“Child support is for the child. To do right by the child, sometimes you have to make sure the parents are okay.”
This quote was shared during a session on the future of human services program delivery at last week’s National Child Support Enforcement Association (NCSEA) Leadership Symposium. It resonates with me because it underscores how all areas of human services are connected. Sure, each program may have its own policies and processes, but at the end of the day they’re ultimately serving the same people, and we need to start treating them that way.
It’s for this reason that breaking down silos to integrate services and systems is a key area of focus for all of human services right now. This is especially true for child support, as the program intersects with—or can help prevent intervention from—so many others.
Based on what I heard at NCSEA and other conversations with human services leaders, I think there are a few opportunities for child support to lead the charge in moving toward this integrated, whole-family model of service delivery. Here are my top three, plus one major challenge that stands in the way.
Opportunity: Improve Collaboration Between Child Support and Child Welfare
Studies show that most families in the child welfare system (specifically protective services) also interact with the child support enforcement system. Yet, the two rarely share data, information, or resources that could help each other provide better services.
I went to a plenary session with federal commissioners Scott Lekan from the Office of Child Support Enforcement and Jerry Milner from the Children’s Bureau, Family and Youth Services Bureau, and Administration for Children, Youth and Families where they discussed how better integration between the two programs could create better outcomes for families. A few examples:
- Regular child support payments can help reduce a custodial parent’s financial stress that otherwise would have contributed to neglect, therefore reducing the likelihood child welfare needs to be involved at all.
- Child support cultivates and supports critical employment and fatherhood initiatives that help strengthen the community while further reducing the need for child welfare intervention.
- Sharing data between the two programs could help quickly locate a non-custodial parent, which would create the option to place a child with family as an alternative to foster care.
Key takeaway: Better collaboration between child support and child welfare—sharing tools and resources to support families holistically—will create opportunities for stability so both children and their parents can succeed.
Opportunity: Remove the Stigma Surrounding Support Programs
It’s a common misperception that people who rely on support programs are “broken.” This includes child support, as well as things like childcare subsidies, food/cash assistance, or education/employment services that fall under the economic assistance umbrella.
By implying someone is broken, you also imply they need fixed—a mindset that often hinders people from seeking out support services. After all, we know people are less likely to ask for help when asking for help is frowned upon.
The fatherhood initiative, which focuses on the rights and responsibilities of the non-custodial parent, is a shining example of child support leading the way in removing stigmas, while engaging and recognizing the importance of both parents in a child's growth.
Studies show that a single-parent household is more likely to encounter child welfare services, and this only increases when that parent lives in poverty.
Having the father connected to the child, both financially and emotionally, strengthens the family and the community. This is why, starting with child support and extending to other support programs, we need to focus on creating more organic, community-based systems where families can gain access to all services and support they need.
Key takeaway: The current federal narrative focuses on total integration of support programs because normalizing the ability to ask for and attain help strengthens the whole family, which leads to improved well-being across entire communities.
Opportunity: Meet the Customer Where They Are
Despite how much child support and human services have changed over the years, there are still a lot of archaic structures in place that challenge people’s ability to work toward stability of their family.
Think about it this way: not everyone who pays child support has access to a paper check, so it shouldn’t be the sole option for making payments. What if more states and child support agencies were more receptive to alternative collection methods like Venmo or Paypal?
Similarly, many people who need to pay child support (or need to access other support services) are balancing two or three minimum wage jobs and don’t have the luxury of leaving work at a moment’s notice to drive to the agency to drop off a payment or provide information/verification to receive a service.
Beyond breaking down barriers to child support payment, there’s also an opportunity to expand the core services offered by agencies to include education, employment, and parenting. (Colorado’s 2Gen Transformation Project and Ohio’s Family Forward program are great examples of this idea in action!)
Key takeaway: We have to meet the customer where they are and provide more paths for making payments or accessing services.
Challenge: Obsolete Technology Impedes Outcomes
Of course, the linchpin in making all these opportunities a reality is having modern tools and emerging technology in place to support them. Yet, roughly 66% of child support IT systems are considered legacy systems.
GovWebworks’ “Support for Changing Families” series does an excellent job summarizing how aging, inefficient systems can cause a ripple effect on families and other human services programs:
“The likelihood of data loss increases, and the timeliness and accuracy of case information can be compromised. This is all before considering the training burden presented by these old systems, and the institutional knowledge bound up in an agency’s workforce. At best these aging systems mean duplication and rework and an over-dependence on too few experienced workers. At worst they mean delayed or missed support payments for those most in need. For many single parents, when child support is not forthcoming, they are forced to turn to other welfare programs for support.”
I personally would love to see the day when an app can help someone access support services within minutes the same way Uber can help get someone home at the end of the night. But, as long as agencies have to rely on archaic systems and technology, it’s going to be a while before that can happen.
The child support program has come a long way since it was established in 1975. In many ways, it continues to adapt to meet the changing needs of families, but there’s much more to be done.
I’m excited to explore what these opportunities mean for Northwoods beyond our existing child support document management solutions. Let us know where your agency is heading and how we might be able to help you get there.
Greg Tipping is vice president and evangelist for economic assistance and child support. He's an industry expert and advocate that guides the vision for the impact of our solutions on the programs he once led, while collaborating with leaders across the country to create a shared vision for the future. By helping agencies get more time back to focus on their core missions, Greg can fulfill his own: make a difference in the lives of folks that rely on support from agencies to get by day to day.