Child Support 101 is a compilation of online documents that explain the child support process and services. It is broken in to four areas: child support basics, administration, enforcement and family centered services.1 Each of those areas is broken into a variety of online documents that detail the process and state involvement in those processes. You may view the full contents of this project by visiting the comprehensive table of contents.
Child support is an important source of income for the millions of children living in single-parent households, especially those who are also living in poverty. Nationwide, the child support program serves one quarter of all US children and half of all US children in poor families—totaling 17.5 million children.
Child support payments represent on average, 40 percent of income for poor custodial families who receive it, and lifted one million people above poverty in 2008.
States play an important role in collecting child support. All states and territories operate a child support enforcement program, usually in the human services or resources department, department of revenue, or the attorneys general office. These entities frequently work with the help of prosecuting attorneys, other law enforcement agencies, and the juvenile or family and domestic relations courts. Native American tribes can also operate child support programs with federal funding.
While the administration and structure of child support programs vary across states, at a minimum, services offered in all child support programs include:
- Locating noncustodial parents.
- Establishing paternity.
- Establishing and modifying support orders (including medical support).
- Collecting support payments.
- Enforcing child support orders.
- Referring noncustodial parents to employment services.
States and the federal government share the costs of these programs; however, the federal government provides the majority of child support enforcement funding. States receive a federal match on their expenditures and can also receive additional federal incentive payments for meeting performance targets related to paternity establishment, number of cases with orders, collection of orders and arrears, and cost effectiveness. States have used various methods to enforce collection of child support and ensure reliable and consistent payments. Policies such as automatic income withholding and requiring employers to report all new hires to child support agencies have been successful. States also have other more debt-driven enforcement tools, including suspending drivers and professional licenses and booting cars, which focus more on single lump-sum payments.
However, state child support programs have found that using a family-centered services model can increase the reliability of child support payments, especially for low-income families (for more information, view the links below). The model engages all parties and shifts from strictly debt-driven enforcement remedies to identifying and addressing the unique needs of each family. Programs focus on providing responsive child support services, emphasizing employment for noncustodial parents, encouraging cooperation between parents and strengthening parents’ emotional connection with their children. This type of engagement with parents helps identify underlying reasons why some parents do not pay. State policymakers can support this type of service model by implementing policies that ensure child support orders are based on current earnings, reduce child support debt, and allow early intervention to modify orders when noncustodial parents cannot make payments.
Legislators and other policymakers are re-examining and often broadening the goals of child support enforcement programs. States and communities are experimenting with a variety of programs to assist low-income parents in meeting their child support obligations. States are developing policies to:
- The family-centered services component is in development.
For more information or to request technical assistance on state or federal child support policies and programs, please send a message to Children & Families staff. As a membership organization serving state legislators and legislative staff, we do not respond to inquiries or provide legal advice related to individual child support or family law cases.
For more information regarding NCSL's child support work, please visit our Child Support Homepage.