Nearly 40 percent of parents who are obligated to pay child support in the District are behind in their payments. Now, the office of the attorney general is trying to get some of them back on track — and recoup some of an estimated cumulative $250 million in unpaid child support — by offering an amnesty program.
The Child Support Services Division is providing matching grants and a chance to earn back a suspended license or quash an arrest warrant to delinquent parents who agree to a plan to address their debt.
As of Wednesday , 126 noncustodial parents had requested amnesty, making payments totaling $33,793.97. Officials said they hope the program, which has been extended through Friday, will help children financially as they head back to school. They also hope to ease what can seem like an insurmountable burden to parents with little or no income.
"A lot of these parents want to provide for their kids, but they need help and support themselves," said D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine. "What we want to do with child support is to make a distinction between a deadbeat parent who needs enforcement and a parent that needs some education and support and a helping hand."
Nationally, child support debt has been growing steadily, surpassing $113 billion in 2013, up from $66 billion in 2002. Advocates say this mounting debt reflects a system that is not working for millions of poor parents who don't have the money they are expected to provide. Most of the debt is owed by people who earn less than $10,000 a year, according to research by the Urban Institute.
The amnesty program is part of a broader effort in the District and nationally to reduce barriers to paying child support. The agency has an "alternative solutions center" that provides referrals for literacy programs, drug rehabilitation and other services to help parents. In August, the office added two workforce-development specialists to help unemployed parents find work.
The federal child support collection system was first developed in the 1970s to address a skyrocketing number of families that were splitting up from divorce. At the time, most fathers were breadwinners, and the system was intended to make sure they continued to provide for their families so they would not be left destitute.
American families have changed dramatically since then. Now, 40 percent of new mothers each year are unmarried — the figure is about 50 percent in the District — and an increasing number of fathers live on the fringes of the economy.
Today, the collection system works effectively for families with resources, scholars say, with a powerful range of tools to enforce payments — including the ability to garnish wages and income tax refunds, suspend licenses and passports, and impose jail time.
But for parents who are poor, uneducated and underemployed — the current system often leads to an accumulation of debt and punishment with little recourse.
"There's a saying, 'You can't get blood from a turnip:' We have been setting court orders for noncustodial parents, usually fathers, who have no ability to pay because they are chronically unemployed, disabled and incarcerated," said Cynthia Osborne, director of the Child and Family Research Partnership at the University of Texas at Austin.
Child support is an important source of income for millions of poor families. Regular child support payments, even if they are small, are associated with more financial stability and a higher likelihood of involvement from both parents.
For families receiving public benefits, child support in almost every state goes at least in part to reimburse the government for those benefits. Research shows that when more money goes directly to the family, parents are more likely to pay child support.
To address some of the barriers to collecting child support, revised federal regulations that took effect this year direct states to rethink the formula they use for determining how much child support someone should pay and to consider their realistic ability to pay. For example, a common practice that states use is to set a dollar amount that assumes full-time work at minimum wage, even if a parent is incarcerated or unemployed.
The regulations also set new criteria that require child support agencies to screen cases to evaluate parents' ability to pay — and provide this information to the court — before referring them for a contempt-of-court action for unpaid child support, which can lead to jail time.
The child support system in the District involves more than 69,000 children citywide, from families of all income levels. It comprises one of the largest divisions of the Attorney General's Office, with a staff of about 200 who work to establish paternity for births to unwed mothers in the District each year and to investigate, process and enforce child support orders.
Last year, the office collected more than $56 million in child support payments.
Its pivot to a more service-oriented agency has been a process long in the making. The agency changed its name from the "Child Support Enforcement Division" to the "Child Support Services Division" more than a decade ago. Some local advocates for poor families say they have seen innovative programs meant to support unemployed parents come and go with little data to show their outcomes or explain why they were not continued.
The need continues to be great, said Su Sie Ju, legal director at Bread for the City, which provides free legal counsel for parents with child support cases. She said she continues to see many people with orders that do not reflect their ability to pay and who are burdened by uncollectible debt.
Officials at the agency said they have a "Fresh Start" program that forgives back debt for parents who pay a large lump sum or make consistent payments over time. It has also offered limited-time amnesty programs in the past.
Many states, like the District, are looking for creative ways to get parents to pay back child support, though amnesty is not a common approach, said Jacquelyn L. Boggess, executive director at the Center for Family Policy and Practice in Madison, Wis.
"There is not enough political will — it comes across as letting deadbeats off the hook," she said.
In the District, officials said they are looking for ways to entice people to come into the office after avoiding their mounting debt — often for years.
One of those parents was David Forster Jr., whose license had been suspended because of unpaid child support. The trained auto mechanic could not work without it, he said.
In his case, he said, he had been the primary caregiver for multiple years, since his child's mother had been incarcerated. The situation was never straightened out in court, he said.
Last week, he came in with $350 and was sent home with a letter that he can take to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get his license back. He met with a caseworker to begin the process of amending his child support order and sat down with an employment specialist to begin looking for a job.
"This is a big weight lifted off of me," he said.