The District is holding its first attorney general election Tuesday. In all of the discussion about what the attorney general does, one of the most important responsibilities of the office has been largely overlooked: establishment and enforcement of child support orders.
The District’s child support system serves more than 50,000 children, more than are enrolled in D.C. Public Schools. The staff of this system constitutes the single largest division of the office of the attorney general, with more than 200 individuals involved in locating and serving non-custodial parents; processing and filing paternity establishment, child support and medical support orders with the court; reviewing and revising orders, initiating and monitoring collections; and initiating enforcement actions for non-payment.
This may not be glamorous work, but it directly affects some of the most important issues facing the District: reduction of poverty, increasing employment for the chronically unemployed and underemployed, and improving children’s health and educational outcomes.
Critical to all this is how the office of the attorney general deals with non-custodial parents — who are nearly always fathers.
Contrary to the image of the deadbeat dad — fathers who are financially stable and hiding from their responsibilities to support their children — the non-custodial fathers in the District’s child support system are overwhelmingly poor, with unstable and inconsistent employment histories and limited education. Many have been involved in the criminal justice system, which serves as a barrier to gainful employment. Because child support has become increasingly automated and based on garnishment of wages, that so many in the system are unemployed and underemployed means that child support is not being collected for more than half of the system’s children. Yet research shows that regular receipt of child support, regardless of the dollar amount, has an impact on a child’s school performance and even improves the likelihood that children will graduate from high school.
Child support offices elsewhere have been at the forefront of connecting non-custodial parents to employment. Leaders have introduced mediation and conferencing into the order-establishment process as a way to increase child support payments and, equally important, to improve communications between parents around their parenting responsibilities. They have worked with courts to make the best use of the leverage available — “carrots” and “sticks” — to help get parents and their children on a better, more stable path. The District’s child support system has not yet embraced any of these “best practices,” which we believe represents a lost opportunity for both the children and the parents in the system.
We want our newly elected attorney general to embrace the opportunity that child support represents, to collaborate with the court and other partners to protect the rights of parents while keeping an eye on the best outcomes for children. He or she needs to determine how the Child Support Services Division can best be used to improve outcomes for the District’s most vulnerable families.
Judy Berman is deputy director of DC Appleseed. Marc Efron is a board member of DC Appleseed.
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