Category Archives: Child Support

Improving compliance through respect and procedural fairness

Graphic of man's body pointing to the words Trust and RespectAs I travel and talk with caseworkers around the country, I hear your commitment and passion for our program mission, and see your hard work day in and day out to collect child support for children. The child support program has the reputation for being one of the best run programs in government. What we are all after is compliance with support obligations. When support payments come in regularly, custodial parents can budget for the money so there isn’t a household crisis every month.

What does the research say about improving compliance with support orders? Dozens and dozens of studies, some involving child support, all find the same thing: that the parties are more willing to comply with an order when they feel that they have been dealt with fairly. The research says that when litigants perceive that they are being treated fairly, they are more likely to comply with an order, even if they don’t like the order. Procedural fairness is an evidence-based and cost-effective way to improve compliance.

Researchers have identified and tested 5 specific elements of perceived fairness. They are:

  • Voice — you feel that you have an opportunity to participate, tell your story, show your papers, and influence the outcome.
  • Respect — you feel like people treat you with dignity and give credence to your side of the story.
  • Lack of bias — you feel like you are being treated even-handedly and do not get different treatment based on your race, or gender or economic status.
  • Understanding — you feel like people understand your circumstances, what you are dealing with, and when you are trying.
  • Helpfulness — you feel like people care about you and want to help you as much as they can.

We have two bedrock values in our program. One is that parents have the fundamental responsibility to support their children. The other is that the government has a fundamental responsibility to provide due process and procedural fairness to litigants, particularly unrepresented litigants.

We accomplish our mission through parents. We know what works. We can increase trust and compliance if we can improve the perception of procedural fairness and deliver real due process — an opportunity to be heard, an order based on evidence, and realistic demands to comply. We can help parents address any barriers to employment and nonpayment. We can offer meaningful customer service that shows both parents that we care about them as people, understand their circumstances, and will do our best to get results.

Learn how other states and counties have increased their procedural fairness through strong judicial partnerships in the July 2015 Child Support Report, then tell us about your initiatives!

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Honoring dads on Father’s Day

Father holding his daughter while she sits on a counter

A father and his daughter attend a Family Bonding Activity at the Father’s Support Center in St. Louis, MO.

We’re always looking for ways to increase the effectiveness of our child support program, particularly in three major areas, modernizing technology, increasing procedural fairness, and gathering evidence of programs that work. In honor of Father’s Day, our June Child Support Report focuses on programs and initiatives that help fathers deepen their financial and emotional commitments to their children.

For more than 20 years, OCSE has been involved in efforts to secure consistent support for children through programs to improve parental responsibility and increase child support collections. Ongoing research and evaluation efforts are designed to yield the evidence required for developing and replicating program models.

Some of the earliest examples funded by the Office of Child Support Enforcement include the Parents Fair Share demonstration grants of the 1990s and the Partners for Fragile Families demonstration grants of the early 2000s. Both project designs aimed to improve child support payment compliance by increasing employment, earnings, peer support, and cooperative parenting, and by improving child support services. Noncustodial parents who
participated in the projects said they felt better about their roles as fathers and their ability to support their children financially.

Today, ongoing research projects will add to the evidence base for child support programs.

These studies include

Ongoing research and evaluation efforts are designed to build the evidence required for developing and replicating effective program models. No other program has such extensive contact with fathers as child support does. We know that effective child support is linked with higher father involvement. Fathers who are involved with their children are more likely to pay child support, and fathers who pay child support are more likely to stay involved. We also know that parents — fathers and mothers — are more likely to engage with the child support program if they feel that they are treated fairly and even-handedly, receive timely information, and experience the child support program as genuinely helpful and concerned about their well-being.

The most effective child support programs combine modern technology with parental engagement and evidence-based strategies to increase collections and address barriers to

Read more about effective child support practices in our June Child Support Report.

