data on the “Growing Number of Dads Home with the Kids” shows that the number of stay-at-home fathers is rising. Another Pew report, “5 Facts about Today’s Fathers,” says fewer dads are their family’s sole breadwinner as dads’ and moms’ roles are converging—over the years, fathers have taken on more housework and childcare duties, and women have increased their time spent in paid work.

Our new OCSE infographic helps us visualize OCSE data for FY 2013. It may help you picture some of the changes taking place in our program. As we continue to manage program changes, we will keep our focus on treating both mothers and fathers fairly in their custodial or noncustodial roles.

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Today’s child support program helping fathers

Baby boy with dad smallThe child support program continues to evolve as families change. Our Father’s Day issue of the Child Support Report highlights innovative strategies that child support programs are using to work with both parents to increase the support that children receive from their noncustodial parents.

Erin Frisch, Michigan child support director, describes how her state improved customer service and office efficiency by streamlining case management so that case workers can really help parents.

Former NBA player and fatherhood advocate Etan Thomas observes that “the programs that couple the inspirational messages with the tools to help fathers succeed often work the best.”

Chad Edinger, who prior to coming to OCSE had extensive experience implementing fatherhood and family-centered initiatives in Colorado, surveys child support-coordinated employment programs for noncustodial parents in 30 states and the District of Columbia and describes our National Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration Project, or CSPED.

Susan Brown, Franklin County, Ohio, child support director, emphasizes the importance of research to help us understand and meet the needs of the communities we serve.

Freda Randolph Glenn, operations manager for the San Francisco child support program, describes the county’s innovative work with community colleges so that custodial parents can finish school and noncustodial parents can share parenting time.

Jeff Stocks, our OCSE specialist in Kansas City, partners with Kate Goudy-Haht from Iowa State University to describe a new high school curriculum developed by the Iowa child support program.

And Beatrice Locks reports on $26 million in collections for children and families from OCSE’s Insurance Match program.

This is today’s child support program. I am proud to work for a program that constantly innovates in order to stay true to its mission.

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Mother’s Day message for my colleagues

Custodial parent stats - CarouselI am now a grandmother of five. My children have all left home and two of them have started their own families. I can say hands down that the most important, most challenging, and most fun job I have ever had is being a mom. As a grandma, I get the pay-off with far less work!

I raised my children as a single parent for a number of years. Receiving regular child support—and working two or three part-time jobs—kept us going financially. It takes hard work to raise a child day in and day out. Like many parents, I worried juggled, and did without to make sure the kids had clothes, food, health care coverage, and a roof over their heads. Often I was out of cash and out of food stamps by the third week of the month. We had plenty of pancakes for supper during that last week!

Being able to turn to safety net programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children), school lunch, Medicaid, and public health clinics helped us get by.  As a young mother, I was grateful for the mosaic of services that I received from my county social services agency during hard times. That is why I encourage child support professionals to learn more about the services available to families in your community, to build partnerships with other programs, and to provide information and connections for the parents you work with every day.

Parents have a huge job—to raise, love and financially support their children. Earning money. Putting food on the table. Cleaning the house. Getting up in the middle of the night with a sick child. Walking the kids to the bus stop. Doing the laundry. Helping with homework. Taking the kids to the dentist. Taking the kids to the park.  Teaching children how to conduct themselves. Putting down the phone to listen to knock-knock jokes. For moms and dads, these are “chores of love.”

An inescapable part of being a parent is financial responsibility. Parents do what they have to do to take care of their kids. And kids know when their parents put them first. It costs money to raise a child. That’s the bottom line.

The work that you do as child support professionals makes a difference in families’ lives. It really does. Take it from me. Happy Mother’s Day!

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Employers key in driving child support collections to families

Gears illustrationThe nation’s employers are a key partner in the child support program. Employers conduct core child support functions, which include reporting newly hired employees, implementing child support and medical support orders, and remitting child support payments.

The OCSE FY 2012 preliminary data report shows that employers remitted 72 percent of all child support payments, or $22.9 billion. The FY 2013 preliminary report indicates that employers remitted 74 percent of all child support payments, and employers reported 53.52 million new hires.

Quite simply, we could not collect and disburse more than $30 billion every year without employers. As child support professionals, we all thank employers for their huge contributions to this program.

In partnership with state child support agencies, OCSE has streamlined processes that help both employers and states gain efficiency in exchanging information and collecting payments. The e-IWO (electronic income withholding order) is the gold standard for transmitting uniform, secure information and reducing costs. Thirty-one states (representing 76.2 percent of the national child support caseload) and 566 employers (representing 6,290 Federal Employer Identification Numbers of parent companies and their subsidiaries) use this electronic process.

