Author Archives: The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement

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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The Affordable Care Act will help parents and children in our caseload

Logo badge that links to healthcare.govWe have 40 million people in our child support caseload, including about 24 million adults. A third of the people in our caseload have incomes below the federal poverty level. According to a recent Urban Institute analysis of Census data (now on the OCSE website), our program served nearly 80 percent of poor custodial families in 2009. The Affordable Care Act will help make health care coverage more affordable and accessible for the people in our caseload. While obtaining medical support for children remains an ongoing responsibility, your child support office also can refer parents—both mothers and fathers—to the Health Insurance Marketplace.

States have new opportunities to expand Medicaid coverage to include adults without children living at home who have incomes at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level (about $15,000 for an individual). Community health centers have more funding than before. When I was a young mother, I didn’t have health insurance. We went to a public health center for my kids’ check-ups. My first son was born three months prematurely. We were still paying $10 per month toward that hospital bill when my second son had emergency surgery. I applied for Medicaid. I will always remember how I felt when my caseworker said, “We can take care of it. We can cover the bill. Don’t worry.”

Low-income noncustodial parents have an opportunity for the first time to get their own health needs covered. Think of that! Think of our ability to make a difference for the parents and children in our caseload. I will never forget a noncustodial parent employment program that I visited 20 years ago—the men couldn’t pay child support because they couldn’t get jobs. They couldn’t get jobs because they did not have front teeth.

Access to health coverage will help reduce racial, income, and gender disparities among the people in our caseload. Of the 6.8 million uninsured African-Americans in this country who are eligible for coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace, 56 percent are men. Of the 10.2 million uninsured Latinos in this country who are eligible for coverage through the Marketplace, 55 percent are men.

Now is the time to focus on outreach, information, and referrals for the parents and children in your caseload. Open enrollment begins October 1, with coverage beginning January 1 in this first year of implementation.

Later this fall, consumers can learn about and enroll in coverage through HealthCare.gov. HHS has launched a 24-hours-a-day consumer call center that is ready to answer questions in 150 languages. More than 1,200 community health centers across the country are preparing to help enroll uninsured Americans in coverage, and a partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services will help trusted local libraries be a resource for consumers who want information on their options.

In addition, HHS has begun training other individuals who will be providing in-person assistance, such as agents and brokers and certified application counselors. Health care navigators will serve as an in-person resource for Americans who want additional assistance in shopping for and enrolling in plans in the Health Insurance Marketplace beginning this fall. Navigators are trained to provide unbiased information in a culturally competent manner to consumers about health insurance, the new Health Insurance Marketplaces, qualified health plans, and public programs including Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. More than 100 national organizations and businesses have volunteered to help Americans learn about the health care coverage available in the Marketplace.

Plug in, and help the uninsured parents in our caseload get access to health care coverage. Our Health Care Connections fact sheets on the OCSE website can help point you in the right direction.

 

 

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What is our medical support road map?

Photo of smartphone showing road map, on top of a paper road mapOn Oct. 1, 2013, enrollment in the Health Insurance Marketplace will begin under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), while coverage will begin on Jan. 1, 2014. Child support agencies have an important role to play in connecting uninsured parents and their children to health care coverage by providing them with information about and referrals to the Health Insurance Marketplace.

But as important as these dates are for consumers, they are not child support program deadlines. Child support program requirements will not change on Oct. 1 and Jan. 1. Instead, we will continue to keep doing what we are doing—what our statute directs us to do, which is to provide for child health care coverage in child support orders. Employers still have the same medical child support responsibilities to respond to the National Medical Support Notice as they had before. Over time, the ACA will likely impact how we carry out our medical child support responsibilities, but not directly and not tomorrow.

