Child Support Enforcement (CSE) and TANF Receiving Custodial Parents and Their Partners
Methods. Semi-structured interviews lasting approximately one-hour were conducted with 60 CSE staff in 7 Pennsylvania counties (representing rural, suburban, and urban settings). Most participants were female (83%), and two-thirds (66%) had worked in CSE for more than five years. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. Two research staff reviewed the transcripts, identified themes, and coded the transcripts individually. The coding schemes were continuously updated as new themes emerged and were condensed into one codebook through research team debriefings.
Results. Although collaboration and cooperation between TANF and CSE offices varies somewhat by county, respondents noted that their work is often complicated by limited communication between these two programs. CSE staff described specific processes about sanctions for non-compliance with CSE and the transition from TANF receipt to child support receipt when feasible and beneficial to the client. Most respondents found it more challenging to work with TANF clients than non-TANF clients because they are perceived as being less compliant and cooperative (e.g., because they are already receiving financial assistance) and having a sense of entitlement to TANF benefits (e.g., wanting to receive both TANF cash assistance and informal payments from the noncustodial parent). Staff observed that both custodial and noncustodial parents involved in TANF cases are often angry with the CSE system and view it as unfair. On the other hand, some staff reported that non-TANF clients were more challenging to work with because noncustodial parents in these cases are more concerned about how their child support payments are being used and custodial parents may unrealistically hope to change the noncustodial parent’s character. Staff reported that there were two key benefits to the coordination of TANF and CSE for custodial parents: (1) custodial parents do not have to directly ask the noncustodial parent for support and (2) can expect to receive consistent and regular payments, which is not always the case with child support. Challenges unique to TANF-involved CSE cases included limited client understanding of the process, abuse of the system, strains on family relationships, and challenges with informal payments.
Implications. Custodial parents receiving TANF often find themselves involved in two separate systems with little understanding of their overlapping processes. Staff recommended increasing communication between TANF and CSE offices, as well as increasing information provided to clients in order to address the unique challenges to working with these families with dual-system involvement.