The Washington State Division of Child Support (DCS) has over 320,000 child support cases, of which 16 percent are intergovernmental cases. An even smaller percentage are international cases. International cases posed a unique challenge for DCS due to the complexity of laws governing international support and the limited frequency with which staff encounter such cases. Prior to the project, DCS had no staff specialization and no specialized training on international case processing for the central registry or field office staff. Support enforcement officers often had to reach out to the Policy Unit regarding how to process a particular incoming or outgoing international application. Some staff worked for years without ever receiving an international case and did not feel comfortable processing an international application when they did receive one.
DCS was especially interested in improving their services in child support cases with Canada and Mexico. Washington shares a border with British Columbia, and over half of its international caseload is with Canada. Cases with Mexico are problematic because Washington lacks a state-level reciprocal arrangement with Mexico. As a result, there are no outgoing support cases to Mexico. Between January 1 and June 30, 2019, DCS closed 188 child support cases because the noncustodial parent lived in Mexico and there was no way for DCS to proceed. Without expert guidance and training, managing these international cases was inefficient and sometimes ineffective.
“I was quickly reassured when we selected Public Knowledge® as our partner in this work. The team of highly skilled professionals in the respective areas of policy, technical assistance, and intergovernmental case processing was one of the project’s greatest assets. Their experts worked extremely hard to make sure we were able to meet all of our goals as closely as possible to the original plan. At every turn their team anticipated the needs of our staff as they guided staff through process revision. The curricula and desk aids they developed increased staff knowledge and confidence in processing cases with Mexico and Canada. The project manager for Public Knowledge® easily melded her knowledge of international law with her command of project management.
Without the team at Public Knowledge®, Washington state would have likely faced many additional hurdles and barriers. I look forward to an opportunity where we are able to partner again in order to improve the lives of Washington state residents.”CHRISTINA BLESI-HAYS
DIVISION OF CHILD SUPPORT
ECONOMIC SERVICES ADMINISTRATION
STATE OF WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL AND HEALTH SERVICES
In 2019 DCS received an Intergovernmental Case Processing Innovation Demonstration grant from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. DCS’s goals for the two-year project were to:
After a competitive bid process, DCS contracted with Public Knowledge® (PK) for assistance with the grant. Public Knowledge® assembled a team with strong operational, legal, and policy expertise in international case processing. The team reviewed DCS international case processing policies and procedures, strategized with project staff on activities to improve case processing with Mexico and Canada, developed and delivered training, and created technical assistance desk aids and tools to assist central registry and international liaisons. The team also evaluated the effectiveness of project activities in meeting the project goals.
The Washington State Division of Child Support (DCS) is a state agency within the Department of Social and Health Services, Economic Services Administration. DCS strives to improve lives by delivering excellent child support services. There are approximately 1,050 employees located in its Olympia Headquarters and nine field offices located across the state of Washington. DCS has over 320,000 open child support cases, of which less than one percent are international cases. Recognizing that international cases are a small percentage of their caseload but require a disproportional amount of staff time, DCS applied for and received a federal intergovernmental case processing innovation demonstration grant. The two-year project focused on international case processing with Canada and Mexico.
DCS contracted with Public Knowledge® to assist with the project because our consulting team brought strong policy expertise in international child support laws as well as deep “in the trenches” experience. The project team included individuals with successful records in operating a state central registry for incoming intergovernmental cases; working with child support programs in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico; providing policy guidance during the development of the Uniform Interstate Support Act (UIFSA) and the 2007 Hague Child Support Convention; and implementing the 2007 Hague Child Support Convention and UIFSA within states.
DCS strives to improve lives by delivering excellent child support services. Because of the complexity of laws governing international child support cases and the infrequency staff encounter such cases, DCS recognized that its staff was not confident in working international cases. There was no specialization of staff handling foreign support cases or specialized training on laws governing international support cases. DCS was particularly interested in improving its processing of cases with Canada and Mexico. Canada is Washington’s largest international support partner, yet DCS had not established ongoing cooperative working relationships with any Canadian province or territory. DCS was closing cases where the father lived in Mexico because there is no federal bilateral agreement with the country, and Washington lacked any state reciprocal arrangement.
In 2019 DCS applied for a two-year federal intergovernmental case processing innovation demonstration grant from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement in order to redesign its delivery of services in cases with Canada and Mexico. It selected Public Knowledge® as its consultant partner to develop, implement, and evaluate interventions to build better working relationships with Canada and Mexico, improve DCS efficiency in working cases with Canada and Mexico, and improve outcomes for families with parents in these two countries.