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Thank you for sharing your child support stories

Girl_Writes_Note_Blog_May2015In the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014, Congress asked my office, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, to submit a report to Congress that addresses the effectiveness of state child support programs.   As part of our outreach to parents to inform the report, we asked custodial and noncustodial parents and adult children who grew up in a separated family to tell us their child support stories.  To date, we have heard directly from over a thousand parents and children. We are grateful that they took the time to talk with us.  Their voices have informed and moved us.  Here are excerpted comments from a few of the adult children who shared their experiences with us:

“My parents divorced when I was almost 5 years old. My mother worked two jobs at times. My mother, sister and I lived in a low income apartment complex. We received food stamps and cash aid at times. My father was a loving father but absent a lot and didn’t pay child support. We heard a lot of negative things about my dad that kids should not have to hear. The more parents are involved with their children the happier the children will be. I have a true appreciation for the struggles my mom went through just to make ends meet for us but it was a hard life.”

“My mom and dad were divorced when I was ten years old. I was the oldest of three children, and I watched my mom struggle to make ends meet. Unfortunately, my parents used child support in their visitation tug-a-war.”

“I was the youngest of five children. When my parents divorced in the late 70’s, I was eight years old and the only child in the home. My mother did not graduate from high school and had no real work experience. We had to move from the home I had always lived in because my mother could not afford it. We moved into low-income housing and relied on food stamps and my mother’s church community to survive.”

“I am a product of a blended family. My father always provided for his children. However I was able to witness first-hand how not having our dad in their home affected my older three brothers who lived with his first wife.  Each one of them had child support cases, and each one of them had been incarcerated at some point for unpaid child support.”

“My parents divorced when I was very young. Fortunately, my parents were able to work together very well. The courts wanted my father to pay an amount of child support that my mother knew was unrealistic for my father. They were able to discuss this amongst themselves and decide on a more reasonable amount.”

Most parents love their children and want to do right by them.  Children need regular support payments.  But most of all, children need their parents to love them and help bring them up. Both adults and children can struggle, and family relationships can be fragile.  If we want to improve children’s lives, we must do more to support and encourage their parents to do their best for their children.  In the May issue of the Child Support Report, we include articles about grandparents raising grandchildren and two-generational approaches to child support.

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“My father is in prison”: The importance of child support and justice partnerships

A son and daughter visit their incarcerated dad--part of Sesame Street’s Little Children: Big Challenges Incarceration initiative © 2013 Sesame Workshop.

A son and daughter visit their incarcerated dad–part of Sesame Street’s Little Children: Big Challenges Incarceration initiative © 2013 Sesame Workshop.

Millions of children in this country have grown up with a parent in prison.  One in two state prisoners are parents. The data reflect strong racial disparities.  One in three black men can expect to go to prison during their lifetime. One in four black children born in 1990 had a parent in jail or prison by the time the child was 14 years old — more than double the rate of black children born in 1978, about the time when our program was getting started.

Many experts believe that the loss of a parent due to incarceration is more complicated and painful for a child than other losses.  Repeated incarceration destroys all but the strongest family relationships. Most children love their parents, miss their parents, want their parents to come home, and mourn when they are gone. Helping parents and children overcome stigma and maintain contact during incarceration can help. But a child who has lost a parent to prison may never fully get over it.

Often, children lose their primary source of financial support when their parents go to prison. Not all of this support comes through the child support program, but instead may be provided informally.  Although there are exceptions, parents are generally not able to pay child support once incarcerated.  After release, many owe an average of $23,000 or more in child support. The prospects for employment are bleak for most re-entering parents.  Many never finished high school. The combination of limited education, limited job skills, limited job openings, and a felony conviction mean that reentering parents and the families that depend upon them have little hope for steady employment.  Debt from child support, fees, and fines, and other debt adds to despair and pushes parents right back into the underground economy. Every door closes.

The OCSE website has many reentry resources including this State by State - How to Change a Child Support Order clickable map.

The OCSE website has many reentry resources including this State by State – How to Change a Child Support Order clickable map.

