The July 2017 Child Support Report originally featured this article written by Dawn Luddy and Robert Spencer, BICS Coaches, Sacramento County Department of Child Support Services.
In 2015, OCSE launched the Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS) demonstration grant project in seven states and the District of Columbia. BICS takes research from the fields of behavioral economics and psychology and applies it to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of child support operations. The demonstration sites are using these behavioral principles to improve everything from parents’ responses to case opening notices to increasing completion rates of modification packets. The BICS demonstration includes a national, crosssite evaluation component using random control trial methodology — which many researchers consider the gold standard of evaluation — to test the impacts and cost effectiveness of the BICS interventions. You can read more about this in Designing Behavioral Interventions to Improve Programs in the August 2016 Child Support Report.
While the final evaluation results are still months from being complete, many of the sites are encouraged by the early responses from parents to the BICS program interventions.
In February 2016, Michael moved to Utah after he and Jennifer separated. Jennifer, who remained in Sacramento with their four children, began receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) payments in April. When she applied for TANF, Sacramento County opened up a child support case. The staff generated and filed a Summons & Complaint to order Michael to pay child support. When Michael was served with the paperwork in July 2016, he said he was tempted to ignore the situation because his financial status at the time was so bad that he felt hopeless. Normally, when our in-house process servers serve child support paperwork, they encourage the parent to return an Answer form right away. Unfortunately, since Michael was living out-of-state, that in-house process didn't happen.
Using the BICS method
We randomly assigned Michael’s case to Robert, one of the county’s Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS) coaches. Robert could not reach Michael by phone, so he used two BICS-designed, scripted contact methods - a voice message that encourages customers to call back and an email asking him to reply. A week later, Robert left a second message.
When Michael returned the call in August, he said he was unemployed and seeking disability benefits from the Department of Veteran Affairs. Robert walked him through the process of completing an Answer form and mailing it to the Sacramento office, and he answered Michael’s questions about his case and supporting documentation. Once the court date was set to October 31, Robert followed up with Michael about alternative methods for appearing in court.
The day of the hearing, Michael appeared by phone and explained his current lack of income. The court commissioner set a monthly child support order at $350. The local child support office is not allowed to establish such a low amount on its own. If Michael had dismissed our attempts to reach him and not requested a court hearing, his child support order would have defaulted to $625 according to California guidelines.
By appearing, the commissioner determined that the guideline calculation would have been unjust. It would have left Michael with insufficient resources to survive, and leaving one parent destitute was not in the best interest of the children.
The commissioner also gave Michael another opportunity to get on his feet. Arrears started building as soon as Jennifer began receiving TANF benefits. The commissioner set the arrearages at zero for May through November 2016 as long as Michael started looking for employment - another thing that the child support office could not enact administratively.
The commissioner ordered support to begin in December, which allowed Michael the full month of November to search for a job. Although Michael struggled during the first three months of the order, he stayed in communication with Sacramento child support staff and reported new employment in March 2017. By the end of that month, he had paid off the arrears and continues to pay his current support by income withholding order.
Behavioral interventions at work
By engaging Michael in the court order establishment process, the Sacramento child support office was able to establish a right-sized order for this family. The techniques used by BICS Coach Robert engaged Michael in the process and left him feeling that the procedure was fair and his family’s needs were met. Michael remains in communication with Sacramento child support and is actively involved with his case.