Child Support and Domestic Violence

11/28/2017

“The general assembly further finds and declares that domestic abuse is not limited to physical threats of violence and harm but also includes mental and emotional abuse, financial control, document control, property control, and other types of control that make a victim more likely to return to an abuser due to fear of retaliation or inability to meet basic needs.”

Colorado General Assembly, Legislative Declaration, Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-14-100.2

Introduction

Both federal and state legislation varies in how domestic violence or domestic abuse are defined. Domestic or family violence, intimate partner violence and spouse abuse are all terms commonly, and often interchangeably used, to describe a range of behaviors including physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse that at least one-in-four women and one-in-seven men will experience in their lifetime.

NCSL’s Domestic Violence/Domestic Abuse Definitions and Relationships page includes the statutory definitions as well as the defined relationships where that conduct may be considered domestic violence or abuse.

These behaviors make a victim more likely to stay with or return to an abuser due to fear of retaliation or inability to meet basic needs and often limit victims’ access to the public and private resources necessary to leave their abuser. When a domestic violence victim does leave the abuser, the impacts of all forms of abuse need to be addressed, including the financial and, sometimes, medical support, necessary to care for their children and themselves. Financial instability is one of the primary reasons victims may stay with or return to their abuser.

For victims with children, child support payments can be a critical source of financial stability. Child support is one of the only human services programs that involves both custodial and noncustodial parents and has a unique role in reducing the risk of violence and helping survivors achieve economic independence.  The intersection between domestic violence and child support is an important, yet often overlooked, issue. More than 90 percent of women who have experienced domestic violence would pursue child support if they could do so safely. Yet research documents that establishing, collecting, and enforcing child support orders can all be triggers for increased domestic violence.

A study from The Child and Family Research Partnership, at the University of Texas found that 37 percent of surveyed custodial parents with formal child support orders, reported experiencing domestic violence from their child’s other parent at least once by the time their child was 3 years old. In addition, 43 percent of mothers who did not have a formal child support order, and who were not receiving any formal or informal child support, reported experiencing domestic violence by the child’s father. The high rates of domestic violence among mothers who are not receiving child support, highlights the likelihood they are forgoing this needed support due to fears of increased violence associated with pursuing child support. 

A handful of state child support agencies and domestic violence coalitions have successfully initiated collaborations focused on both increasing victim safety while accessing the child support program and improving child support program effectiveness at establishing and enforcing orders for victims. These nascent partnerships have identified many policy options to support victims of domestic violence, from amending cooperation requirements and simplifying good cause exemptions, as explained below, to creating formalized screening protocols and safety informed legal practice. 

Cooperation Requirements for Public Assistance Applicants

Federal law requires that all applicants for TANF and Medicaid, under most circumstances, cooperate with child support enforcement programs to establish and enforce child support orders. In addition, states have the option of placing cooperation requirements on other public assistance programs, such as child care assistance and food stamps.

These cooperation requirements can unintentionally pose a number of safety concerns for victims of domestic violence. In conversations across the country, bipartisan acknowledgement exists that these cooperation requirements must be paired with protection for families, including good cause exemptions and other safety measures within the public assistance and child support programs. While safety measures were built into the federal laws requiring cooperation with TANF and Medicaid, that is not always the case with state legislation expanding the cooperation requirements to food stamps or child care assistance.

map of state child care and SNAP cooperation requirements

Research from the late 1990’s shows that nearly half of women receiving cash assistance have experienced domestic violence at some point in their lives. Add to that the fact that just over half of families in the child support caseload are currently receiving or have previously received cash assistance, and the number of domestic violence victims affected by these policies become significant. The ability to identify domestic violence as a risk in any case and the response of both the public assistance agency and the child support agency is critical to the safety of victims.

Requiring cooperation, or automatically opening a child support case, when domestic violence is present has dangerous implications for the victim and his/her children. Because of these concerns, federal welfare law requires states to implement safety measures, including good cause exemptions from cooperation requirements and family violence indicators on child support case files. The detailed development of family violence safety measures was left to states, and as such, there is wide variation in the comprehensiveness of these measures, coordination between public agencies and domestic violence experts, monitoring of policy implementation, and any periodic review of state efforts to provide public assistance or child support services to victims of domestic violence.

Good Cause Exemption

One of the protections available to domestic violence victims is a good cause exemption from the cooperation requirement under TANF, Medicaid and in some states, Child Care Assistance and SNAP. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the child support cooperation requirement, also allows states to provide a family violence option.

The family violence option, or domestic violence waiver, exempts TANF applicants from the child support cooperation requirements, as well as other requirements of receiving public assistance. The standard for use of the family violence option is “where compliance with such requirements would make it more difficult for individuals receiving assistance under this part to escape domestic violence or unfairly penalize such individuals who are or have been victimized by such violence, or individuals who are at risk of further domestic violence.”

Use of domestic violence waivers is rare. Data from 2015 shows that 33 states reported less than 1 percent of their TANF caseload with a domestic violence waiver. Only a handful of states reported more than 2 percent of recipients being granted a domestic violence waiver.

Victim Protections within Child Support

Child support programs have many policy and procedural safeguards available to increase the safety of domestic victims in their caseload, though how widespread the use of these safeguards is not well known. Examples from the limited number of states with notable child support and domestic violence expert partnerships include changes to program applications highlighting safety options,  evidence-informed screening at case opening, streamlined processes for flagging cases with domestic violence in the child support data system, modified case management and processing procedures, training of child support and judicial staff, and selective enforcement actions based on the potential risk of violence. 

Family Violence Indicators

A family violence indicator (FVI) is the actual mechanism in child support data systems used to identify a party to a child support case who needs to have their personal information protected due to risks related to domestic violence. States were required, as part of PRWORA, to identify parties in the child support caseload for whom the state has reasonable evidence of domestic violence or child abuse and reason to believe that the disclosure of information about that person may result in physical or emotional harm to them. States are required to place the FVI on cases in their State (child support) Case Registry which, in turn, provides that information to the Federal Case Registry.

PRWORA greatly expanded the information available to state child support agencies through the Federal Parent Locator Service (FPLS) which includes both the Federal Case Registry and the National Directory of New Hires. The FPLS collects, stores, and has the ability to share information about parties with child support cases. The FPLS matches information daily with multiple agencies in order to locate parents for the purpose of establishing and enforcing child support orders. A family violence indicator on a child support case in the Federal Case Registry will trigger confidentiality safeguards within the FPLS, which will restrict the release of all information about the victim of domestic violence.

In addition to the safeguards provided by the FVI in the FPLS, states also use the FVI as the flag for   caseworkers and others in their child support program who may see it that there is a domestic violence concern and they should take whatever steps are prescribed in their state policies to ensure the safety of the victim and any children involved.

States vary their policies related to family violence indicators, including what evidence is needed to place one on a case, how long an indicator will be placed on a case and how the parties will be notified when the indicator is removed. In addition to the differences in FVI policies and procedures, the use of FVIs varies significantly across the country, from a low of 0.3 percent, to a high of 22.4 percent of custodial parents with a family violence indicator flag attached to their child support case. As the data, discussed above, shows, the prevalence of custodial parents in the child support caseload who have experienced domestic violence is much higher than these numbers reflect. Below is a graph of family violence indicators for custodial parents.

5 states 6 states 16 states 7 states and 2 territories 16 states and 2 territories Less than 1% of custodial parents 1-5% of custodial parents 5-10% of custodial parents 10-15% of custodial parents 15-22% of custodial parents

Child Support Program Safety Practices

Child support programs in the late-1990s partnered with domestic violence advocates to come up with an approach to working with domestic violence victims. The result was a three-option approach that was tested in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri and Oregon. The first option (or the “green light”) of the approach was to fully enforce the support order and deal with the risks, which could be particularly dangerous in some instances. The second option (“red light”) was to apply for a good cause exemption (discussed above) in TANF cases or forego child support services altogether in non-TANF cases. The final option (“yellow light”) was a safety informed approach to work with the individual to develop an enforcement plan that is tailored to their situation, including the common practices of address protection, advance warning of support enforcement remedies and the total avoidance of certain enforcement remedies that may put the custodial parent or the child at risk.

A critical element for states to be able to adopt a safety informed approach to child support is the role of child support caseworkers and their ability to assist victims of domestic violence within their caseload. Similar to a benchcard, some jurisdictions have created desk cards or guides as a tool to inform caseworkers about best and promising practices and considerations when working with domestic violence victims. One example of a desk tool comes from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services - Child Support Services which has developed an extensive Family Violence Desk Guide for its workers. The guide provides staff with tools for recognizing and responding to domestic violence and ensuring victims can safely access child support services. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement also created a desk card, Safely Pursuing Child Support: A Caseworker Desk Card, which details promising practices for safely pursuing child support, including:

“Universally explain all child support program requirements, the availability of waivers and other safeguards, and the full range of enforcement strategies.

Display posters and other literature in the office that reflect an awareness of domestic violence, encourage disclosures, and provide resources and referrals for victims.

Provide clear and accurate information about child support services and the status of a child support case when domestic violence is identified.  Walk through the typical “life of a case” and detail enforcement actions that can be taken when child support is not paid, including if, when and how they will be notified prior to enforcement actions.

Provide adequate time for a parent to make decisions about proceeding with child support service and leave decision-making regarding child support services up to the parent. Provide information about the services of local domestic violence agencies.

Identify enforcement options whenever possible. Enforcement does not need to be all or nothing.

Pay attention to victim safety during office visits, hearings, and other proceedings by minimizing contact between the parents and arranging for security or sheriffs to be available when requested, including to escort a survivor to and from her transportation.”

Another critical component for state child support agencies to be able to take a “yellow light” or safety informed approach to providing child support services to victims is ongoing collaboration with state and local domestic violence experts.

Collaborations Between Child Support Agencies and Domestic Violence Experts

Currently there are few formal collaborations between state child support agencies and state domestic violence coalitions, and typically coordination between these two entities develops informally rather than through statute or formal rule. One effort to foster these collaborations comes from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) which has created a toolkit, Enhancing Safe Access to Child Support: IV-D Program Inventory and Planning Resource, to help child support programs develop formal partnerships with local domestic violence programs.

Cooperation between state child support agencies and domestic violence coalitions in the few states where this collaboration does exist (including: Washington, Vermont, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas) has resulted in a range of policy and procedural changes to increase survivor safety in the child support program. One notable model of a child support and domestic violence collaboration that is making a concerted effort to provide safe access to the child support system is in Texas, where the state’s Get Child Support Safely is a collaboration between the Texas Office of the Attorney General’s Child Support Division and the Texas Council on Family Violence. It offers a secure website with information about applying for child support, TANF, Medicaid, child care services, and housing assistance, along with information about preparing for court and the court process and following or modifying a child support order. The collaboration has also resulted in extensive specialized training for child support case workers and attorneys, review and extensive revisions to child support policies and procedures, training of domestic violence advocates, and availability of domestic violence advocates in some child support courtrooms.

While many of the collaborations thus far have been done without legislative involvement, the opportunity to convene stakeholders from both the child support and domestic violence programs is always a policy option for state legislators.

Safe Court Access

The family violence indicators discussed above notify child support workers that certain precautions are necessary for that case, however, they do not exempt the protected parent from participation in the court process. Efforts to create safe court access for parents who are victims of domestic violence include modified child support hearing procedures, training for court and child support staff, extra security at the court house, and telephonic hearings and testimony.

One strategy that states have taken to train court personnel is the creation of benchbooks or manuals that describe what domestic violence is and what it may look like in the courtroom. Some benchbooks also provide best practices for judges and court personnel when dealing with cases that involve domestic violence. Other strategies include benchcards or checklists that are quick tools for judges to identify or address domestic violence in the courtroom. The Center for Court Innovation has created a Domestic Violence Benchbooks: A Guide to Court Intervention that describes various state benchbooks and the common themes between them.

The Texas Family Violence Benchbook details best practices when family violence is present in child support hearings. These best practices include allowing the victim to attend the hearing by telephone or video conference, allowing the victim to have advocates, family members or other support in the courtroom with them, prohibiting the parties from being left alone during any part of the hearing, ensuring that security personnel are present at all times, and providing an escort for the victim when leaving the courthouse. The benchbook also provides a look at the victim’s journey through the court process and details an example of a court timeline that can be prepared and provided to a victim.

In addition to state-specific benchbooks, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement created a benchcard detailing the specific considerations when a child support case involves domestic violence. The benchcard defines domestic violence, the connection between domestic violence and child support, and the various safety concerns and considerations when dealing with a child support case where domestic violence is involved.

Even more comprehensive than the development of benchbooks, some states have required domestic violence training for all judicial officers who hear child support cases.  One example of comprehensive judicial training comes from Texas, where the Office of Court Administration worked with the National Conference of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to deliver specialized domestic violence training for all associate judges in the state assigned to child support and child welfare dockets.

Domestic Violence Task Forces/Commissions/Councils

Another opportunity for collaboration between the child support and domestic violence programs is through state task forces/commissions/councils. The opportunity for cross-communication and learning can be invaluable to the effective protection of domestic violence victims within the child support caseload.

While every state and D.C. has a Domestic Violence Coalition, approximately 20 states have a legislatively created domestic violence task force, commission, work group or the like. Of those, only one, South Carolina’s, specifically incorporates a child support component or coordination with the state child support program.

In January 2015, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, through executive order 2015-04, established the Domestic Violence Task Force to “address the cultural issues surrounding domestic violence in the State of South Carolina, including social, economic, and geographic issues as well as professional standards and best practices within government and non-government organizations.” The task force consisted of 40 members from across the state, and was divided into three divisions, Criminal Justice, Victim and Offender Services and Community Awareness, Education and Outreach. Notably, the Victim and Offender Services Division was chaired by Katie Morgan, Director of Child Support Services within the Department of Social Services.

Below are the 20 legislatively created task forces/commissions/councils.

map of 20 legislatively created domestic violence task forces

Domestic Violence Fatality Reviews

In 2007, more than 2,000 people in the U.S. were killed by an intimate partner, accounting for 14 percent of all homicides that year.

In addition to domestic violence coalitions, task forces, councils and commissions, the majority of states also have a domestic violence fatality review team that reviews all cases where domestic violence was a factor in a fatality with an eye towards prevention. In the absence of a formal domestic violence fatality review team, some state Domestic Violence Coalitions will assume that role.

Of the 30 states and one territory with domestic violence fatality reviews in statute, no state includes a mandatory representative from the child support program in its domestic violence fatality review team’s statutory membership. Some states keep the membership of the review teams open ended, allowing for discretion in who is involved without the need for legislation. For example, Alaska’s statute includes “other organizations, departments, and agencies determined to be appropriate,” in the domestic violence fatality review team membership list.

map of 30 states with a domestic violence fatality review

Legislative Options/Considerations

  • What are the cooperation requirements in your state?
  • Who does the domestic violence screening in your state, TANF or child support? And what happens when domestic violence is found?
  • How many child support cases are flagged for domestic violence?
  • What are the safe court access mechanisms available to domestic violence victims in your state?
  • If you have expanded cooperation requirements to SNAP or Medicaid, do you have good cause exemption in statute?
  • Require courts to provide safe options to appear/testify?
  • Does your state have a domestic violence coalition? Is the child support program at the table?
  • Does your state have a domestic violence fatality review board, and if so, is child support included in the membership?

About This NCSL Project

NCSL staff in D.C. and Denver can provide comprehensive, thorough, and timely information on critical child support policy issues. We provide services to legislators and staff working to improve state policies affecting children and their families. NCSL's online clearinghouse for state legislators includes resources on child support policy, financing, laws, research and promising practices. Technical assistance visits to states are available to any state legislature that would like training or assistance related to this topic.

The Denver-based child support project staff focuses on state policy, tracking legislation and providing research and policy analysis, consultation, and technical assistance specifically geared to the legislative audience. Denver staff can be reached at (303) 364-7700 or cyf-info@ncsl.org.

NCSL staff in Washington, D.C. track and analyze federal legislation and policy and represent state legislatures on child support issues before Congress and the Administration. Staff in D.C. can be reached at (202) 624-5400 or cyf-info@ncsl.org.

The child support project and D.C. human services staff receive guidance and support from NCSL's Standing Committee on Health & Human Services.

Additional Resources