Abstract: Racial Disproportionality in Legal Representation at the Setting of Child Support Order: Does It Matter? (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Racial Disproportionality in Legal Representation at the Setting of Child Support Order: Does It Matter?

Friday, January 13, 2023
Paradise Valley, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Yoona Kim, MSW, Graduate Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Background and Purpose: Previous research suggests that noncustodial parents with racial and ethnic minority backgrounds are less likely to have legal representation in family court than White parents. This may be consequential, as it may lead to unrealistic child support orders that are less likely to be paid, which could lead to punitive enforcement actions, even incarceration. Most previous studies on this topic have relied heavily on qualitative methods, and we still know little about how widespread the lack of legal representation is among those racial and ethnic minority parents or how that affects their lives. The primary focus of this study is to examine the extent to which legal representation and its relationship with nonpayment of child support differs by racial group.

Methods: The primary data are drawn from the Wisconsin Court Record Data (CRD), a sample of child support-related cases filed in 21 Wisconsin counties, along with other data sources in the Wisconsin Administrative Data Core. My primary sample is comprised of the most recent cases where the father is designated as the payor (noncustodial parent) and the mother the payee (custodial parent) that were filed with the courts from July 2007 to December 2013 (n=2,933). The CRD contains information on whether the father is legally represented. Race and ethnicity is based either on a person’s own perceived identity or the perception of others (e.g., caseworkers). The dependent variable is nonpayment during the first year of the order. I use descriptive analyses to describe the distribution of legal representation at the setting of the order and whether and how the distribution differs by race and ethnicity. I then use logistic regressions to examine the relationship between legal representation and nonpayment for two biggest racial groups (i.e., Non-Hispanic White and Black).

Results: About one-third of the sample is non-Hispanic White and, 38% are non-Hispanic Black. Overall, about one in five fathers are legally represented. Disaggregating by race and ethnicity, about a third of Non-Hispanic White fathers are legally represented whereas only 4 percent of Non-Hispanic Black fathers and 10 percent of Hispanic fathers are. Multivariate logistic regression results show that legal representation is associated with a 38 percentage points decrease in nonpayment for Non-Hispanic Black fathers (p < .05), while no relationship is found for Non-Hispanic White fathers.

Conclusion and Implications: Findings suggest Non-Hispanic Black fathers are disproportionately underrepresented by attorneys than Non-Hispanic White fathers at the setting of child support order. Understanding the connection between legal representation and nonpayment of child support orders—which can lead to punitive consequences—is particularly important for racially marginalized groups, considering that legal representation can play a role as a protective factor. This study can help inform policymakers interested in closing racial gaps in child support outcomes and perhaps in criminal justice outcomes. Providing better access to legal assistance to racially marginalized fathers could effectively help them support their children.