Abstract: Reducing Barriers to Noncustodial Parent Engagement with Child Support Programs (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Reducing Barriers to Noncustodial Parent Engagement with Child Support Programs

Friday, January 18, 2019: 6:15 PM
Continental Parlor 7, Ballroom Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Lisa Vogel, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison, WI
Background: Changes in family demographic patterns and the erosion of the social safety net have contributed to the centrality of child support as a source of income for economically-disadvantaged families. However, many noncustodial parents, including a disproportionate share of those whose children live in poverty, have limited earnings and ability to pay child support. Children in single-parent households could therefore benefit from a child support system that enables, as well as enforces, noncustodial parents’ contributions to their support. Though child support agency struggles to facilitate compliance are well-established, specific mechanisms impeding noncustodial parent engagement, and means for addressing them, are less clear. This analysis focuses on two questions to help fill this gap: (1) What factors create barriers to noncustodial parent compliance with child support programs? (2) What strategies can help agencies overcome these barriers?

Methods: Data for this analysis come from the evaluation of the Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration (CSPED). The goal of CSPED was to facilitate child support compliance through provision of enhanced child support, employment, parenting, and case management services. The analysis draws from focus groups with low-income noncustodial parents (n=34), and interviews (n=54) and web surveys (n=131) of program staff. Interviews and focus groups were coded in NVivo Pro11 and analyzed using thematic analysis; survey data was analyzed using Stata15.

Results: This analysis finds: (1) Barriers to engagement with the child support system include an array of practical limitations making it difficult for low-income noncustodial parents to engage in work and make consistent payments, including lack of stable work history; criminal background; substance abuse and mental health service needs; and transportation-related barriers. However, previous negative interactions with child support agencies also left many noncustodial parents reluctant to engage with the system. Noncustodial parents’ perceptions that the child support system viewed them as “deadbeat dads,” as well as fear of incarceration and loss of limited financial resources resulting from interactions with the child support program, alienated many noncustodial parents. (2) Programmatic strategies for overcoming barriers included services to facilitate improved employment prospects, peer parenting support, and “right sized” child support orders; referrals to community partners to address unmet needs; and strategic staffing of individuals able to engage reluctant noncustodial parents. To address noncustodial parent perceptions of child support agencies, agency leaders and staff engaged in concerted efforts to facilitate and demonstrate child support agency culture change.

Conclusions and Implications: Results demonstrate that services strategically designed to meet noncustodial parent needs and help overcome barriers to employment and compliance are important to engagement in child support services; however, historical stigmatization and negative past experiences also play a crucial role. Potential implications could include child support agencies providing, or partnering to offer, services to overcome barriers to compliance; better-aligning orders to noncustodial parent circumstances; and implementing engagement strategies that acknowledge and address noncustodial parent perceptions of agencies. The results also provide insight into successful engagement strategies for other social work services that interact with reluctant clients.