If a dad is more than a wallet, shouldn’t the child support system involve more than his money?
That’s the question raised by a new article by Jessica Pearson in Family Court Review. To be sure, the financial dimension of child support is vital: The $28 billion per year that the system collects makes up “an estimated 10% of family income among poor custodial families (40% among those who receive child support) and is credited with lifting a million people from poverty in 2008,” Pearson notes. Collections have increased over the past two decades, but less than half of custodial parents receive all the support they are owed, and one in four receive none of it.
Even though the child support program’s caseload and budget have increased in recent years, in most places it still does not help establish visitation schedules for never-married noncustodial parents, who often lack the resources to pursue visitation rights through the legal system. Census surveys show that “only 33% of noncustodial parents (NCPs; usually fathers) reportedly had a legal visitation agreement, and 35% had no contact with their youngest child in the previous year.” Most surveyed child support workers say that visitation problems are a common complaint among such parents.
In light of these issues and of research on the importance of financial support and positive parental involvement for kids’ outcomes, the Office of Child Support Enforcement has awarded grants to several states that are testing ways to integrate visitation schedules into child support orders.
OCSE-sponsored evaluation of areas that already integrate the two suggest that there are four ways child support programs have gone about this (all incorporating safeguards for cases when family violence is a problem). First, programs can use a standard visitation schedule as a default option in child support orders, while allowing parents to propose an alternative if they wish. Second, they can give parents templates and limited guidance to formulate their own schedules and file them in court (for a fee). Third, they can connect parents with a third-party mediator to set up a schedule. Fourth, they can offer comprehensive programs that help parents not only develop visitation schedules but also connect them with employment assistance and other forms of support.
The fourth option is perhaps ideal, but is also the most expensive, and the second and third options require highly self-motivated parents. Pearson quotes an experienced child support worker in Oregon, which points parents to online tools for developing visitation schedules, saying “I have never seen a parent come in with one of the online parenting plans,” and cautions regarding the third option that there is “no practical way to compel a parent in the child support program to respond to a mediation referral.” The first option is likewise imperfect in practice—in Texas, where a standard visitation schedule is implemented in most new child support orders each year, “parents who are unable to exercise visitation or wish to change their order must file a petition in a [separate] district court, which typically involves paying filing fees and hiring a lawyer”—but it could impact many families at a minimal cost.
Earlier demonstration projects of limited scope suggest that incorporating parenting time into child support orders can successfully increase both parent-child contact and payment of child support. Of course, changes to the child support system won’t help the millions of families who are outside of it (just 41 percent of never-married custodial parents have legal child support agreements in place). And even dads who have gone through the legal process may not manage to spend time with their kids without the support of the kids’ mothers. A reformed child support system would doubtless help some families, but there’s no substitute for a good relationship between a child’s parents.