Category Archives: Child Support

Model Tribal System readying for launch

Today 58 tribes operate start-up or comprehensive child support programs—10 more than a year ago. These tribal programs are reaching custodial and noncustodial parents in their communities, helping them support their children financially and enrich their children’s lives emotionally, in a culturally appropriate manner.

As partners in the national child support program, OCSE and tribal child support programs will cross a much-anticipated milestone early next year when OCSE launches the Model Tribal System (MTS). The MTS is an award-winning, state-of-the-art computer system designed to recognize the importance and benefits of integrating automation in the daily operations of comprehensive tribal child support programs. The MTS will serve as a key tool for programs to improve efficiency in case management and develop other areas of the program, offering tribal agencies and consortia direct access to similar technologies and automated systems that state child support agencies have had for years. The MTS uses open software to support organizations with up to 25 offices and 100 concurrent users, handling workloads of up to 25,000 cases.

By improving the level of automation in tribal child support programs, the MTS can increase program capacity to work more cases. The MTS will automate distribution, reporting, referrals—all aspects of casework. The MTS also will allow tribes to tailor their automated systems to their needs, for example, even something as simple as putting their logos on letters to custodial and noncustodial parents. And, the MTS will help free up more time for workers to talk face-to-face with clients, an approach that characterizes tribal programs.

The launch will follow several years of tribal consultation, research, design and development in OCSE—using tribal requirements—as well as testing the system in two tribal child support programs: the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma and Forest County Potawatomi Community. I appreciate the hard work, time, and resources provided by these two tribal programs to test the MTS. Other tribal programs, too, had a chance to explore and experiment with the MTS in a national “sandbox,” an operational version of the system.

OCSE will make the MTS available to all interested tribes and continue to collaborate with tribes on the launch plans and technical assistance requests, respectful of tribal sovereignty and the beliefs and traditions of all people in Indian Country.

Earlier this month, I reached out to tribal leaders operating child support programs about MTS implementation issues such as timing, schedule, and funding resources. Based on the leaders’ feedback, we will gauge interest in installing and using the MTS, and then customize the launch plan, considering our available resources. You can find information about funding for tribal automated systems and the Model Tribal System on the OCSE web page for Tribal Systems.

As this year ends and we welcome 2013, we will continue to work in partnership with tribes operating child support programs. We hope you will share ideas with us on improvements and opportunities you foresee in your agency as the MTS becomes available. I appreciate your comments on this blog.



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Change management in the child support program

Road sign "Change Ahead"“Managing change in the workplace” is a catchphrase in today’s government and business worlds. Within our child support community, we, too, are exploring ways to manage change in our program.

In many ways, the child support program exemplifies a “culture of change.” Child support has steadily evolved over the decades from a welfare cost-recovery model to a major family support program in a technologically savvy environment. We are combining traditional and automated child support tools with innovative, family-focused approaches to promote parental responsibility, to move more nonpaying cases to paying status, and to increase the reliability of child support payment. The “bubble chart” illustrates this approach.

At the same time, the child support program in a number of states and counties has been grappling with another set of changes related to staff reductions, limited resources, and reorganization. While our bubble chart helps us envision the program’s culture change, our challenge is to create an environment that stimulates this new approach in the context of more constrained program resources.

Managing change in the child support world means creating a workplace where all staff understand and value the program’s increased emphasis on obtaining regular support payments for children, rather than its traditional focus on debt threshold-based enforcement. Quite simply, we know that programs can collect child support more reliably when a noncustodial parent receives a regular paycheck and when an income withholding order is in place. The program collects 70 percent of payments through income withholding.

Managing this shift in emphasis requires a more complex case management environment—one where the computer helps caseworkers stratify caseloads and select the right tool for the right person at the right time to increase the likelihood of reliable support. The shift means implementing early intervention strategies, sensible policies and practices, and service delivery approaches to address barriers to payment. It means more collaboration with other programs and agencies. It means accepting both parents as our customers in the best interest of their child and finding the right balance of enforcement and engagement to get the results families need. It means believing that what we all do—as individuals and together—makes a profound difference in the well-being of the children and families we serve.

Our child support colleagues across the country are managing change in many ways. Some are implementing strategies, continuous process improvement tools, and performance assessments to increase program efficiencies and the potential for positive outcomes. Others are creating strategic collaborations that respond to specific challenges of our diverse customer population, such as poverty, poor health, incarceration and joblessness. Programs are making organizational changes throughout, adopting new agency names and new ways of working together, in order to promote a more family-centered and effective approach to obtaining reliable support. Many programs are effecting change, from program administrators to line staff, through cross-agency discussions, strategic planning, and employee training and mentoring.

