Monthly Archives: August 2012

Preparing for an emergency

Girl filling gallon container with waterWhen an earthquake shook the East Coast a year ago, damage in DC was minimal, although OCSE staff was a bit rattled. However, the experiences of many of our colleagues in child support offices around the country have been far more challenging—many of you have been hit hard, both professionally and personally, yet you have persevered to return to business as usual after floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados. You speak from experience: We must all prepare for disasters.

Since Hurricane Irene flooded the Vermont child support office in Waterbury last August, Office of Child Support Director Jeff Cohen has spoken to groups about scrambling to remove the servers and hardware and get them to an alternate site. All 46 state child support employees, including those at the State Disbursement Unit, became homeless overnight, says Director Cohen. The office had a plan, having responded to floods, flu outbreaks, and even a computer virus that took out their network for weeks; however, they did not expect the enormity of the coming storm. He emphasizes that everyone should have a plan in place. (See the page 1 article in the August 2012 Child Support Report.) 

Over the past couple years, colleagues in New York, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Texas, Oregon and elsewhere have been forced to recover from large-scale natural disasters in their states and tribal lands that destroyed houses, businesses and sometimes child support offices. In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August 2005, child support directors in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas rallied their employees to locate families in the program—and one another—as many vacated their flooded homes. For families affected by any disaster, a break in child support operations means a break in getting money to buy children’s clothing, school supplies, groceries and medicines. After the hurricanes, child support workers teamed up across the country to help every facet of the struggling programs and the families they were serving.

OCSE and our 10 regional offices have COOPs (Continuity of Operations Plan) that identify core functions our government wants to make sure continues in an emergency. For ACF programs, this is typically funding of grants. OCSE has some unique operational functions that we must maintain, including the Federal Parent Locator Service and Federal Offset. We must also continue to respond to FPLS inquiries from states and telephone inquiries from the public, parents and Congress on behalf of its constituents. The plan also identifies essential staff and alternate sites.

OCSE also has authority to assist states to replace lost or damaged computer equipment or services, and we can waive our requirements for prior approval of federal funding to assist states to replace equipment and obtain services to install computers. By rapidly restoring states’ critical computer systems and services, which our programs depend on to manage our day-to-day operations, we ensure the shortest interruptions possible in our service delivery to families and children.

A federal interagency operational plan is in the works. It is not specific to the child support program; rather it discusses how agencies will work together with state, local and private organizations to respond to disasters.

You can read about federal assistance programs on the website for the Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response in the Administration for Children and Families. September is National Disaster Preparedness Month. You may want to mark the occasion by looking at material on the Department of Homeland Security’s  FEMA website. Let us know how OCSE can help you with your plans. Share some of your tips on the Commissioner’s Voice blog.


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Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions

U.S. Supreme CourtJune 20 marked the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Turner v. Rogers case. (See the July 2012 Child Support Report.)  Mr. Turner, the noncustodial parent, was ordered to pay $51.73 per week in child support. Over the course of several years, he was held in civil contempt for nonpayment and incarcerated a number of times.

After the last hearing, Mr. Turner appealed. He alleged that his constitutional rights were violated. He argued that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment required the state to provide him with appointed counsel in a civil contempt hearing that could lead to incarceration. Neither the custodial parent nor the state child support program was represented by an attorney at the hearing.

In Turner, the Supreme Court held (based upon the circumstances in his case) that a state does not necessarily need to provide counsel to a defendant in a child support civil contempt proceeding, as long as the state provides adequate procedural safeguards. The Supreme Court said that due process does require an express finding by the state court that the noncustodial parent has the ability to pay the purge order based upon the individual facts of the case. Last month, I issued policy guidance for state child support agencies implementing the Turner decision and information about alternatives to incarceration.

As a result of the Turner v. Rogers decision, state child support agencies and courts are examining their civil contempt procedures. The goal is not to eliminate contempt procedures in cases where it may be appropriate, but instead to implement fair and cost-effective procedures that assure that families receive reliable child support payments, improve fairness and access to justice for parents without an attorney, and reduce the need for jail time. Incarceration may indeed be appropriate in those cases where noncustodial parents can afford to support their children but willfully evade their parental responsibilities by hiding income and assets. However, jail is not appropriate for noncustodial parents who do not have the means to pay their child support debts.

The first step to reducing the need for contempt hearings is to set accurate child support orders. The research is clear that setting realistic orders based on actual income can actually improve compliance, increasing both the amount of child support collected and the consistency of payment. The research says that compliance falls off when orders are set above 15 to 20 percent of a noncustodial parent’s income.

On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. For the 30 million Americans who don’t yet have health insurance, this law will offer an array of quality, affordable, private health insurance plans to choose from starting in 2014. Those who can’t afford insurance will get tax credits that make coverage affordable.

Already, 34 states including the District of Columbia have received 100 percent federally funded grants to set up health insurance marketplaces, known as exchanges, which will allow individuals and small businesses to compare and choose private health plans. Each state will take the lead in designing its own menu of options. In the child support program, we know that our medical child support responsibilities are evolving. We look forward to working with child support professionals in the coming months and years to develop medical child support policies that complement state health care policy decisions and work for families.

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