At OCSE, we’ve done a number of things to pave the way for the future of medical support:

  1. Early on, even before the ACA was enacted, we issued grants to bring together state child support and state Medicaid teams to begin to identify the issues.
  2. Beginning in 2010, we issued guidance to give state child support agencies flexibility to manage consistently with each state’s health care direction and framework—programmatically—as well as data reporting and audits.
  3. We clarified that state child support agencies may look to both private and public coverage in ordering medical child support.
  4. We clarified allowable activities, including medical support facilitators and liaisons to cover children and to develop effective health care referral policies for both parents.
  5. We’ve worked with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to secure a medical support hardship exemption that exempts a parent from paying the shared responsibility payment if their child is not covered because the other parent was ordered to provide coverage but did not do so.
  6. We’re actively working with CMS to clarify child support assignment, cooperation, and Medicaid referral policies.
  7. We’re working within the federal government to clarify data sharing legal authorities between state child support and health care agencies, OCSE and state health care agencies, and between OCSE and federal health agencies. Our child support safeguarding rule permits state child support agencies to share certain data with state Medicaid and CHIP agencies.

I hope you’ll look at our new OCSE Child Support Health Care Connections fact sheets with staff in your child support agencies. We’ve prepared these fact sheets to help you find the information you need about the ACA. Please let us know your ideas for sharing the fact sheets.

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New campaign targets children of incarcerated parents

Girl with new Sesame Street character named MurrayOn June 12, just before Father’s Day, the White House hosted a Champions of Change event honoring 12 individuals who have dedicated themselves to supporting children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers. Some of these children and caregivers attended the festivities, and so did some Muppets!

Perhaps the most exciting part of the event was the announcement of a new partnership with Sesame Workshop (a nonprofit, educational organization) to reach young children of incarcerated parents. Sesame Workshop’s newest initiative, Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration, provides free, bilingual (English/Spanish), multimedia tools for families with young children (ages 3 to 8) who have an incarcerated parent. The tools include a guide for parents and caregivers, a children’s storybook, Sesame Street videos, a tip sheet, and the Sesame Street: Incarceration mobile app, all at SesameStreet.org/Incarceration.

Also at the event, the Administration released a fact sheet on its efforts to support children of incarcerated parents. It describes White House efforts to partner across the federal government to identify opportunities to support these children and their caregivers. The partnership produced a toolkit for child welfare and federal corrections professionals to ease coordination among child welfare agencies, federal prisons, and residential reentry centers, so incarcerated parents can stay engaged in their children’s lives or work toward reunification.

The group also produced Children of Incarcerated Parents Myth Busters to support efforts to help children of incarcerated parents, and launched a Web Portal. The portal consolidates information on federal resources, grant opportunities, best and promising practices, and government initiatives that support children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers.

I encourage child support professionals and stakeholders in the child support program to publicize all of these meaningful materials.

The Family Room Blog on the Administration for Children and Families website talks more about the event and the materials.

Why are we involved?

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an estimated 1.7 million children under the age of 18 had a parent in prison as of 2007—an increase of almost 80 percent since 1991. The majority of federal and state prisoners are parents, and about half of incarcerated parents have support orders. Many child support agencies have prison and jail outreach programs to work with incarcerated parents.

OCSE is involved in several projects to assist the incarcerated population, including the Federal Interagency Reentry Council.

Is your agency involved in a project to help engage incarcerated parents with the child support process and with their children? Please submit a comment on this blog.

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Health care options for families

Bubble ChartOne of the “bubbles” in the child support bubble chart is health care coverage. In identifying family-centered strategies over the last four years, I have highlighted family health care needs. Through our medical support activities, the child support program has long had the responsibility to obtain private health insurance for the children in our caseload. Now we can play a critical role in providing information to both parents about the range of available health care options—for their children and for themselves.

Later this month, OCSE plans to launch two new fact sheet series to explain child support and health care connections under the Affordable Care Act and to address promising medical child support policies and practices under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act. Watch for them on our website, www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css.

Starting Oct. 1, 2013, parents will be able to choose new affordable insurance options through a new Health Insurance Marketplace. There will be one application, called the “Health Insurance Marketplace Application for Health Coverage & Help Paying Costs,” that parents can use to apply for the new Health Insurance Marketplace, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and tax credits that will help pay for premiums. Parents may choose to use this application online, by phone, by mail, or on paper. In-person counselors and a toll-free phone line will be available to help them through every step of the process.

No matter what state they live in, families can get help as they apply for and choose new insurance options. Some states are setting up a state-based Marketplace; other states will work with the federal government in a State Partnership Marketplace; and the remaining states will have a federally facilitated Marketplace.

The Affordable Care Act authorizes states to expand Medicaid to adults under age 65 with income of up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. This is approximately $15,280 for a single adult in 2013. The Act provides unprecedented federal funding for these states—the federal government will pay for 100 percent of the cost of coverage for newly eligible individuals through 2016, and pay no less than 90 percent of the cost subsequently.

No one plans to get sick or hurt, but most people need medical care at some point. Health insurance helps pay these costs. Help families find out how insurance works—and why it’s so important to have. Go to:  http://www.healthcare.gov/

 

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Child support program engages veteran and military families

Girl hugging man in military uniformMay highlights veterans and military families. In addition to National Military Appreciation Month, May hosts Armed Forces Day (May 18) and of course Memorial Day (the 27th).  Also, May 10 is Military Spouse Appreciation Day.

As child support workers, we have an obligation to work with families at their most vulnerable. We cannot repay the sacrifice that our service men and women and their families make for our country, but for many reasons, the child support program must pay special and well-deserved attention to military members, veterans, and their families. Here are some of those reasons:

  • About 50 percent of active duty members and 70 percent of Reserve and National Guard members are parents. See the OCSE fact sheet “Military Services and Child Support Partnerships.”
  • About 6 percent of the national child support caseload involves a veteran or a active military member.
  • Military families face extra challenges with multiple deployments and a higher divorce rate than the rest of the population.
  • A massive military drawdown by the Pentagon is set to begin this August.
  • Military members transitioning to veteran status often face a decrease in pay and a significant risk of unemployment.
  • Cases involving veteran parents are more likely to be interstate cases that require more attention.
  • Veteran noncustodial parents are likely to have significantly higher arrears—27 percent higher on average. See the OCSE fact sheet “Child Support Participation in Stand Down Events.”

In the coming months, OCSE will work with our partners at state, tribal, and local agencies, many of whom are already leading the way in outreach to military families. We plan to spread the word about their innovative services. We also plan to strengthen communication, systems, and policy links between child support and the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to support collaborations that add real value at the state and local levels.

Resources to help you

On OCSE’s Military & Veterans webpage, you can find fact sheets and other resources to help you work with veteran and military families.  Here are a few:

A Handbook for Military Families: Helping You with Child Support – Our new handbook answers questions for both custodial and noncustodial parents on topics such as paternity establishment, child support, access and visitation, and child custody. While valuable for military families, the handbook is also useful to child support caseworkers and supervisors, as well as  military commanders.

Working with the Military on Child Support Matters – Look for an update this summer. We regularly hear from caseworkers that this resource serves as an indispensible desk guide on military issues surrounding a child support case.

A Child Support-VA Collaboration Toolkit – Look for our assessment later this year of nine pilot projects across the country that are helping veterans who are homeless. Through a partnership between OCSE, the VA, and the American Bar Association, the pilot projects are helping homeless veterans gain permanent housing through assistance with modifying child support orders and reducing arrears.

I’m particularly excited about our Veteran and Military Liaison Network. The network brings together staff from the state and local child support community to explore ways we can better serve those who have so proudly served us. Its members are connecting with each other smoothing the way for cases involving veterans and military families. For more information on the network or any other aspect of our work with veterans and military families, please contact Thom Campbell at thom.campbell@acf.hhs.gov.

 

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The child support program plays many roles in minority health

Three minority childrenTwo major health care dates are approaching rapidly: October 2013 when the Health Insurance Marketplace opens for enrollment and January 2014 when health coverage begins. Have you considered what this means to your program? Many of the families we serve might not realize that they are newly eligible for Medicaid and other state health insurance programs or that assistance is available to make health insurance more affordable. It’s important to educate families about coverage options and direct them to appropriate resources that will help them with the enrollment process.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has resources to help states with their outreach campaigns around health care coverage. The resources offer brochures in several languages including Spanish, Chinese and Tagalog. The brochure provides ways for consumers to prepare for enrollment and offers important notes about the Health Insurance Marketplace. CMS has also conducted research on the most effective ways to communicate about the Marketplace to our customers. I encourage you to read “Talking about the Marketplace” to learn messages to use in your communication and outreach efforts to families.

In addition to work around health, we’re helping to improve access to and services for our Latino customers. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is hosting a Roundtable at the White House with Hispanic/Latino leaders later this month to discuss opportunities for collaboration with ACF programs, including child support. Latino service providers, advocates and researchers from across the country as well as key HHS and White House representatives are invited to participate in the Roundtable. Although discussions will center on increasing Latino access to human service programs like Head Start, Child Care, and other ACF programs, the Roundtable will also touch on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Latinos. The “lunch and learn” portion of the Roundtable will host an HHS official to discuss the impact of the ACA on the Latino community and offer ways we can help connect families and individuals to coverage.

For additional resources to help you engage with the Latino community, check out these resources:

Child Support Hispanic Outreach Toolkit

Spanish-language ACF Program Directory and Community & Faith-Based Guide to Resources

ACF newsletter dedicated to Latinos, Infόrmate. It provides information on ACF programs, outreach, resources, and employment opportunities.

 

 

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Three Tiers—a roadmap of strategies to improve program performance

Three push pins on a roadmapHigh performing states use a mix of strategies to boost child support performance. These strategies can be grouped into three tiers. They are:

  1. Focus on the fundamentals. Make sure that computer systems, new hire reporting, and income withholding (e-IWO) are working well.
  2. Identify the performance problem. Identify the reason for irregular support payments, intervene early and set realistic obligations.
  3. Expand access to services. Partner with other programs and reprogram resources to address barriers to nonpayment through family-centered services.

Here’s a little more about each tier:

Tier One: Reduce the compliance gap in current collections—focus on fundamentals. This means a strong technology infrastructure and strong employer interface so that employers report new hires and implement timely income withholding orders. To reduce the compliance gap:

  • Automate as much as you can to manage information, case flow, locate, establishment, enforcement, and disbursement—everything from e-IWO to document imaging to data analytics and performance management.
  • Clean up your employer database.
  • Implement e-IWO, starting with one employer, perhaps, and then bringing in large employers, and then other employers in the state.
  • Conduct employer outreach to strengthen your relationships with the employer community, and educate (and re-educate) employers about their new hire reporting responsibilities.
  • Identify self-employment and cash wages.
  • Implement your access to OCSE’s State Services Portal.
  • Verify Social Security numbers, which are key for locating parents.

Tier Two: Identify the reasons for nonpayment. Improving performance requires caseworkers to analyze who is in the caseload, who is paying and who is not, who has the ability to pay but is unwilling, and who is unable to pay the full amount ordered. By setting an order the parents can realistically comply with, we increase reliable payments and decrease the accumulation of unpaid debt. These are essentially the PAID (Project to Avoid Increasing Delinquencies) strategies and include:

  • Caseload stratification and segmentation: Use data to understand your caseload and select the right tool for the right person at the right time. Is driver’s license suspension or help getting a job going to be more effective in collecting reliable support payments?
  • Early intervention to prevent debt build-up: For example, contact the noncustodial parent when payments stop to find out what happened and work with the parent to get back on track. In fact, if you meet with noncustodial or even both parents before the order is established, you can often start a good relationship with the parents and improve cooperation with the child support office and each other.
  • Setting realistic obligations:  If you set realistic orders, modify them quickly when circumstances change, and reduce state debt to manageable levels, you can expect compliance. But if the orders are too high, parents can’t comply and will walk away from you and, even worse, from their kids.

Tier Three: Remove the barriers to child support payment by partnering with other programs to offer family-centered services. We know that success in collecting current child support depends on steady jobs and manageable family relationships. Adding a service delivery component to child support programs is a challenge, but it can be done.

  • Partner with other programs and community-based organizations in the “bubble chart” domains. For example, many child support offices partner with TANF; workforce agencies; fatherhood, veterans, and prisoner reentry programs; substance abuse services; and literacy and financial education programs. Parenting classes and parenting time, too, can help parents stabilize their lives, get and keep jobs, and be a parent to their children.
  • Reprogramresources for less productive activities. Look at what works and what doesn’t work. Collect data. Look at cost-effectiveness. Contempt hearings are expensive. No-shows are expensive. Multiple enforcement efforts and revolving doors are expensive. Is there a better way to increase consistent payments and boost collections?

I look forward to talking more with all of you in the child support community about using the three-tiered approach—a roadmap for improving the outcomes for children and families.

 

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