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.
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.
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.