Other electronic processes include the Debt Inquiry Service which allows employers to report upcoming bonus and lump sum payments to many states at once. Forty-seven states and territories and 80 employers use the Debt Inquiry Service. This June we will implement electronic terminations (eTerm) to allow employers to notify states about employee terminations or let states know that an individual never worked for them.

States are piloting initiatives that will streamline more processes. Oklahoma Child Support Services transitions custodial parents who close their child support cases but wish to retain an income withholding by sending a new IWO to the employer for the custodial parent. They are expanding this initiative by adding IWO instructions to the pro se section of their website to help parents initiate, amend, or terminate their IWO cases. “Healthy Families” is Oklahoma’s new motto, and they are helping to achieve that by assisting pro se customers.

Employers do have concerns about some state practices in income withholding. Omitting full Social Security numbers, adding state-specific requirements such as periodic step-downs in amounts, and requiring the full amount of the order each month when the employer’s pay cycle is weekly or bi-weekly require extra administrative work from employers. They believe that these requirements move away from a standard form with standard wording and requirements.

We hope to clarify some of these concerns when we publish the revised Income Withholding for Support (IWO) form this May.

To offer a forum for discussions between states and employers on these and other important issues, the OCSE Employer Services team planned an Employer Symposium for May 22, immediately following the ERICSA (Eastern Regional Interstate Child Support Association) conference. ERICSA will feature an employer track on the final day of the conference to welcome interaction. We hope that many states and employers will join us  to continue discussing ways to improve our outreach to families and employers.

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Technology – the ‘band boards’ of our program

Illustration of computer monitor, construction hat and barrier standAbout 10 years ago, we decided to remodel our house—mostly infrastructure work. We decided to replace the roof and siding, install modern doors, put in more windows, and—the fun project—remodel the kitchen. 

One morning, our contractor said, “You need to replace the band boards.” I shrugged, and said, “Ok, how much will that cost?” He repeated with some urgency, “You need to replace your band boards now. They have rotted.” He paused, cleared his throat, and said, “Do you know what a band board is?” I shook my head. He said, “The band boards are the only thing attaching the second floor to the first floor.” Well, that little item was not in the budget. But I told him to fix the band boards first.

If customer service is the door to the child support program, and family-centered strategies are the windows to the rest of the world, technology is the band boards. And if the band boards need attention, that has to be the first priority for state child support programs. It’s clear that fixing the band boards, or in our case, replacing our legacy systems and technologies, is the most pressing need and top priority for many state child support agencies. In most states, child support computer systems are 15 years old.

Some of the questions we’ve heard time and again at OCSE are: “Can I use Commercial-Off-The-Shelf or ‘COTS’ software to build it?”; “What are the best new systems out there in the last five years that I might be able to leverage for my own replacement project?”; “How do I decide what the best option is for my program, my state?”; and of course, the question we hear most often, “Where do I begin?”

In the last five years, OCSE has given states more flexibility and opportunity to upgrade technology. Technology options are more flexible and modular than ever before. In 2010, we reformed the Advance Planning Document (APD) federal approval process to recognize the ongoing improvements in technology, and to give states more flexibility on low-risk projects. Under the APD process, states can now submit a feasibility study to define possible solutions, and compare, evaluate, and ultimately identify your best value to a new child support system. With an acceptable feasibility study comes not only substantial federal funding, but also significant technical assistance from OCSE throughout the life of the state’s system development project.

Recent OCSE guidance can help states take advantage of the full array of new and evolving technology products and services that can support the efficient operation and administration of not only child support programs, but also Child Welfare, Medicaid and Food Stamp programs.

We worked with a number of other federal human service programs and their state counterparts to design a comprehensive architectural framework to facilitate information sharing, improve service delivery, prevent fraud, and provide better outcomes for children and families. Called the National Human Services Interoperability Architecture (NHSIA), it brings together pieces from other architecture models such as the Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA). NHSIA offers a foundation for common understanding, interoperability, standards, and reuse.

We also began working on a method for ensuring a reusable, repeatable standard for exchanging data between systems through the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM). 

Finally, we continue our focus on delivering to our state and tribal programs the most timely, accurate technical assistance on technology-related issues. Whether you seek the advice of the technology staffs in our federal or state systems divisions here in OCSE, consult with staff in another state that has tackled a major system replacement project, or rely on your state’s knowledgeable information technology people, the idea of replacing your child support system should not be as daunting as it was 10 or 15 years ago. 

Think of your child support program like you do house renovations—are you in need of a little paint and caulk, are you modernizing the windows and doors, and putting in a new kitchen—or is replacing the band boards your first order of business? We can help.

