Long before the United States declared war on poverty and attacked
destitution family by family, it was a crime for parents to
financially neglect their children. Now that policy makers have
decided there is a limit to the nation's generosity, parental child support
is expected to once again become the first resort for keeping children
warm and fed.
Before that can happen in California, the State's Child Support
Enforcement Program needs substantial improvement.
The federally mandated program is operated by the Office of Child
Support in the Department of Social Services. The State has delegated
to the county district attorneys many of the day-to-day responsibilities of
finding parents, obtaining support orders and enforcing those obligations.
Scores of other public agencies and -- with universal wage assignments
-- virtually every employer in the state have been recruited to help make
parents financially responsible for their children.
Despite an escalating effort in recent years, the program's performance has lagged behind the social trends that have made child support enforcement second only to public education in the number of children involved. A persistently high divorce rate and increasing out-of-wedlock births have eroded away the two-parent family structure that is more capable of providing the financial resources needed to independently escape or avoid poverty.
One in three children, it is estimated, will live in a single-parent home at
some point in their youth. For the last 40 years, welfare propped up the
most financially unstable of these fractured families. With the new limit
on benefits, single custodial parents who do not find jobs will have to fall
back on something far less reliable than welfare -- child support.
State child support officials and their county partners point out that more
support is being collected than ever before. They maintain that California
is well down the road to improvement, and all that lies between today
and success is the time it will take for enacted reforms to be
But compelling evidence undermines their optimism. Fewer than half of
the families who have asked for help in securing child support have a
court order in place. Of those, fewer than half are actually receiving any
money. And those numbers overstate the success because they do not
include the tens of thousands of cases that prosecutors in California give
up on each year. When all cases are taken into account, one in eight
families who are entitled to support receive it. Hope can be found in
some counties that have made tenacious gains, but so far that progress
has not been contagious.
In the course of conducting this study, the Little Hoover Commission
discovered that it is possible to run an effective child support program
and even to turn a bad program around. Massachusetts did it. California
can do it.
The Little Hoover Commission also found that despite the confidence of
state officials and promises that technology purchasing procedures have
been reformed, the State is struggling to salvage a $300 million computer
network that is brand new and barely functioning. The Statewide
Automated Child Support System (SACSS) may work someday. But
today, the computer system actually has increased the chances that
children are not receiving the financial support they deserve.
And the Commission discovered that impending welfare reforms create
challenges for a child support program that has not lived up to modest,
pre-reform expectations. To successfully implement federal requirements
-- including creation of a centralized collections unit -- state social serviceworkers, county law enforcement officials and legislative leaders will
need to fundamentally put children at the center of reform efforts.
The counties that have crafted respectable child support enforcement programs report that this is one government program that really can be run like a business. Following mainstream corporate wisdom, they have fashioned people, process and technology to efficiently and effectively accomplish the task at hand. If that success is going to be replicated statewide, the State will have to adopt the same time-tested strategies, and do so with a passion commensurate to the importance of the task.
In short, State leaders need to make child support a priority. California's
counties, as the day-to-day operators of the program, have to be held
accountable for meeting minimum performance standards. Whether
prompted by federal welfare reforms or California's innate ambition,
reorganization efforts should be guided overwhelmingly by the imperative
that children deserve the best possible service. Automation needs to be
pragmatically embraced to accomplish the routine and counterweighted
with a pledge to resolve problems person to person. And finally the
commitment to do better must be renewed with every birth in California,
because every child is entitled to financial and emotional support.
With considerable effort, improved child support has the potential to
address poverty in a way that government welfare never could. Benefits
may be limited, but parenthood is for life.
After more than a year of research and analysis, with the cooperation of
public officials and public advocates, parents and their representatives,
the Little Hoover Commission has reached the following findings and
Finding 1: The management of state Office of Child Support has
not defined a vision, provided the leadership or developed the
public and private partnerships necessary for the enforcement
program to reach its potential.
California has the toughest enforcement tools in the nation, and one of
the lowest collection rates. Statutes, regulations and technologies by
themselves are dull implements that can only be honed with public
leadership. An essential ingredient in other states that have improved
child support collections has been enthusiastic and unwavering political
support from the highest ranks of the executive, legislative and judicial
Political capital is what elevates public programs to public imperatives.
