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.

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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.)

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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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Our Program’s Turning Point in Technology

AppsThe child support program has a deep culture of innovation and investment in technology.  Technology makes it possible to locate parents and enforce support for 17.5 million children. Technology also can help us identify effective enforcement strategies, intervene early when payments fall off, and support excellent customer service at every point of contact with our program.

The January 2012 Child Support Report highlights two of the ways that technology is improving our case management and customer service, through early-intervention “alerts” in Colorado and electronic document management in West Virginia.

We need technology to help us:

  • Locate income and assets for the 75 percent of our caseload that does not need hands-on service intervention.
  • Identify the 25 percent of parents who lack steady employment and analyze service needs.  Technology can help us conduct case analysis, segment our caseload, use data analytics, and track performance data at the caseworker, manager and executive levels. We don’t need to impute income on a routine basis anymore. We can develop income profiles of our noncustodial parents. No case should be going to court on a contempt motion without an analysis of the real financial situation of the noncustodial parent. 
  • Improve customer service for a new generation of parents, many of whom grew up without a parent, have diverse ethnic backgrounds, and get their information through technology. We can expand interactive websites and voice response systems. We can use cell phone texts and email alerts to parents. We can make applications for services available online for our program and other programs, and link parents to benefit calculators and program navigators.  We can develop apps, such as text4baby.
  • Develop online staff training and online resource libraries.
  • Tell our story differently through the electronic face of our program—not only to each other, but to specific groups of stakeholders, community organizations and the public—through customer-friendly websites, short videos of real parents describing their experiences, and useful online resources.

A final note: According to the USDA Expenditures on Children by Families report, the costs of child-rearing vary considerably by household income level and age of the child. The Cost of Raising a Child Calculator can estimate how much it will annually cost to raise a child. This may help your agency work with parents to plan better for overall expenses. Asset-building strategies like those in Texas (see the Child Support Report) present ways we can encourage both parents to manage their money so they are better able to support their children and improve their own situations.

Please submit a comment on this blog with a way that we might use technology as we head into a new year filled with great potential for our program.

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Welcoming Back Parents in the Military

Military parent 1Over the past decade, the child support program has come to view both parents as its customers. We can’t do right by children unless we extend a helping hand to those mothers and fathers who need it. This is particularly the case for military families who have put themselves on the line for our country.

In her article in the December Child Support Report, Gwen Anderson, military liaison for Delaware’s child support program, talks about this changing approach to noncustodial parents. Gwen personifies the commitment to collaboration that we share in our program. As Gwen says, collaboration with military and veteran organizations “can offer great rewards for the child support agency, both parents, and most importantly, the children.” 

The story about Delaware is one of several in the newsletter about projects that demonstrate that the child support program is becoming a place where military families can turn to for help with child support-related concerns.

I am proud to see child support professionals around the country reach out to military and veteran parents. You may be a specialized military liaison, attorney, caseworker, call center staff, or receptionist. Whatever your role, the time you invest in helping parents manage their child support cases and related family issues is time invested in children.

We’ve added a new section on the OCSE website—Working with our Military and Veteran Parents—that links to three new fact sheets and other resources. The fact sheets are part of a broader OCSE initiative to reach out to parents who are currently deployed or returning to civilian life. Over the coming months, we will continue to develop information that we hope will be useful to you, military and veteran organizations, and families.

Please submit a comment on this blog to share your examples of working with military and veteran families in the child support program.

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Our Growing Tribal Child Support Programs

Indian kidsThe number of tribal child support programs is growing—and many children are thriving as a result. Today, 42 tribes operate comprehensive programs and another 10 tribes manage start-up programs on their way to becoming comprehensive. Other tribes have expressed an interest in starting child support programs that meet the needs of Indian families and communities.

Tribes have long understood the value of working in a holistic environment compatible with the “bubble chart” as we see in the many examples of family-centered services in recent Child Support Report articles. We’ve read about Osage Nation’s program to help parents avoid incarceration (April); Albert Pooley’s (President of the Native American Fatherhood and Families Association) perspectives on strengthening families (June); Nez Perce Tribe’s video in social media to promote a fatherhood training program (September); and how child support agencies can address the prevalence of domestic violence in tribal families (October). And in the November issue, we learn about the Modoc tribal program’s enforcement tool that’s helping noncustodial parents obtain employment and avoid incarceration.

Tribal child support programs, like state and county programs, are well-positioned to provide holistic services by forming partnerships with other tribal programs, such as TANF, child welfare, workforce, community colleges, fatherhood, wellness, domestic violence, and justice programs. These cross-program partnerships can help increase reliable child support payments through expanded work opportunities and stronger family relationships.

With the signing of the ACF Tribal Consultation Policy, we are educating more staff within ACF about working with tribal programs. The Administration for Native Americans distributed a book titled Working in Indian Country:  Building Successful Business Relationships with American Indian Tribes. OCSE appreciates its ongoing collaboration with ANA to identify innovative cross-program strategies that can support tribal programs.

The MTS (Model Tribal System) testing continues with the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma and Forest County Potawatomi Community tribal child support programs. Once testing is completed later this year, both tribes will load their respective caseloads onto their copies of the system and move into full production mode. Early next year, the MTS is slated to roll out nationwide, and will be available at that time to all interested tribes. To support the MTS project into the future, OCSE secured a contractor to provide ongoing software maintenance support, including both maintenance of the base system and any future enhancement activities.

