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OTDA Offers Relief to Dead-Broke Dads

Why Did So Few Respond?

November 19, 2010

Author: Susan C. Antos

Co-authored by Dustin Delp 1

Across the country, the amount of unpaid child support has reached staggering numbers.  In 2008, child support arrears reported by state child support enforcement offices totaled $105 billion.  New York’s share of this debt was $4.6 billion.  Not all of this money is owed to custodial parents.  Forty-two percent of this amount, or $1.9 billion, constitutes arrears owed to New York State as reimbursement for public assistance paid to the children of non-custodial parents.  This debt accrues because as a condition of eligibility, recipients of Family Assistance (FA) and Safety Net Assistance (SNA) are required to assign their rights to any child support that they are entitled to receive to the local social services district. 2  National studies have concluded that much of this “state debt” is owed by low-income, non-custodial parents who are financially unable to pay. 3

Last year, in an effort to respond to the accumulation of these uncollectable arrears, the Center for Child Well Being of the Division of Child Support Enforcement (DCSE) at New York State’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) implemented the Noncustodial Parent Poverty-Level Pilot.  Extending from December 2008 to November 2009, this pilot offered parents with limited resources the opportunity to have their child support orders reduced, so that they could have a fresh start and get out from under their crushing child support debt.  Noncustodial parents who went through the process could have their monthly obligation reduced by Family Court to $25 per month, with overall arrears reduced to $500.  The pilot hoped to achieve three benefits:

  • noncustodial parents participating in the pilot would have affordable child support payments and relief from crushing arrears;
  • custodial parents would receive those payments on a regular basis;
  • the State would reduce its overall amount of uncollectable debt by slashing the total amount owed by the pilot’s participants.

Although 1174 noncustodial parents were selected to participate in the process, by the end of the pilot, only 67 respondents had their orders modified and their arrears reduced.  This disappointing outcome should not deter future efforts to address uncollectable arrears.  The pilot provided valuable lessons regarding the need for case management and follow-up to ensure the success of any similar endeavors in the future.

In October, 2010, OTDA issued A Summary Report on the Noncustodial Parent Poverty Level Pilot, 4 which provides an analysis of the pilot and identifies a number of areas that may have contributed to the low participation rates.  This article reviews the structure of the pilot, the findings of the report, and makes recommendations in the event that this project is tried again.

Background

The pilot is described in detail in 08 ADM-12, 5 which was released in December 2008.  Non-custodial parents were invited to participate in the pilot if they met all four of the following criteria:

  1. the custodial parent had to be a current recipient of public assistance and all the arrears owed had to have been assigned to the social services district;
  2. the noncustodial parent had to currently be  under supervision by the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), Division of Parole (DOP) or the Division of Probation and Correctional Alternatives (DPCA), or in receipt of Public Assistance (PA);
  3. the noncustodial parent ‘s income had to be below the federal poverty level; his child support payment obligation had to be over $25 per month and the total debt arrears on the account had to be over $500;
  4. there must have been no indication of family violence or good cause exemption in the noncustodial parent ’s case record.

After OTDA identified the eligible noncustodial parents, the state agency sent application packets to the chosen participants.  Applications had to be completed and returned to the New York State Child Support Processing Center within 45 days of the postmark date.  Upon receipt of the application, OTDA forwarded the packet to the local social services district support collection unit (SCU) for review.  The local SCU was required to review all submissions for completeness and accept or deny the application within 45 days.  If the application was accepted, eligible applicants were mailed an Agreement to Modify an Order of Support for the noncustodial parent ’s signature, and were advised that they had 15 days to return this document. Upon receipt, the local SCU was required to file a Petition for an Order Upon Agreement to Modify an Order of Support, with the Family Court, which could then either approve or dismiss the petition. 6

Why Did Only 67 out Of 1,174 Eligible Candidates Successfully Make it Though the Pilot Process?

The report states that 1,174 eligible candidates were selected to take part in the pilot but that only 67 candidates successfully made it through the process and were approved by Family Court for modification of their child support order.  According to the pilot’s report summary, the greatest attrition occurred after the initial mailing of the application packet, when only 290 (25%) of the candidates responded.  Local districts approved only 152 of those 290 candidates.

The report identifies valuable lessons relating to the structure of the pilot and changes that should be made if DCSE repeats or expands this initiative.  One critical finding from this pilot is that participants who were in state custody with DOCS had a much higher rate of success in modifying their child support orders.  Of the 1,174 eligible candidates in the pilot, 183 were DOCS-supervised.  Nineteen percent (34) of those DOCS candidates successfully completed the pilot, nearly quadruple the success rate of participants under DOP (5%), DPCA (5%) or participants receiving PA (3%).  According to the report, a large contributor to the success of the DOCS participants was that DOCS was very supportive of the pilot and encouraged its staff to assist inmates in completing and submitting their applications.  Proper case management and assistance for applicants proved to be the key to success for this initiative.  The report also notes that most applications sent to DSS were missing information or documentation, but that those submitted from DOCS were “more likely to be complete and therefore less likely to be rejected.”

