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Not Just a Deadbeat Dad

Eight states across the country are piloting a model of child support enforcement that relies, for the first time ever, more on carrots than on sticks. And it's working better than anything we've seen before.
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On a sunny Tuesday morning in February, Lewis Griffin walked into a meeting room in the Arapahoe County Human Services Building in Aurora, Colorado. Griffin, a barber and ex-convict who’s also the co-facilitator of a fatherhood class, is a tall black man with closely cropped silvering hair — on the day I met him, he was sharply dressed in grey jeans, a neatly pressed grey-striped button-down shirt, and sleek, modern glasses. Griffin has an open, friendly manner and a disarming sense of humor. When he introduced himself to me, he clasped both hands to his chest, inhaled sharply, and said with exaggerated anxiety, “I’m nervous!”

The men (and one woman) gathered in the meeting room that morning all had one thing in common: They were non-custodial parents who had fallen behind on their child support payments. A few years ago, Griffin, who’s 56 and lives with his wife and 16-year-old son, was one of those parents. In 2011, a woman he had previously fathered a daughter with in an extra-marital affair served him with a child support order for seven years of back payments — approximately $25,000 total. Over the next few years, Griffin mostly tried to ignore the ever-mounting debt, until a cop in Baltimore (where he’d briefly moved) pulled him over and informed him that his driver’s license had been suspended due to his debts.

“At that point, it was like, yeah, you can run, but I mean, how far can you run? And you really can’t hide,” Griffin says. He returned to Colorado with his family in 2013 and started paying his monthly support sporadically, in bits and pieces. He wanted to resolve his child support problem, he says, but he didn’t know how to navigate the seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy of the system.

And then Lewis Griffin got lucky. A caseworker from the Arapahoe County Office of Child Support Services called and told him about the Colorado Parent Employment Project (CO-PEP), an experimental pilot program funded by a grant from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement as part of its Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration, or CSPED.

Colorado is one of eight states participating in the CSPED, which relies on a more supportive model of child support enforcement than the punitive model of years past. Participating agencies began the planning and implementation phase of the project in 2012, and the demonstration will run through September of 2017.

The program, which is being evaluated by Mathematica Policy Research and the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is a randomized controlled trial. Caseworkers identify and recruit eligible clients (specific criteria vary by state) and, once eligibility is confirmed, participants are then randomly selected to receive either standard services or additional services. As of the end of the first year, the participating agencies had enrolled 3,266 non-custodial parents, and they hope to ultimately enroll 12,000 by the fourth year of the experiment.

Over the last 50 years, both divorce and non-marital childbearing rates in the United States have soared. More than 40 percent of children today are born to unmarried parents, and, in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost one-third of children didn’t live with both of their parents. (Childbearing outside marriage has shown a decline since 2008, but the rate still far outpaces what it was 50 years ago.) These trends have led to a significant increase in the number of children with non-custodial parents who are expected to contribute financially through the child support system. In fiscal year 2013, the government collected $32 billion in total child support and provided child support services to 17 million children.

The non-custodial parents in these families are disproportionately low-income and face substantial employment barriers that severely limit their ability to contribute. Baseline surveys of CSPED participants, for example, indicate that almost 70 percent have some kind of criminal conviction; among CSPED participants who reported employment, average monthly earnings were only $683, which, in Colorado, is equivalent to about 80 hours of minimum-wage work.

Historically, the system has relied on punitive measures to ensure compliance. Parents who don’t, or can’t, pay face a debt load that increases with every passing month (sometimes to astronomical levels) and an escalating set of consequences, many of which — the suspension of a professional or driver’s license, for example — can even make it harder for the non-custodial parent to pay child support. A barber or contractor who loses his or her professional license and can’t work won’t be able to make much headway on child support arrears.

“Many observers think that system could work if the main problem was an unwillingness to pay,” says Daniel Meyer, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the principle investigator on the CSPED project. “But the problem is actually not willingness — at least for some part of the population, they don’t have the ability to pay the amount we expect, so then a system that is only about punishment is unlikely to be very effective.”

The specifics of the CSPED project vary from state to state, but all of the participating child support agencies are expected to provide four core services: enhanced child support services (which can include things like expedited review and modification of child support orders and debt forgiveness), employment assistance, parenting classes, and case management.