We continue to engage tribes in a collaborative process to move the program forward in a way that is culturally appropriate so more and more children and families will thrive.

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Helping Domestic Violence Survivors Pursue Child Support Safely and Confidentially

boy at windowEconomic dependence is one of the main reasons that women remain with or return to an abusive partner. The research says that more than 90 percent of custodial mothers who face the risk of domestic violence want and need to pursue child support if they can do so safely and confidentially. Nonetheless, a parent may hesitate to seek child support services if she is afraid for her safety, and especially if she is worried about the safety of her child. What can we, as child support professionals, do to help domestic violence survivors in this situation?

Our opportunities to help parents who experience domestic violence have been expanding over the past few years. More than ever before, the child support program is committed to collaboration with other agencies that can help, and connecting vulnerable families to organizations that provide domestic violence services, including safety planning.

Why now? We are taking a greater role in collaboration with other government agencies and national and community organizations as we provide services to both parents—custodial and noncustodial. And because the child support program is in a unique position to offer services to both parents (and is making more efforts to engage fathers in the lives of their children), we also have a responsibility to reduce the risk of domestic violence and help domestic violence survivors pursue child support in safety.

Two points in a relationship are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence—around the birth of a child, and when a couple separates. Those are precisely the points when a custodial parent may initiate a child support case. How we do our work in the center of the Bubble Chart—our core mission of establishing and enforcing support—can mean the difference between economic independence and heightened risk for survivors of domestic violence. 

For example, consultation with parents who face a known risk of domestic violence, tailoring enforcement strategies, and confidentiality safeguards are essential for safely collecting support. The Federal Parent Locator Service assists domestic violence survivors by protecting their information through use of the Family Violence Indicator. 

And, the first rule is to do no harm. There are situations when it may not be safe to collect child support. Defer to the custodial parent’s judgment about whether child support services may be too dangerous to pursue. A series of studies conducted by the Center for Policy Research identified a number of factors to help predict whether a domestic violence survivor receiving TANF cash assistance wanted to claim good cause from child support cooperation. The best predictor is whether the father threatened to harm the children. Additional factors include whether the father threatened to harm the mother; tried to isolate her; hit or beat her up; monitored her telephone calls; prevented her from working; abused her within the past six months; or caused her to call the police.

As part of our commitment to safely enforcing child support, OCSE has dedicated one of the domains (or “bubbles”) in the Bubble Chart to Family Violence Collaboration. Take a look at our fact sheet that corresponds with that domain. It highlights opportunities for collaboration with other agencies, including your state’s or county’s TANF program, that address domestic violence. 

In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, several articles in the October Child Support Report newsletter specify ways your child support agency can help parents with cases that involve vulnerable families. The articles mention websites and phone numbers for organizations where you can learn more, as well as OCSE resources such as the Intergovernmental Referral Guide that lists contact persons who handle domestic violence issues in each state.

Do you, or the child support agency where you work, offer services for one or both parents who may be involved in a domestic violence situation?  Do you collaborate with other agencies in any of the Bubble Chart domains that can help to address domestic violence? Please let me know by submitting a comment on this blog.

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‘Family-Centered Services’ Means Good Customer Service

Blowing bubblesPart of the meaning of “family-centered services” is providing good customer service. It means developing the habit of seeing yourself and your office through the eyes of the parents who interact with you, and reorganizing your work to become more responsive. Customer service is right in the center of the bubble chart—part of our core business.

What do you want from the child support program as a custodial mom, as a custodial dad, as a grandmother? First of all, you want results. You want the other parent to pay. You don’t want to waste your time. You don’t want to sit in a waiting room or in a phone queue. You don’t want to fill out paperwork over and over again. You want to get your questions answered. You want a clear understanding of what will happen to you in the process. You want to feel safe. You might want to apply for other programs, such as SNAP and SSI, if only someone would ask you. You don’t want to be judged. You want your worker to know what you are up against.

And if you are a noncustodial dad or mom? You want the worker to understand the complexity and sorrow of your life. You want to be treated as a parent, not a wallet. You want to be respected and understood. You want the system to work with you, not against you. You don’t want to be judged. You don’t want to be humiliated. You want a chance to make things right. You need a job. You want to see your kids. You want for your children what you might never have had.

Every one of us has had good and bad customer experiences. And we can identify precisely what went right or wrong in those experiences. Usually, when things go right, we feel that we matter, we feel heard, we are engaged in the process, and we can maintain some control over the outcome—whether we are ordering online, fixing a problem with a bill, or sitting in a hospital waiting room.

The child support program has a deep culture of innovation. Innovation starts with every worker and every manager saying out loud:  

Do you know what I saw? What I heard? What I read?

What if we …?

Why do we…?

We ought to try….

As child support offices around the country know, technology is part of the answer to providing good quality customer service, especially in a time of budget cutbacks. Technology can help us reach a new generation of parents, many of whom get their information through the internet. We can expand customer-friendly, interactive websites and voice response systems. We can use cell phone texts and email alerts to parents. We can post short videos with real customers to speak for our program and develop apps that make our internet services easy to use. We can encourage parents to apply for services online and link parents to such resources as benefit calculators and program navigators.  

But technology is not the whole answer. When states were implementing statewide computer systems in the 1990s, the prevailing idea was that we would become efficient collection agencies—highly automated, impersonal, with minimal caseworker intervention. Now we know that that approach is not enough. We need to build in the missing ingredient in our program—parental engagement. The money is important. But what we know now is that child support is about more than just money; it’s about families.

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