Federal Government No Help with Unpaid Child Support

Posted January 27, 2012 in Child Custody and Support by

This article is part of an ongoing Lawyers.com series looking at the child support crisis in America. Other articles in this series include:


With only 41.2 percent of custodial parents receiving the full child support they’re owed, and budget strapped states limited in what they can do to collect the rest, can the federal government ride in and save the day?

Not really.

“There is very little federal law that addresses family law,” says Kenneth Altshuler, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “It’s very difficult to have national enforcement because the law is state by state.”

In other words, the FBI isn’t going to come knocking on deadbeats’ doors anytime soon. However, Washington D.C. does play a role in child support enforcement, providing guidance and resources to states, and at least one law is being considered by Congress to expand and strengthen enforcement options.


Where Uncle Sam Plays a Role

While federal employees themselves don’t go out on the hunt for child support evaders, the government does play a key role in requiring that states take certain measures. 

Most prominently, there’s Title IV-D of the Social Security Act of 1975, which mandates and funds state enforcement offices. These offices are responsible for helping custodial parents locate ex-spouses who flee, establishing paternity, establishing support orders and enforcing those orders. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, provides centralized resources for the states, by collecting information from the IRS, Social Security Administration and other agencies. OCSE can also access various federal databases to help track down parents who have fled.

To continue to advance enforcement goals, the office produces an annual compilation of statistics and publishes a monthly report to share child support news and best practices.

And though not a federal law, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act was drafted in 1997 by a conference of delegates and has since been enacted by every state except Massachusetts, granting jurisdiction to courts in a child’s home state and mandating that their rulings be enforced against parents who live in a different state.


Laying Down the Law?

New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez

A pair of senators has been paying attention to the country’s dismal payment rates and is determined to do something about it through the “Strengthen and Vitalize Enforcement of Child Support (SAVE Child Support) Act,” introduced by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez and Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa.

“Our bill will help states make dead-beat parents pay the child support they owe. It will help enforce interstate child support orders so that no parent can hide from their obligation to their children,” Menendez said when the bill was first introduced in September 2010. “It will strengthen existing child support enforcement laws by giving states more tools to enforce interstate child support orders, making existing enforcement procedures more uniform, and cracking down on the deceptive practices of private child support collection agencies.” 

Among other actions, the bill would

  • Create a national registry to make liens against property easier to track
  • Make it easier for states to intercept income and revoke licenses and permits
  • Deny passport reinstatement until a parent has paid their arrears in full
  • Encourage state support agencies to communicate with corrections agencies to better collect on orders

Help can’t come soon enough. “There is a backlog of more than $100 billion in owed child support,” Grassley noted in a press release.  “Without the support of the noncustodial parent, many children will enter poverty or become dependent on state and federal government assistance.”

By and large, the bill is  uncontroversial. However, it has been languishing in the finance committee since last July.


Advocates Weigh In

Menendez and Grassley’s bill has gained the support of the major national advocates for enhanced support enforcement, the National Child Support Enforcement Association. “The bill would be very beneficial for child support enforcement as it contains many needed program improvements. NCSEA supports most of the provisions of the bill,” the board of directors wrote in a resolution, with some suggestions for minor changes.

In a broader sense, NCSEA works to raise awareness of enforcement issues and advocate on behalf of children and families.

NCSEA believes that every child is entitled to support from both parents – and while that includes financial support, we also believe that every parent also owes their children healthy emotional and medical support as well – and we strongly encourage policies and practices at the local and state level which support and encourage that,” says NCSEA Executive Director Colleen Eubanks. 

Eubanks echoes a common theme among family law professionals, that jail time can be counterproductive in forcing evaders to pay up. “We … do not advocate extreme measures such as incarcerating for extended periods of time individuals who clearly do not have the resources or ability to pay support,” she says. “We prefer to promote ‘problem solving’ courts which will work with support systems such as vocational training, community colleges, drug and alcohol rehab, etc. to identify and assist with barriers that prevent parents from providing the required support for their children.”

Unfortunately, neither the OCSE, the NSCEA nor Congress can realistically attack the two biggest obstacles to getting support paid on time and in full: the lagging economy that keeps some parents out of work, and the futility of trying to get money from parents who go to extreme measures to protect their income. Ultimately, when support orders aren’t followed and there’s no way to enforce them, single parents like Kendra and Gabrielle, and millions more like them, are stuck holding the bill, with the children left to suffer most of all.

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