I invite the child support community of workers to submit a comment on this blog, or contact joseph.bodmer@acf.hhs.gov, director of the OCSE Division of State and Tribal Systems, for more information.

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History demonstrates child support lifts children out of poverty

Logo text: War on Poverty 50 YearsFor poor families in America, 1964 was a defining year because it set the stage for many of the social safety net programs we have today, including the child support program. While our program was not enacted for another decade, its establishment was part of the broader agenda to alleviate poverty in America.

In 1960, 27 percent of all children and 67 percent of black children were living in poverty. When President John F. Kennedy died in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson inherited a nation highly divided, with social programs that failed its poorest citizens. In his Jan. 8, 1964, State of the Union Address, President Johnson announced that his administration was declaring “a war on poverty in America,” and he urged Congress and the American public to join him in his effort. This became known as the War on Poverty.

During the speech, Johnson outlined his plan: “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it. No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice.” Over the next several years, the president pushed through a variety of legislation that set out social services programs.

Two of those initial pieces of legislation that were important for child support were the August 1964 Economic Opportunity Act that created programs such as Head Start and the Food Stamp Act, which made the existing food stamp pilot program permanent, and the 1965 Amendments to the Social Security Act, which brought health care to millions because it gave us the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Other major anti-poverty programs followed in the 1970s, including the Supplemental Security Income program (established in 1972) and the Earned Income Tax Credit (established in 1975).  Both of these programs are now considered key elements of our social safety net, lifting millions of people out of poverty.

The child support program was part of the 1970s wave of anti-poverty programs. Enacted in 1975, our program has grown dramatically. In FY 2012, we delivered about $26 billion in child support to families in the program and another $4 billion to families outside it. That year, child support lifted nearly one million people out of poverty. Today, we serve 1 in 4 children and 1 in 2 poor children in the United States, three territories, and many Native American tribes.

Although the child support program is not means-tested like other social safety netScreenshot of report: Custodial Parents Living in Poverty programs, families served by the program tend to be poor or have relatively low incomes. A recent report shows that in 2009, 63 percent of the families in the child support program had incomes below 200 percent of the poverty threshold, and 89 percent had incomes below 400 percent of the poverty threshold (see the report on the OCSE website).

Moreover, families eligible for child support are often the same families helped by other social safety net programs. A new OCSE Story Behind the Numbers fact sheet shows that 4.2 million custodial families were poor in 2011. Nearly all of these families are headed by a female custodial parent. Many are young, never married, and a member of a minority. Most have two or more children eligible for child support. These families struggle to make ends meet.

When poor families receive child support, it represents a large percent of their income. In 2011, poor custodial families who received child support collected $4,503, on average, representing 52 percent of the average income of poor custodial parents. And these figures increased between 2009 and 2011. In 2009, poor custodial families who received child support got, on average $3,909, representing 45 percent of the average income of poor custodial parents.

As we move forward, the child support program will continue to play a key role in the War on Poverty, delivering child support to disadvantaged families in tough budgetary times. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, the Child Support Report will feature more articles this year that further highlight the role that child support plays in lifting people out of poverty.

 

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Ten challenges for the New Year

"What's Next" headline in newspaperIn my previous Commissioner’s Voice column, I talked about the three generations in our society and three generations of our child support program and how the generational shifts in our society have impacted the way we do business. I gave examples of how you, the managers and staff in child support agencies, are addressing the changes in our caseload in innovative ways.

The members of the rising generation in our society—and in our program—expect clear information. They expect respect. They expect resources. And they expect results. In OCSE, we are beginning a new national strategic planning process for 2015-2019, involving all state and tribal child support directors. We want to use this process to help us position the child support program for the future. We have challenges ahead, but also a great commitment to our mission and the people we serve.

What do we need to accomplish as we face the third generation of our program? As we start the New Year, please consider these 10 challenges. We need to:

  1. Modernize our systems, automate as much as we can, maintain strong security controls, and figure out the right balance between data privacy and data sharing.
  2. Update our communications, customer service, case management, and service delivery approaches for diverse families to get the best results for this generation.
  3. Plan for generational succession in our offices as the people who built this program retire.
  4. Improve interstate enforcement, the last frontier, and develop effective federal/state/tribal/international case processing procedures.
  5. Modernize our laws, guidelines, and judicial processes, including updating our medical support, policies, and routine use of contempt hearings.
  6. Set accurate orders based on real income, reduce reliance on imputed income, keep orders accurate, and reduce state debt on the books.
  7. Pay all of the money we collect to families and address the loss of revenue involved in shifting to 100% family distribution policies.
  8. Figure out how we leverage and coordinate employment, parenting time, health care, and other services for those parents who need help.
  9. Make the most of the political credibility we’ve established due to the work of the last two generations by carrying it into the communities and parents we serve.
  10. Accomplish all of this with constrained resources.