Many child support agencies, including those featured in this issue, have begun to do something about the collateral consequences of incarceration. They reach out to parents in federal and state prisons and jails. They take affirmative steps to reduce child support orders commensurate with the parent’s loss of income and inability to work. They provide tools for parents to communicate with the child support program during incarceration. They work with community partners to help children maintain contact with their incarcerated parent. They stop the clock on accrual of uncollectible debt. They provide targeted post-prison child support services, partnering with re-entry, fatherhood and employment programs, and helping parents manage child support debt after prison. Opportunities for child support agencies to get involved include pre-sentence orientations, facility visits, modification, debt compromise, and connection to job services and other supports.

Through shared objectives and promising practices, child support and justice partnerships at the federal, state, tribal, and local levels are helping incarcerated parents and their families.  These partnerships promote access and communication between child support agencies and parents, provide for individualized case management, work to establish trust, and improve the likelihood of employment and reliable support for children and families. Jobs and family ties keep people from going back to prison.

Our enhanced March-April Child Support Report features several model practices to consider and a list of resources. We look forward to hearing from others about your work in this critical area.


Lauren Glaze and Laura Maruschak, Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children, Bureau of Justice Statistic, Department of Justice, rev. 2010.

Report of the Sentencing Project: Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System, 2013.

Sara Wakefield and Christopher Wildeman, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality, 2013.

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Everything I learned about customer service, I learned while I was a waitress

vicki_waitress_voiceMany years ago (in fact, only a few years after Congress authorized the IV-D program), I was a mom on my own with two small children to feed. I did not receive child support, and was the sole breadwinner in our family. I was a full-time waitress then, receiving a very small paycheck. To get by, we had to rely on my tips. Every night, my sons and I counted out the dollar bills and rolled the dimes and nickels. I set aside the quarters for the commercial washer and dryer in my apartment building. I used the pennies for bus fare, to the annoyance of those boarding the bus behind me.

So, I worked for tips. I hoped that customers would like my service well enough to give me a good tip. What I quickly learned was that the better my customer service, the better my tips — most of the time. This is what I learned about customer service:

Get organized. Before the first customer walked in, I organized the creamers, the ketchups, the napkins, and the silverware. I arranged the tables and chairs. I put several pens in my pocket. Then, I would down a couple cups of coffee and get into a rhythm. If I came in late or didn’t finish prepping on time, I’d lose the flow, and my customer service would suffer.

Listen to your customers. Sometimes they knew exactly what they wanted, and they just needed to place their order. Other times, they needed help selecting their best choice. Each experience is different. You have to give your undivided attention in order to provide the best information possible and be responsive to the interests and preferences of the customer.

Focus on the customer in front of you. Each person wants to feel important. Most of the time that person isn’t the only customer you are waiting on, but when you’re at that table, the customer should be the center of your universe. Some customers were nonsense and expected efficient service. Other customers wanted to talk and appreciated a human connection. Some customers were unpleasant – but sometimes left surprising tips.

Follow through with their requests or tell them in a professional manner why you can’t. If the customer orders a salad and asks you to hold the nuts, but the salad is prepackaged with nuts, it might be ‘nuts or nothing’. As much as I wanted to, there were times when I just couldn’t comply.

Follow up when necessary. OK, they have their food, their glasses are full, and they all have silverware. They should be fine for a while, right? Not always. Maybe the salad has the wrong dressing or their condiment bottle is empty. You won’t know until you ask how they’re doing. Even if you have a lot of tables to manage, you pay the price if you do not check in with customers that might need a bit of extra attention.

Make amends when you make a mistake. Once I accidentally spilled a glass of ice tea all over a customer’s child at the end of the meal. The child wailed and the customer yelled at me. I apologized. I grabbed some napkins. I apologized again. They left. It was a big table. I did not receive a tip. Nor did I expect one.

Start fresh. I had a colleague who grew to resent the customers and stopped trying very hard. Her tips were about half of mine. For me, each table was a new and unique experience. I had some customers who were rude to me and treated me like I was beneath them. I had some customers who demanded special services and were never satisfied. And of course, I had the ice tea mom. But I couldn’t let that experience carry over to my next table. I would be setting up a domino effect that could ruin an entire night’s tip jar. Every night I went home to my own life, and the day’s difficulties faded.