The October-November 2012 Child Support Report newsletter begins a series of articles about managing child support program change. Illinois Director Pam Lowry explains how she and other leaders encouraged staff to think about how to rebalance the program through dialogue. They held conversations throughout the agency as a logical next step in a progression of service delivery improvements and spurred by the recent Turner v. Rogers decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. On page 4, Oklahoma Director Gary Dart tells us about the driving force behind his state’s overarching, strategic goal—healthy families. On page 5, former Georgia Director Keith Horton explains streamlined processes to give their customers faster, friendlier and easier services.

Change management is key to helping us move toward a family-centered child support services model that recognizes that parents pay child support more reliably when they have a job and stay connected to their children. I hope you consider some of the ideas in our series of articles in the coming year. Let me know how your agency is managing change by sharing your thoughts on this Commissioner’s Voice blog.




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New poverty data matter to our program

Colorful number blocksOn Sept. 12, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual household income report, Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011. Each year, child support professionals eagerly anticipate this release as we develop our priorities and projects that will best serve families. The report is based on a yearly Census survey and represents the official federal poverty numbers. These numbers reflect money income only and do not reflect in-kind public assistance or tax credits. (You can see a summary brief from the HHS Assistant Secretary of Planning and Evaluation.

First the good news: the Census Bureau data indicate that the number and rate of children living in poverty has leveled off. There were 16.1 million children under 18 years old living in poverty in 2011, not a significant change from 2010. The child poverty rate was 21.9 percent in 2011, also not a significant change. In 2011, the poverty threshold for a family of one adult and two children was $18,123, and for one adult $11,702.

In addition, the proportion of children living in deep poverty (those with income below one-half of the federal poverty threshold) has declined slightly. In 2011, 7.3 million children, or 9.8 percent, were living in deep poverty, compared to 9.9 percent in 2010. Children in deep poverty represented 45 percent of all children in poverty.

The number and percentage of children without health coverage remained level in 2010 and 2011. In 2011, 7 million children, or 9.4 percent, did not have health insurance. Children 12 to 17 had a higher uninsured rate than those under 12. Children in poverty were more likely to be uninsured (13.8 percent) than all children, and Hispanic children were most likely to be uninsured (15.1 percent).

The number of men working full-time, year-round with earnings increased by 1.7 million between 2010 and 2011; however, this was 5 million less than in 2007, the year before the most recent recession. The number of women working full-time, year-round increased by .5 million, but was 1.9 million less than in 2007. In addition, the percent of people without health insurance coverage declined from 16.3 percent in 2010 to 15.7 in 2011.

Although the economy is recovering, the big picture is that the child poverty rate rose in seven of the last 10 years. Children living in female-headed families with no spouse present had a poverty rate of 47.6 percent in 2011, over 4 times the rate of children in married-couple families (10.9 percent). The child poverty rate in 2011 was 5.7 percentage points higher than in 2000, when the child poverty rate was 16.2 percent. And the proportion of children living in deep poverty was 3.1 points higher in 2011 than the 6.7 percent rate in 2000. Among children:

  • The poverty rate for African-American children was 37.4 percent in 2011. This is up 7.2 points from 30.2 percent in 2001.
  • The poverty rate for Hispanic children was 34.1 percent in 2011, up 7.2 points from the 2006 low of 26.9 percent.
  • The poverty rate for White (non-Hispanic) children was 12.5 percent in 2011, up 3.4 points from 9.1 percent in 2000.

The real median income for all households was 8.1 percent lower in 2011 than in 2007 and 8.9 percent lower than the median household income peak in 1999. The real median earnings of both men and women working full-time, year-round declined 2.5 percent between 2010 and 2011. The median earnings of women who worked full-time, year-round ($37,118) was 77 percent of that for men working full-time, year-round ($48,202)—compared to just under 59 percent in 1975.

Other Census Bureau data indicate that about 28 percent of the U. S. population had at least one spell of poverty lasting two or more months, but that chronic poverty was relatively uncommon, with 4.8 percent of the population living in poverty for all 24 months.

I look forward to hearing about ways your agency is putting the data to work.


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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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On Father’s Day, the importance of being a father

Father and daughter sillouetteThe role of fathers in the American family is changing. Fathers who live with their children are spending more time with them and taking part in a wider range of activities, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis.

Almost all fathers who live with their children take an active role in their day-to-day lives through activities such as sharing meals, helping with homework, and playing. At the same time, Census data reflect that more fathers are single parents—in fact, 18 percent of custodial parents are fathers.