This raises the question as to why state employees did not take a more active role at this juncture in the process, as they only forwarded complete applications to the local social services districts for processing.  Upon receipt of the applications, the state forwarded them all to the local support collection units.  The state made no effort to identify incomplete applications or follow up with noncustodial parents when the applications were incomplete.  Such oversight would have assured uniformity in processing standards and increased the number of applications that were accepted for further processing.

The report identifies a number of areas where communication could have been improved, suggesting that the use of regular mail for application packets and notices was one reason for poor return rates.  The report recommends that future pilots use certified mail or delivery confirmation, as well as telephone contact with candidates who did not respond, or applicants who were missing important information on their application.

Moreover, a closer look at returned mail would have provided more information about those candidates who did not respond.  “Undeliverable” mail was returned to the local social services district, which then forwarded the envelopes to the local district’s child support enforcement unit. A better process would have been to have the returned envelopes sent to the state for analysis. The pilot failed to make even a basic count of the number of returns attributable to incorrect addresses, which would have given a clearer picture of why some of the individuals did not respond.

There was little support available for the non-custodial parents who were sent the forms to complete.  A checkbox at the bottom of the second page of the application form says, “check this box if you required (sic) assistance in preparing these forms.”  The use of the past tense in this sentence is confusing and purpose of this check box is unclear.  Did OTDA want to know who used help in filling out the form?  Or, if the box was checked, was someone supposed to follow up with the applicant?  The form did not provide a contact number for assistance. The second page of the cover letter did provide the Child Support Helpline number -  an all-purpose number for all child support inquiries.  There is no indication, however, that there were dedicated staff with special training taking the calls. There also was apparently no attempt to track the number of calls made to the Helpline by participants in this pilot.

This lack of assistance is critical since the report states that the “vast majority” of those who responded were missing required documents.  There was no way for a participant to assess the completeness of what was submitted or to indicate a lack of understanding of what was required.  Local social services districts were also not required to contact candidates if information was missing. Instead of attempting to obtain missing information, local districts strictly adhered to the application requirements for completeness, resulting in the rejection of many submissions. Family Court had a similar issue with handling the modification of child support orders. Some magistrates required additional documentation for proof of income before modifying the order, while other magistrates did not require additional documentation.  This suggests that involving the support magistrates in the development of such a project might lead to results that are more consistent.

Looking Forward

Local districts did express an interest in expanding the eligibility criteria to additional types of child support cases.  Suggestions included adding cases with current monthly obligations less than $25 a month and arrears over $500, as well as cases without a current monthly obligation with arrears over $500.  The increase of total potential candidates, if coupled with a case management model, would likely result in higher participation rates.

Future initiatives should include:

  1. a dedicated Helpline number with trained staff, managed at the state level to assist individuals who have questions about the form or the process;
  2. a case management component with at least one person in each local district who can provide in-person assistance in completing the application;
  3. a state level review for completeness of the application after it is submitted to the state for processing, but before it is forwarded to the local social services district for referral to the Family Court;
  4. follow-up contact with applicants when information is incomplete or missing;
  5. follow-up on undeliverable envelopes, particularly to those that indicate the existence of a new address. The current pilot did not analyze what portion of the 75% of noncustodial parents who did not respond was due to an incorrect address;
  6. outreach and training to Family Court support magistrates while any future pilot is under development.

Overall, the report reveals that better case management and more direct assistance for applicants may have significantly improved the number of successful participants.  The goals of the project are laudable - trying it again with uniform standards of review, more state oversight and enhanced   support for applicants will enhance outcomes.

Footnotes

 1   Dustin Delp is a second year law student at Albany Law School and a legal intern at the Empire Justice Center Albany office.
 2   42 USC 608(a)(3); Social Services Law (SSL) §§158(5); 349-b(1)(a).
 3   Office of the Inspector General, US Department of Health and Human Services, State Policies Used to Establish Child Support Orders for Low-Income Noncustodial Parents, OEI-05-99-00392 (2000).  Available at http://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-05-99-00392.pdf.
 4   The report is available on the Empire Justice website at www.empirejustice.org/issue-areas/child-support/income-executions-indigent-respondents/noncustodial-parent.html.
 5   This Administrative Directive is available at: http://otda.ny.gov/policy/directives/2008/ADM/08-ADM-12.pdf.
 6   Copies of the forms referenced in this article are available as attachment to 08 ADM-12 in the link in footnote 5.

 





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