It inspires public workers and raises public awareness. Leadership cannot
be legislated. But there are some mechanisms that could be used by
emerging leaders to make child support reform a priority. Measures the
State should take include the following:
Finding 2: The State does not hold county child support
programs accountable for meeting minimum performance
standards and depends on unreliable data to reward counties for
The state Child Support Enforcement Program has put its desire to build
a partnership with county district attorneys ahead of its obligation to hold
counties responsible for collecting support. The counties openly concede
they give up on cases and alter data collection methods in order to
minimize criticism and maximize incentive payments. The State declares
large numbers of counties in compliance with procedural norms with little
evidence to support that conclusion -- and there are no significant
consequences for counties that fail to meet the norms.
The county district attorneys want -- and should have -- the liberty to
make all of the day-to-day decisions about how to administer local
aspects of the child support enforcement program. In exchange for that
freedom, however, counties should be required to report reliable data on
program performance so that the public and state officials can hold
locally elected officials accountable for that performance. Measures the
State should take include the following:
Finding 3: In dividing child support enforcement duties between
the counties and the State, the opportunity is being missed to
develop efficient and flexible solutions that encourage ongoing
innovations that will maximize collections.
When the mail arrives, what matters most to struggling families is that
absent parents are held financially responsible for their children. They are
not overly concerned with whether the check was processed in
Sacramento or in Siskiyou County. Organizational design does shape
accountability and efficiency. But far too much improvement is needed
to allow efficiency to be compromised in order to preserve the status quo
or the balance of power.
Many factors appropriately influence reorganization efforts, such as the
collection and disbursement of child support. The system has to be
secure, it has to satisfy federal rules, it has to be cost-effective. One
dynamic demonstrated by the Franchise Tax Board's collections program
is that competition between government agencies can spur improvements
just like competition between private-sector businesses. These valid
considerations should guide an ongoing reassessment and realignment of
child support functions. Preserving a division of labor for the sake of
tradition should not be a factor in the debate. Measures the State should
take include the following:
Realistic Automation & Fair Process
Finding 4: The attempt to automate child support casework
statewide has sacrificed current financial support, has failed to
put a priority on delivering the easy benefits of automation quickly
and reliably and is creating due process concerns for future cases.
A lot has gone wrong with the Statewide Automated Child Support System. Among the unanswered questions is the effectiveness of past reforms to the State's procurement process that were made following the Department of Motor Vehicles computer controversy. In this case, however, the consequences go beyond the possibility of unwise expenditures of public money. In this instance, functioning child support enforcement programs have been hobbled by an overly complex system that so far cannot perform simple tasks. As a result, some children have not received needed support. At the same time, in automating the enactment and enforcement of support orders, officials have not adequately provided for fair notice and complaint procedures, which are essential to maintaining public confidence in government programs.
The frustrating reality is that several counties in California, independently of SACSS, have automated routine steps in securing and enforcing child support orders. What those counties needed -- and what eventually all counties could have benefited from -- was a centralized case registry and easy access to other databases that can provide information on the location of missing parents and their assets. The State was led down the road to SACSS with specific directions from the federal government, but that does not mean that it cannot pro-actively devise strategies that will meet California's business needs. Specifically, the State should take the following measures:
When Welfare Ends
Finding 5: The existing child support program is not adequate
for providing all of the financial help that children will need
when welfare benefits expire.
The proportion of families who are entitled to child support compared to
those who are receiving child support is less than one in nine. Welfare
reforms are likely to result in more custodial parents getting jobs.
Reforms also may encourage some custodial parents to fully cooperate
with child support authorities in securing orders against absent parents.
But many child support officials do not believe those reforms, or other
reforms underway to bolster child support collections, will be enough to
provide the other eight families with the financial help they will need.
There always will be neglectful parents, but the social conditions defining the problem will be constantly changing. Accurate and detailed assessments of different enforcement tools are essential to creating comprehensive strategies for helping children by helping their parents. Specifically, the State should take the following measures: