Abstract: The COVID-19 Pandemic and Child Support Enforcement (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Child Support Enforcement

Friday, January 14, 2022
Independence BR F, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Lisa Vogel, PhD, Research Scientist, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Alejandra Ros Pilarz, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Laura Cuesta, PhD, Assistant Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Background: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic effect on local economic conditions and the financial circumstances of many families, including those served by the child support system. Widespread job losses and reductions in work hours and earnings have led to declines in economic well-being for noncustodial parents, while many custodial parents have simultaneously experienced economic hardship. This raises difficult issues for how strenuously child support staff should pursue enforcement of child support obligations. This study explores how child support agency and court staff approach enforcing and modifying child support orders in the era of COVID-19. Early findings suggest that agencies and courts are adapting local practice in recognition of the economic realities faced by families.

Data and Methods: Our data come from interviews with child support and court staff across five Wisconsin counties, selected for diversity in urbanicity and COVID case rates. We conducted 1-2 hour-long interviews with 25 child support agency directors, frontline staff, attorneys, and family court commissioners. We used NVivo Pro11 to code interview transcripts and conducted thematic analysis to identify changes to local practice in response to the pandemic.

Results: Our early findings indicate that child support agencies and court staff have modified practice in several key domains across administrative and judicial enforcement processes, including: (1) Increased outreach and engagement efforts (e.g., more intensive attempts to contact nonpayers across a broader array of modalities, including phone, email, and text messaging) in order to identify the context surrounding nonpayment; (2) Heightened awareness of, and caution about using, enforcement tools with potential to exacerbate financial hardship (e.g., driver’s license suspension and account seizure); and (3) Reduced use of contempt, driven in parallel by concerns about use of contempt in the current economic conditions and practical constraints due to COVID-changes in court and jail processes (e.g., court closures and jail population reductions). While some of these adaptations represent a short-term response, staff expected others to persist into the future, including options for attending court hearings virtually, broadened means of communications between staff and customers, and expanded methods for making payments. Our initial findings also suggest court staff have approached order modifications and income imputation with caution. They are likely to modify a child support order to a lower amount during the COVID-19 pandemic but, when modifications are granted, to also schedule a review hearing to confirm that changes in economic circumstances of those paying child support are long-term.

Conclusions and Implications: These findings demonstrate that child support enforcement agencies and courts have been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and have engaged in practice adaptations based on local economic conditions, public health circumstances, and the circumstances of families. The pandemic forced agencies to adapt quickly to new and ever-shifting conditions. Local child support agencies would benefit from additional guidance and resources, particularly on expectations and parameters, from state and federal partners, as they develop plans for serving families post-COVID.