Prior to the project, DCS had no staff specialization for international cases and no ongoing international training for central registry or field office staff. Support enforcement officers often had to reach out to the Policy Unit regarding how to process a particular incoming or outgoing international application. Some staff worked for years without ever receiving an international case and weren’t comfortable processing an international application when they did receive one. Although the DCS Policy Handbook for field staff included information on intergovernmental child support, the information had been added to and updated over time. As a result, the revisions were not well integrated with other sections of the manual. There were gaps and some of the information was inconsistent. DCS was especially interested in improving the delivery of services in child support cases with Canada and Mexico. Washington shares a border with British Columbia, and over half of its international caseload is with Canada. Cases with Mexico were particularly problematic because Washington lacks a state-level reciprocal arrangement with Mexico. As a result, DCS closed child support cases where the noncustodial parent lived in Mexico. There were no outgoing applications to Mexico because there was no way for DCS to proceed. Once DCS received funding from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement for its “Child Support Intergovernmental Case Processing Innovation Demonstration” (Project), it contracted with Public Knowledge® for help in achieving the grant goals.
The project included three phases.
|Effective engagement was both the critical first step in PK’s work and an ongoing requirement throughout the project. The initial engagement phase focused on clearly defining project goals, agreeing upon performance metrics for evaluating the success of project activities in meeting those goals, and establishing effective processes for ongoing input and feedback from the project team.|
In the analysis period of Phase 1, the PK team compiled and analyzed qualitative and quantitative information to understand the DCS program, international child support policies and processes, and current performance; and to identify potential opportunities for improvement. The PK team also conducted interviews with the DCS central registry staff and support enforcement officers.
During the initial three-month phase, PK provided training on intergovernmental laws and case processing with Canada and Mexico, as well as training on procedural justice and behavioral interventions
The “envision” part of Phase 1 was a facilitated session of DCS project team members and managers. PK used a Solution Design Model to share (and validate) the results of its program analysis and help the working group envision what the desired outcomes of the reengineered system would be. The envisioning discussions examined areas of staffing, system improvements, practices and processes, and interventions targeted to Canada and Mexico. The result was agreement upon eight key project interventions:
|The nine-month design and implementation phase focused on moving from recommendations to action. The PK team helped the DCS leadership team prioritize recommendations for implementation, played lead roles in project interventions requiring specific subject matter expertise, and provided ongoing oversight and support to the project team as implementation moved forward.|
The two most significant challenges during the project were time constraints and COVID-19.
Two years is a short time period to identify and implement improvements that will redesign a child support program’s international case processing. The well-managed collaborative process between the highly experienced child support professionals in PK’s consulting team and the dedicated, visionary partners in DCS was critical to the project’s success in moving forward on all of the project’s initiatives.
The other challenge was COVID-19. No one anticipated that the project would need to plan for a pandemic. PK and DCS successfully navigated staff interviews during the project’s initial assessment as well as the evaluation phase using the TEAMS platform. The project also used electronic platforms for training, and for the collaborative calls between DCS and Canadian provinces. It was difficult to measure the impact of COVID-19 on project performance metrics. Because Washington State establishes and enforces the majority of child support orders through an administrative process, DCS project managers stated that the court closures due to COVID-19 did not have a major impact on Washington’s ability to process incoming cases from Canada and Mexico. It is not known to what extent the pandemic may have impacted Canada’s ability to process cases from Washington. However, COVID-19 had a major impact on Washington’s ability to establish a reciprocal cooperative arrangement with Mexican states. Such arrangements are usually predicated on relationships developed over time through in-person meetings. Although the PK team worked with DCS to draft reciprocal cooperation arrangements (Convenios) in English and Spanish for review by the directors of the child support agencies in selected Mexican states and the project leadership had several calls with the Mexican Central Authority and agency directors, the pandemic negatively impacted the ability of the Project Team to travel to the selected Mexican states and meet with governmental representatives. Additionally, during the grant period, there were political elections in three of the four targeted Mexican states that affected agency leadership. As a result, the formalization of a cooperative arrangement with selected Mexican states did not occur during the life of the project.