In Arapahoe County, which has a long history of experimentation with enhanced services, CO-PEP participants have access to an impressively wide range of extras, but most are conditioned upon participation in the parenting class, which includes both a peer support component and a curriculum that covers responsible parenting and co-parenting methods, effective communication strategies, and healthy relationship building. Lewis Griffin’s caseworker, for example, promised she would get his driver’s license reinstated if he attended the first two classes.

Maureen Alexander, who is supervisor of special projects for the Arapahoe County Child Support Enforcement Division and has headed the CO-PEP project since its inception, believes the fatherhood class is a crucial first step for participants. The curriculum and facilitators challenge participants to build healthy co-parenting relationships and energize their efforts to find employment or secure visitation rights.

“It’s made a huge difference with our clients and their desire to do better, to pay their support,” Alexander says. “Absolutely, when you start talking about kids and emotions and things that they’re not usually tapping into, and giving them the chance to actually sit there with other — mostly — guys who are going through similar things, it just changes them.”

In Arapahoe County, as in many counties across the country, some of the available services — child-support-order modifications, mediation, basic employment services — are available to all child support clients, but CO-PEP participants receive intensive case management and hand-holding. “There’s a desire to meet that obligation, but they really have gotten into such a deep hole, they don’t know how to climb out,” says Sarah Culp, a CO-PEP caseworker. “So sometimes it takes us to go in. I do what I call a roadmap, and I build, step by step, what we need to do to get to this point. … They don’t know that they can do some of the things that they can do — modify, ask for parenting time, get a mediation, actually get to be a dad.”

The final evaluation of the CSPED program won’t be released for several years. Preliminary data in Colorado indicates that CO-PEP participants paid more child support and were more likely to be paying at least some child support after enrolling in the program, and Sarah Culp and Maureen Alexander believe the program has been successful.

CO-PEP specialists in Arapahoe County can, for example, request financial assistance for participants’ cell phone bills, transportation (including car repairs), and clothing for interviews. The county also has a highly experienced job developer who has cultivated relationships with a variety of employers, including those that are felon-friendly. “She knows right away whether she’s got someone that might be able to hire them,” Culp says. “A lot of our people come in the program and, two weeks later, have a job.” It’s worth noting, however, that the experience of Arapahoe County may be unique — Colorado has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, and the Arapahoe Child Support office was providing employment services to non-custodial parents before the advent of the CO-PEP program.

Last fall, Mathematica Policy Research released a report about the first two years of the CSPED program, which focused on the planning, implementation, and enrollment phase. The report highlights the challenges of serving its unique clientele; program staff cited the need for additional training on providing employment services to clients with criminal histories or other barriers to employment, and also reported that even participants who found jobs sometimes still struggled due to low wages.

Across the country, CSPED staff highlighted another significant shortcoming of the program. In general, local child support services have no authority over custody matters, yet many CSPED participants lack access to their children and cite that as a significant deterrent to payment.

In Colorado, caseworkers can help clients request a mediation (and waive the associated fees) through the office of dispute resolution, but most states lack such a mechanism. “Almost uniformly, staff described animosity toward custodial parents and the child support program as major barriers,” the Mathematica report concluded. “In particular, due to acrimonious relationships with custodial parents, participants often did not have access to their children and thus did not want to pay their child support.”

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the report is how marginalized this population of parents is, and how desperately we need a strategic shift. “They give you an opportunity to find a career … it’s like a second chance in life,” one CSPED participant told Mathematica. “We’re here to be good providers, not like everybody labels us. This is a second chance. Not to prove something to them — to commit to yourself and your family.”

For Lewis Griffin, the program did indeed offer him a second chance. With his caseworker’s assistance, Griffin requested a mediation with his daughter’s mother. She forgave all of his existing debts and agreed to visitation. Now, he sees his daughter on a regular basis, and has an excellent relationship with her mother. With the encouragement of the CO-PEP staff, he is undergoing additional training and hopes to eventually work with non-custodial fathers full-time. Alexander told me that they have big plans for him going forward.

“I’ve settled down, I’ve become more responsible — my relationship with my wife, I understand her more,” Griffin says. “Even the way I parent my son … that’s what CO-PEP has done for me.”