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The Unintended Consequences of Equality-Focused Child Support Policies

Recognizing the distinction between equity and equality.

A more nuanced approach is needed to serve children and families. Rather than seeking a one-size-fits-all approach, we must strive to comprehend the complexities of each case. In doing so, it can identify ways to achieve genuine equity. 

Going Back to the Beginning

The statewide child support systems mandated in the 1990s were designed to support mass case processing through automation. These systems treat every case the same, and, in many instances, the result is not supporting equity. They may treat families equally by relying heavily on automated actions, but outcomes for parents and families can vary greatly. The child support community has recognized this approach is not ideal for families. As a result, some states are attempting to slow down the systems to allow for more human decision-making and intervention.

Automation Can Lead to Unintended Hardships

The child support system’s automated processes, such as reporting delinquency to credit bureaus and revoking driver’s licenses, can have unintended consequences, particularly for financially struggling individuals. It is essential moving forward to understand the importance of considering equity and individual circumstances when enforcing child support obligations. The automated actions taken by the system may not consider the personal circumstances of the person obligated to pay support. This can lead to further financial hardships and make it more difficult for parents to meet their child support obligations. 

Shifting to a Nuanced Approach

There has been a shift in the demographics of caseloads within the child support system, with fewer cases involving families receiving public assistance. This allows parents to agree to payment arrangements outside the formal child support system, as recoupment is not a factor.  Additionally, non-monetary contributions and support from parents, such as providing childcare or other essential items, are more likely to be agreed upon. The child support program may not adequately recognize or value these scenarios.

For example, a parent receiving support may place a higher value on the other parent providing vehicle maintenance or picking up the kids after school, which we might not understand or consider. All these scenarios are difficult to track and give credit for when using a system built for taking automated actions and applying sweeping policies. These situations need a nuanced approach that considers the whole family. 

How Small Shifts Can Make a Difference

Child support agencies can make changes that can make a profound impact, such as:  

  • Interrupting certain automated processes. Such as withholding wages, issuing bank levies, or revoking licenses, to avoid unintended consequences and allow for more individualized approaches. 
  • Allowing parents, when agreed upon, to make arrangements outside of the formal child a support obligation that helps support the family in their own chosen way. 
  • Providing more human interaction and discretion for child support professionals to make appropriate decisions based on the family’s circumstances and their expressed needs and support better outcomes for the family. 

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