“As the Grant Manager on a federal Intergovernmental Case Processing grant for Washington state, I was concerned about how COVID was going to impact our project. I knew our timelines for project activities were tight. Identifying points of contact and making connections with other countries’ support programs in the midst of the global pandemic seemed especially challenging. I was quickly reassured when we selected Public Knowledge as our partner in this work. Their experts worked extremely hard to make sure we were able to meet all of our goals as closely as possible to the original plan. At every turn their team anticipated the needs of our staff as they guided staff through process revision.”CHRISTINA BLESI-HAYS
The most successful activities included:
|Case Management||To improve the processing of international child support cases, DCS designated staff in the Central Registry and local field offices to handle cases from Mexico and Canada.|
|Desk Aids for Processing International Cases*||PK worked with the Washington DCS Grant Project Director and the DCS Policy and Litigation Manager to develop a number of desk aids. Applying behavioral economic principles, they designed the resources in multiple formats to address the varying learning styles of the liaisons and to increase their comfort level in handling the international cases.|
|Improved Case Processing with Canada||Based on professional relationships the PK team had with Canadian maintenance programs, PK was able to identify the appropriate contact person in provinces with which DCS wanted to establish collaborative child support relationships. PK helped coordinate collaboration calls and interjurisdictional training events and provided needed technical assistance. Interview responses indicate that project participants greatly valued the joint training sessions and felt their understanding of case processing had greatly improved. Some of the adjectives that staff used to describe the sessions with their Canadian colleagues were “so illuminating,” “invaluable,” “amazing,” “fantastic,” “so informative,” “very beneficial,” and “absolutely excellent.”|
|Improved Communications||When parents live in different jurisdictions, case processing can be more complex and challenging than if both parents live in the same jurisdiction. Timely, meaningful communication between workers in both jurisdictions is critical. One goal of the project was to provide the international liaisons with direct email and phone numbers for workers in Canada and Mexico, instead of a generic email contact address. Another goal was to provide a means for workers to communicate about specific cases, which meant exploring the availability of encrypted email between the Washington international liaisons and caseworkers in Canada and Mexico. The project team also wanted to explore the ability of Washington caseworkers to access the maintenance enforcement program websites for selected Canadian provinces. The project was very successful in improving communication with Canada. When referring a case, one international liaison noted “it is great to know what will happen next, what to expect, and to whom to direct questions.” Another liaison noted that the provincial child support portal they were able to access through the project had become their “new favorite friend.” Because the project was unable to establish a bilateral cooperative relationship with any Mexican state during the grant, there was no opportunity to establish better communication with Mexico.|
|Policy Analysis Related to International Case Processing||Because of PK’s deep interstate and international expertise, DCS asked the PK team to review its Central Services intergovernmental manual and intergovernmental chapter of its DCS Policy Handbook for field offices. With a focus on international case processing, PK identified gaps in the policy and recommended clarifications regarding the review and processing of applications from Convention countries, foreign reciprocating countries, and countries such as Mexico that are neither Convention countries nor foreign reciprocating countries.|
|DCS identified both quantitative and qualitative goals for the project. Because of the short nine-month implementation period for the project, there was insufficient time to see a measurable impact of project activities on performance metrics such as increased collections and reduced timeframes during the three-month evaluation phase.|
The project was very successful, however, in meeting the qualitative goals. These goals included improvement in the management of international cases with Canada and Mexico, increased staff confidence in handling cases with Canada and Mexico, improved relationships with Canadian provinces, better communication, and more comprehensive written policies and procedures governing international child support casework. To measure the success of the project in meeting these goals, the PK team employed surveys and interviews.
Because international cases are a small percentage of most agencies’ child support caseload, staff may lack the knowledge to appropriately process them. Designating staff to handle international cases or to be agency subject matter experts, and providing these individuals with training and supportive resources, leads to greater confidence in case processing. Washington DCS contracted with Public Knowledge® to help redesign its international case processing because of the PK team’s strong operational, legal, and policy expertise in international case processing.
It is important to use a variety of formats to meet individuals’ varying learning styles when developing desk aids. Some people learn best from numbered instructions and checklists, others like to read narrative information, and others are more visual and retain information best if it is presented in flowcharts. PK used behavioral economics and principles of adult education to develop training material and desk aids in varying formats.
Improving communication is key to effective case management, particularly when working international cases, due to challenges such as different time zones, language barriers, and differences in legal systems. Establishing child support cooperation arrangements takes time and requires the development of personal relationships. Because of their professional relationships with colleagues in Canada, the PK team was able to help DCS establish a strong cooperative relationship with selected provinces. The relationship included improved communication methods such as a contact directory, access by DCS workers to the family maintenance enforcement program’s portal, and transmission of messages from Canadian caseworkers through Washington’s encrypted email system.
International child support has changed significantly in the last 10 years. For most states, a comprehensive review of the international case processing section of their policies and procedures handbook is long overdue. PK consultants participated in drafting the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) and negotiating the 2007 Hague Child Support Convention. We have developed extensive training materials and technical assistance resources focused on international case processing.
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