Try to smile, or at least be diplomatic. Just because a customer is rude or obnoxious doesn’t mean you have to stoop to the same level. Child support can be frustrating, maddening, and scary. Your calm head, professional skills, helpful demeanor, and friendly face can be enough to alleviate the tension.

We have a lot on our plate this year at OCSE. We are implementing new legislation enacted by Congress last fall (see the 2014 November-December Child Support Report). We are preparing a federal report on the program’s future requested by Congress. We just published a notice of proposed rulemaking to update some rules that were around back in the day when I was a waitress. We’ve received over 2,000 comments on the proposed rule from states, tribes, counties, community groups, and parents that we are beginning to read and analyze. And we are conducting a strategic planning process with states and tribes, which we do every five years. We are reaching out to you and other child support program stakeholders to invite you to give us your ideas on the program’s future. We want to know what you think about ways to improve the program to better meet the needs of our customers – the parents and children who participate in the child support program. Watch for information on our website.

What customer service techniques have you had the most success in implementing? We’d like to hear from you.

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Plans underway to fulfill milestone legislation

U.S. Capitol, trees in foregroundWe celebrated a major milestone at the end of the fiscal year when President Obama signed new legislation that will have lasting impacts on several key areas of the child support program. You’ll see an outline of these key areas in the November/December Child Support Report (page 2), and we’ll feature several articles in future editions.

At a glance, the legislation involves six child support-related components. The law:

  • Expands the Hague Treaty to strengthen our international case processing efforts.
  • Gives Indian tribes access to important child support data systems.
  • Encourages parenting time arrangements as part of child support order establishment.
  • Requires new standards for data interoperability – or data sharing – among states.
  • Requires mandatory electronic income withholding. This will potentially save states’ and employers’ time, resources, and postage – and get child support to families more quickly.
  • Requires OCSE to submit a major report to Congress in June 2015.

And, this just in, we’ve reached a second milestone. On Nov. 17, we published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in the Federal Register titled “Flexibility, Efficiency, and Modernization in Child Support Enforcement Programs.” (See a summary in my Action Transmittal.) We are soliciting public comments for 60 days, or until Jan. 16, 2015. After we receive public input, we will finalize the rule.

In honor of Native American Heritage Month in November, the Child Support Report highlights another type of milestone – OCSE issued its first competitive grants to tribal agencies. We also put the spotlight on veteran parents, as we honored veterans on November 11.

Despite the holiday season when we all take on busier schedules and family commitments, we’re rolling up our sleeves in OCSE to examine the various requirements of the new law – and more. After a successful pilot, we’re taking steps to roll out a nationwide project that will give child welfare staff access to data through our State Services Portal (page 3 in the Report). This information clearly will help child welfare workers connect foster children with family members – and offer many other benefits.

I’m eager to start another year of working together to drive our strategies toward more timely and efficient services for our diverse families. Happy New Year one and all!

We want to hear from you!

As part of the new legislation I discuss on this page (Pub. L. 113-183), HHS must prepare a report to Congress that reviews the effectiveness of the child support program, including an analysis of any unintended consequences or performance issues associated with program practices. The report asks us to obtain public and stakeholder input. We published a Notice of Request for Information in the Federal Register to solicit comments by Dec. 22, 2014. Take a look at the instructions in the Federal Register.


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Our focus on domestic violence survivors

Black and white head shot of woman, thoughtful,Domestic violence discussions were widespread on social media in September because of events in the news. #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft were top trending Twitter topics as survivors of family violence used the hashtags to tweet their stories. As a result, calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline and renewed interest in employee training to address domestic violence increased dramatically.

Domestic violence has long been important to the child support community. Child support income is critical for most parents who are survivors of domestic violence, but child support establishment and enforcement can increase the risk of abuse. As child support professionals, we are responsible for ensuring that survivors of domestic violence receive child support safely and confidentially. While the topic for this blog is timely because October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, this is an every-month concern for child support agencies and other organizations. For example, the Domestic Violence Awareness Project (@NationalDVAM) tweets about conversations and resources continuously throughout the year.

