It is estimated that unpaid child support payments in the United States exceed $110 billion. Child support cases are hard ones for courts, particularly when jobs are scarce.
If a parent is unemployed, the terms of a child support order can quickly become onerous. Nobody wins when this happens. Most importantly, children do not receive the financial and emotional support they need—non-custodial parents often disengage as they fall further and further behind in their payments. As Vicki Turetsky, the commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement has said, "The current system just adds up to debt and discouragement."
What can be done? Is it possible to imagine a new response to child support cases that strengthens family engagement and reduces tensions among the parties? The Center for Court Innovation is trying to answer these questions by creating special parent support programs in family courts in Brooklyn and Syracuse. The programs address the personal circumstances that might prevent a parent from successfully paying child support, linking participants to services like job training, literacy classes, transportation assistance, and child care. With the support of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, the Brooklyn program has collected more than half a million dollars in child support payments over the past four years.
A typical case involved Hank, a father who was over $20,000 dollars behind in his payments to support his son. Hank was considering applying for food stamps when a magistrate in Brooklyn referred him to the Kings County Parent Support Program. He was able to petition the court to modify his child support order down from $395 to a more manageable $50 per month. The program also connected him to a job training program. "I initially looked at the situation as a hassle and a waste of time because of the fact that I had to report to court so often," Hank said. "But the experience has taught me the value of holding myself accountable. I look forward to continuing on an upward journey that will help me evolve into a better man and a better father."