I know we can do it.

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Serving three generations of families

Young man and boy (2-4), drawing on wall with chalk, rear viewThe need for child support is as old as history. Families have always been complicated and diverse. But the way we obtain support for children has to change with every generation, as each faces different challenges, has different values, and has different families. What changes does the rising generation of parents in our caseload face?

  • Economic opportunity: We see a widening social divide in economic opportunity: the wage gap is growing. And a widening social divide in family stability: disparities in children’s life chances are growing.
  • Labor market: There are fewer stable jobs for low-skilled workers. Available jobs for low-skilled workers are lower-paying, with few career advancement opportunities and no benefits.
  • Education and job path for men and women: 20 percent of men in their prime working years are not working. (When I was growing up in the 1950s, 5 percent of men were not working.) Over the past 25 years, we’ve seen a steep increase in women’s employment, but men’s employment fell. Although a gender wage gap remains, women’s wages have risen and men’s have fallen. Men, particularly men of color, are much more likely to have been incarcerated, further reducing their job and family opportunities.   
  • Family structures: Complex families involve multiple partners, multiple parents, and more grandparents and relatives raising children. More children are born outside of marriage. In fact, the majority of all children born to mothers under 30 in this country are born outside of marriage. Same-sex marriage, assisted reproduction, and open adoption are additional facets of modern family life. 
  • Two words, smart phones: The rising generation uses technology to obtain information and connect to others. Among low-income young people, smart phones are the connection to the outside world.  This generational shift profoundly impacts how the child support program can successfully interact with young parents.

The new generation

We are entering the third generation of our program. Our basic program infrastructure built in 1975 addressed an earlier generation of parents, the divorce generation. We need to rethink our business model and adapt our program to the realities of this generation. Our main challenge is to collect the money and encourage employment and reinforce positive family relationships. Fewer resources are the new normal, so we need pragmatic, cost-effective, results-oriented approaches. 

All over the country, I see child support agencies step up to the plate to meet the needs of this generation. The basic building blocks for meeting the challenges of today are:

  • Focus on the fundamentals (systems, employers, customer service)
  • Get the order right (based on real income, not imputed)
  • Link to services (including jobs, parenting time, and health care)

 I see child support agencies implementing technology innovations, for example:

  • Interactive websites and apps
  • Streamlined automated workflow
  • Data analytics (caseworker-level data, predictive scoring, caseload stratification)
  • Continuous review and adjustment
  • Document management (document imaging, e-filing)
  • OCSE’s portal technology, including e-IWO

 And I see child support agencies implementing people innovations, for example:

  • Building human relationships, including complex case management
  • Debt reduction
  • Emphasis on parenting
  • Employment and wrap-around services
  • Judicial problem-solving courts
  • Reduced use of expensive contempt hearings
  • More focus on encouraging behavioral changes—what the researchers call “behavioral economics”—the ability and willingness to pay, work, and parent.  

As we wrap up 2013, I congratulate our state and tribal child support professionals on these accomplishments.

Stay tuned to my next Commissioner’s Voice in January 2014, when I’ll offer you 10 challenges as we face the third generation of our program!

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Reaching diverse customers through visual communications

Illustration of worker in child support officeInfographics are everywhere. A staple on websites across the internet, those colorful, poster-like illustrations grab our attention and help us visualize data. They can display facts and figures, research and surveys, ideas and trends, or simply a marathon route. Infographics may be old communications, but recently they’ve been paired with social media to engage target audiences.

Just in time for the recent Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15), OCSE designed our first infographic in Spanish. Following rave reviews of our storybook, Child Support Services and You, Let’s Work Together, our communications team crafted the infographic with parents in mind. How do I apply for Child Support services describes various ways to apply with a local agency. See the infographic, in both English and Spanish, on the Families page on our website.

Child support professionals and stakeholders in the program have reason to use compelling communications to reach Hispanic and Latino Americans. Our country now claims nearly 51 million Hispanics, of which 37 percent are foreign-born.

We can learn more about long-term trends in Hispanic population growth from the Census Bureau’s infographic America’s Foreign-Born in the Last 50 Years. Also based on the Census data is the Pew Research Center’s infographic Hispanics in the U.S.: Origin and Place of Birth. An article on the Texas Comptroller’s website, Texas by the Numbers, also offers infographics with Census data.

Innovative infographics can spread messages effectively to our diverse caseload and help us share data and other content with all of you. The more we know about our stakeholders and families, the better we can tailor these communications. I hope you will share our storybook and infographics in your jurisdiction. Please let us know your ideas for creating others.

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