Many state and tribal child support programs deliver specialized services to families impacted by domestic violence. Like OCSE, they collaborate with domestic violence organizations to develop policies and procedures that offer safe child support services.

In child support, we engage with both parents. That engagement must be designed to reduce, not increase, the risk of harm to family members. This is why we are reemphasizing our focus on cases involving domestic violence by offering more opportunities to address parenting time and domestic violence safeguards. Through our dual-parent engagement, we are also working to connect survivors to important services while helping families obtain needed financial support.

While automation of many case-processing activities is beneficial for program efficiency, it can pose risks and challenges to certain families. Order establishment and certain types of enforcement measures also may increase the risk. These potential dangers require informed and creative thinking about how to best serve our families safely. For example, see how Miami-Dade’s parenting-time grantees help victims of family violence seek child support services and connect them with domestic violence centers in Miami. (See article on page 1 of the October Child Support Report.)

The child support program has made great strides in providing services to survivors of domestic violence, however, we know there is room to both increase and enhance safety. That’s why we’ll have new domestic violence materials for the child support community soon.

In the meantime, I encourage every child support agency to have a comprehensive family violence plan that includes the Family Violence Indicator policies as one important part of a broader framework for safe delivery of child support services.

Carefully and thoughtfully responding to domestic violence is not a new concern or issue. We know many of your agencies have developed appropriate and effective strategies and model programs. Several years ago, we highlighted some of them in this fact sheet, Family Violence Collaboration. We look forward to hearing more about your work in this critical area.

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Adapting to the cycle of change

Old fashioned carMy great-grandfather had a 6th-grade education. He started off his career making wagon wheels in a wagon shop. In 1907, when he was 32 years old, my great-grandfather got in on the ground floor at the Kissel Motor Car Company in Hartford, WI. The company produced handcrafted luxury cars driven by movie stars in the emerging Hollywood film industry.

He made the “artillery wheels,” made of wood spokes, rims and hubs. He was a master of wooden wheels.

Around 1925, the company began using metal disc wheels, and my 50-year-old great-grandfather was out of a job. He could not adjust to the new manufacturing process. Kissel Motor Company went out of business during the depression in the 1930s. The company could not adjust to the new economic conditions.

“Creative destruction” is an old term in economic theory that is in current vogue. It describes the incessant cycle of business innovation that destroys and transforms the current way of doing business and establishes the new way.

Change is disruptive. No sooner do you get things humming along, when stresses and forces set in. Things work well—until they don’t. The first impulse is to try harder using the strategies that worked before. But these efforts no longer seem to pay off in the same way that they used to.

Change is foggy, too. The path forward is inevitable only in hindsight. Change doesn’t come with consensus, and it sure doesn’t come with new resources. Change is hard on people. It’s hard on organizations.

To meet changing circumstances, the child support program has evolved in the past five years, and will evolve some more in the next five years. But it’s not just child support. The same forces that are compelling our program to adapt are transforming business models, governance structures, work life, and family life. Our program needs to adapt so that we can continue to be effective in today’s world.

Here in the U.S., to take one example, criminal justice agencies—prisons, jails, community corrections, prosecutors, sheriffs, police, courts, community-based organizations—are having almost the same discussion as we are, and they are making parallel changes to the criminal justice system. In both systems, policy and practice discussions center around the:

  • impact of aggressive law enforcement practices on work and family
  • role of accountability, and the opportunity to turn a life around
  • role of services in an enforcement setting
  • role of court guidelines
  • structure of court hearings, and movement toward problem-solving courts
  • impact of reimbursing government costs on compliance and debt
  • very nature of justice and fairness

Our automated enforcement tools collect billions of dollars for children and their families—$32 billion, to be exact. But there is profound instability in family structure and low-wage employment in our country. Our automated tools don’t work very well for about one-quarter of the families in our caseload. Our challenge is to increase child support collections by responding to the changes in modern families. And that means adapting and expanding program strategies to effectively serve all of the families in our caseload. That’s why we are in business.

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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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