While most fathers live with their children, over one-quarter of fathers live apart.   Fathers’ living arrangements are strongly correlated with race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Black fathers are more than twice as likely as white fathers to live apart from at least one of their children, while Hispanic fathers fall in the middle.

The Pew study found that among fathers who never completed high school, 40 percent live apart from their children. This compares with only 7 percent of those fathers who graduated from college.

Many nonresident fathers are highly involved with their children, even though they do not live together. Others have little or no contact with their children. According to the Pew study, roughly 1 in 5 fathers who live apart from their children say they visit with them more than once a week, while 1 in 4 fathers do not see their children at all.

Involved fathers can help encourage a child’s healthy physical, emotional, and social development. Research finds that positive father involvement promotes children’s early language and cognitive development. Involved fathers also improve their children’s academic performance. Fathers also are actively involved in their children’s health care.

Here’s another bit of good news on the occasion of Father’s Day: A recent blog refers to a 2010 report by the Future of Children, which highlights that “a high proportion of all unmarried fathers say that they want to be involved in raising their child, and the mothers say they want the father’s involvement.”


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Changes in motherhood and youth

mother's day cardEvery Mother’s Day, I gave my mom a gift—the potholders I wove on the loom myself or the ashtray with my picture on the bottom that I made at school. I would hide the present in my closet because my mom was at home, as were most moms in the 1950s.

Could these moms of yesteryear ever imagine that someday many moms would be the breadwinners of young families? Would they have guessed that women might exceed men in the number of college graduates?

A series of reports from the Pew Research Center describes the changes in American families and attitudes in the last 50 or 60 years. One report finds that more young women than young men say that achieving success in a high-paying career or profession is important in their lives.

A second analysis says today’s 18- to 29-year-olds value parenthood far more than marriage; 52 percent say being a good parent is “one of the most important things” in life. Just 30 percent say the same about having a successful marriage.

What would a typical modern mother say about that?—there isn’t one, according to a third publication. Today’s mothers of newborns are more likely than their counterparts two decades earlier to be ages 35 and older, to have some college education, to be unmarried or to be nonwhite—but none of these moms is “typical.” Instead, each demographic trend represents a different group of mothers. Mothers’ circumstances have become more diverse. (See page 9 in the May 2012 Child Support Report for more news bytes about mothers.)

Generational change is nothing new. “Generations, like people, have personalities. Their collective identities typically begin to reveal themselves when their oldest members move into their teens and twenties and begin to act upon their values, attitudes and worldviews,” says a recent Pew report on the Millennial generation.  A 2010 survey explains that “the young are more inclined than their elders to view cohabitation without marriage and other new family forms—such as same-sex marriage and interracial marriage—in a positive light.”

The Millennial generation is changing the child support program, too, as child support agencies have begun to adapt services to fit their family circumstances. According to a report from Child Trends, 41 percent of all American children were born to unmarried mothers in 2009. But the majority (53 percent) of children with mothers under 30 were born outside of marriage.

Part of adapting our services is being able to refer parents to other agencies for services they need. Take a look at the article on page 8, which demonstrates how free legal aid services in D.C. are helping moms to achieve a better life for themselves and their children.


May is also National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month. More and more, we are partnering with other agencies and organizations to help us adapt to changing families. One organization is the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which educates teens about pregnancy prevention. Child support agencies across the country, too, are educating youth about consequences of becoming pregnant at a young age. (Read about some of these agencies on page 3 in the May Child Support Report.)


Despite generational changes, mothers are central to a child’s upbringing, and the child support program is committed to helping them raise their children and make ends meet.  From one mom to another, I wish you a Happy Mother’s Day!

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Interoperable computer systems will mean better customer service

interoperability2Technology has the power to help break down silos between state health and human services programs and improve customer service. The promise of interoperable computer systems is that families will not have to go through multiple applications, interviews and appointments to receive services, and taxpayers will save money.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is spurring states across the Nation to create new eligibility and enrollment computer systems for Medicaid and health insurance exchanges. The ACA presents a unique opportunity for state health and human services programs to integrate their systems both vertically and horizontally, and bring our programs one step closer to the “no wrong door” approach to service delivery. In the past, this was not possible due to the requirement to cost allocate federal dollars across multiple programs.

However, through Dec. 31, 2015, states can design, develop and implement system modules that perform common functions across all health and human services programs with enhanced 90/10 federal funding if they request a federal cost allocation waiver.

Under a waiver, programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as Food Stamps), and child care services can be included in the state Medicaid agency’s project to build a new eligibility determination system. Other programs, like child support and child welfare, also can join the effort to integrate service delivery to families.

In anticipation, OCSE’s parent agency, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), launched the Interoperability Initiative to help state human services programs effectively collaborate with their health care agency counterparts: Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, and health insurance exchanges. In late March, OCSE was asked to manage ACF’s Interoperability Initiative because we have the background and extensive experience with data exchange standards, systems design and development, and grants management.

Our interoperability project team is busy on a number of fronts:

  • We are standing up the first Human Services Domain in NIEM (the National Information Exchange Model). It will eventually establish a common set of data elements and definitions in a format easily exchanged between different human services systems, and in fact with any system.
  • We are designing a common architecture and platform for all human services programs, called the National Human Services Interoperability Architecture (NHSIA), to support states to build less expensive, but more integrated human services systems in the future.
  • And we recently added a new project called Data Exchange Standardization. It’s based on recent legislation applicable to the child welfare and TANF programs funded under titles IV-B and IV-A of the Social Security Act. The new law requires the Office of Management and Budget and ACF, in collaboration with states, to set up a working group to define a standard way for all states to exchange the data they report to their federal programs. HR 4282, introduced by U.S. Representative Rick Berg on March 28, 2012, would extend data exchange standardization requirements to the child support program funded under title IV-D.

In the child support world, we know the benefits of interoperable systems—and we know we will not get there overnight. Systems interoperability is a long-term vision that will take a generation to achieve. But the technology is here to begin to integrate health and human services systems. Linking them will accomplish two goals: improve client outcomes and enhance operational efficiency.

Imagine a common case intake module shared by the health programs and human services programs, including child support—an intake module that could make sure families receive the services they need. Now, imagine an integrated data warehouse where client information is gathered across all of the different health and human service programs. Using data analytics, we could understand what services a client uses, when and why, and predict the action needed next to achieve the positive outcomes we want for the families who seek our services.

With interoperable systems, we may do a better job of serving the whole person and the whole family; we may more effectively share services, streamline information and business systems, and minimize duplicative costs to build, maintain and update redundant computer systems.

Look for more news on the Interoperability Initiative in the Child Support Report soon. We’re just getting started, and despite the challenge of budget pressures and doing more with less, we could not let this opportunity pass by to change the landscape of health and human services.

Through increased integration, collaboration and information-sharing across health and human services programs, ACF hopes to improve the lives of America’s children and families and provide real value to the public.

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Is there more we can do to help moms?

Mom 1March is National Women’s History Month and a good time to consider how women—and, more specifically, moms—are faring in today’s economy.

First, the good news: we are seeing an upward trend nationally in the number of newly hired employees for the last 7 months. The economy is moving in the right direction.

But the sobering news is that women have experienced substantial job loss and declining earnings. While men took the biggest employment hits during the recession, women’s employment has lagged behind during the recovery. The majority of women’s job losses have been in public sector employment. Overall, the poverty rate for custodial families has increased significantly in recent years. (Falling Behind, the Women’s Foundation of California, January 2012)

The economic climate plays a role in how states set child support guidelines. When states review their child support guidelines (every 4 years), they look at studies of child-rearing expenditures that vary by age and economic method. One is the USDA’s Expenditures on Children by Families: 2010 Annual Report.

The report shows that a middle-income family with a child born in 2010 can expect to spend about $226,920 for food, shelter and other necessities to raise that child over the next 17 years. That projection represents a 2 percent increase over 2009. The study also notes that family income affects child-rearing costs, as do costs of education beyond high school and geographic variation.

More custodial moms are saying they have lost their jobs or are working two and three jobs just to cover basic expenses. Many jobs are part-time, minimum-wage, and do not offer health insurance. When noncustodial parents can’t find work either, and stop paying reliable child support, family budgets face a perfect storm.

I understand that, up close and personal. For many years, I was that single mom raising two wonderful children by myself and working three part-time jobs. And many of you have been in the same boat, worried about how you will pay the rent, the electric bill, gas for the car, the children’s new shoes, the credit card bills—how you will stay afloat until child support payments start coming in.

Our mission is clear—to obtain reliable support for children. We have many powerful enforcement tools to collect child support when noncustodial parents have income, including wage withholding, bank account seizures, and driver’s license and passport suspensions. And for 70 percent of the cases in our caseload with support orders in place, these standard enforcement tools result in more than $24 billion in support income for families.

But our challenge is what to do when standard enforcement does not work. There is no question that our child support program is a balancing act, and that sometimes there simply is not enough money to go around. Family-centered child support services means, quite simply, going about our job of obtaining child support in a way that addresses the specific circumstances of the family in front of us. When the family needs the money, but the noncustodial parent is unemployed, we have to try something else, or the family will go without help. We need to work with both parents if we are to effectively serve real families in a time of economic need. “Sorry, we can’t help you” doesn’t put food on the table.

A child support professional recently emailed: “I have been working in child support for over a decade. It is good that there is more assistance for fathers than there used to be, but why is there no assistance for mothers? It seems we assume the only thing mothers need is child support; that only fathers need assistance on parenting. … There should be initiatives for both mother and father.”

Although there is no question that child support programs are struggling with budget cutbacks, there are many low-cost things we can do to do a better job connecting both parents to a range of needed community resources to help them keep their families afloat.

Are there brochures in the waiting room that tell moms and dads where to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) when they are broke? Do our websites direct parents to local VITA centers (see the EITC reminder in the March Child Support Report) that help working parents file for Earned Income Tax Credits? Do we refer unemployed mothers and fathers to the workforce one-stop in the community? Do we ask about the health care coverage of the parents, as well as the children?

I’d like to hear more from the child support community. How do you assist moms to get help beyond traditional child support enforcement? And what about the grandparents in your caseload who are raising grandchildren?

Please leave a comment on this blog.

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New Ways to e-Communicate—Are they Right for You?

e-communication road signsNo matter where we work, we depend on email. And more and more, we depend on newer forms of electronic communication, too. On many government websites, we find buttons that connect us with new media and social media websites. We communicate via blogs, Facebook, twitter, discussion groups, and instant messaging; and we comment on web articles, podcasts and videos.

Writing through new media technology is not really different than writing an email or letter:  we need to know how to best present our message—whether it’s to a customer, a colleague, or a group of partners on a project. Who is our audience and what do they want to know, and what do we want them to know? Whether we are writing for a blog or a website or a YouTube script—or even instant messaging via online chats, cell phone texts, or tweets—we need to present our message clearly and concisely. (The latter three, of course, are generally already pithy—lol.) See the February Child Support Report for “plain language” tips.

What is different about new media? It’s the possibility of engaging our customers and colleagues by inviting them to join in the conversation. We can promote our services, share expertise, and help them to cut through bureaucracy by simply putting our message where they will see it. This means we are better able to “brand” our program as customer-friendly; we are saying “we want to communicate with you in places and in ways you connect in the modern world.” New media can be an important part of a communication strategy to build relationships with employees, partners and customers through feedback and dialogue.

States, counties and tribes have led the way in finding innovative tools for communicating with customers, employees and the public. Not all forms of new media will work for every program, but they may offer no-cost or low-cost choices to help you brand your program, as we see from Contra Costa County’s experience in the Child Support Report.

OCSE has just launched the first phase of its redesigned website as part of a broader initiative undertaken by our parent agency, the Administration for Children and Families, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In researching our options, we reviewed many of your websites for good ideas. Check it out—we think you will agree that it presents a more welcoming face to the public. We are just at the “look and feel” stage; in the future, you will have access to the resources you can get from our current website. We plan to expand into more media venues as we phase-in sections of our new website.

At OCSE, we started small in the realm of new media by posting this Commissioner’s Voice column as a blog. It offers a forum for you, the readers in the child support community, to comment on the monthly topic and share ideas.

It’s a little scary having a child support blog because child support is an issue that can cut deeply for both parents. The question we asked ourselves is whether we were prepared to hear strong viewpoints and take criticism sometimes. (For customers with a question or comment that relates to a personal child support case, the blog links to OCSE customer service staff.) Do we have to be cautious when using new media? Of course; we need to consider security and guard against displaying “personal identifying information.” We need to explore secure software packages and share our knowledge.

Some of you use e-communication methods through the QUICK application when you view case information in real time, or through your electronic document exchange system. Others use instant messaging to connect with each other in your organization—to ask who to contact in another location, for example. And others offer a “live chat” with a child support representative during certain hours in the day.

Might instant messaging be useful for the Interstate Case Reconciliation Project or Central Registry workers? Or perhaps among workers who respond to customer inquiries? Would you benefit from making podcasts available for colleagues or customers to listen to at their leisure? Would new media help you reach parents in the military about your services or push out information fast in an emergency?

I’d like to learn about your experience with e-communication tools. Please comment on this blog, or contact your state technical support liaison or the OCSE social media coordinator to discuss possibilities in new media.

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