New York City collected $670.6 million in child support monies in 2008, increasing its total by more than 8 percent from the previous year’s tally of $620 million, according to the Human Resources Administration (HRA), which oversees collection efforts.
“The increased collections in New York City are nothing short of extraordinary, and are a major factor in the record-setting collections achieved in New York State in 2008,” said David Hansell, commissioner of the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, in a statement last month.
The single-year boost is second only to a $65 million increase logged between 1999 and 2000, when current HRA Commissioner Robert Doar helped to oversee the state’s office of child support enforcement as a deputy commissioner during the Pataki administration.
“With Commissioner Doar coming to HRA there has been a strong commitment to child support,” says Frances Pardus-Abbadessa, who heads the city’s Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE). Pardus-Abbadessa notes that the enforcement unit is in its 14th consecutive year of growth in child support collections since June 1994, when the city collected $209 million.
The office’s ability to log last year’s substantial increase in child support collection as the sole governmental agency tasked with both locating non-custodial parents and collecting on support payments issued by the city’s family courts, is particularly notable considering that the agency is understaffed – through June of this year it was budgeted for nearly 900 employees, but only 790 are currently on board.
The majority of custodial parents receiving child support are women who are present or past recipients of public assistance, while the majority of non-custodial parents who owe money are middle- or lower-income men. HRA was excited to announce that 94 percent of collected monies go straight to families, rather than back to the city to reimburse outlays made on behalf of deadbeat dads. The office handled support orders from 38,741 custodial parents in 2008. Pardus-Abbadessa notes that the largest share of its cases handled come from parents who were formerly on cash assistance. Her unit is especially proud of the fact that of the money collected in 2008, a little more than 32 percent, or $216 million, went toward custodial parents who had received cash assistance from the agency in the past.
Making work pay for dads too
In pursuing the orders for support owed to the government for custodial parents who may or may not be on public assistance, New York City is home to a wide range of carrot-and-stick measures aimed at working with those parents who make good-faith efforts to honor enforcement orders, and punishing those who do not.
Perhaps the most practical means of collecting child support from non-custodial parents comes in the form of an income execution – aimed at all non-custodial parents, not merely delinquent ones – whereby payments for current or overdue child support is secured from employers through automatic deductions, or through other government benefits which can include unemployment insurance.
The enforcement office also can offset tax refunds, seize bank accounts, intercept lottery winnings, and suspend or deny applications for driver’s licenses and passports for non-custodial parents who consistently fail to comply with petitions for support orders issued by the child support program.
Pardus-Abbadessa credits her staff’s training in using computer databases like Lexis-Nexis, as well as their work with other authorities like the city’s sheriff’s office and family courts, as being an essential part of OCSE’s recent success.
A relatively new economic tool – an earned income tax credit specifically for non-custodial parents – also holds promise for increasing payments. Columbia University social work professor Ronald Mincy, who has researched the best incentives to ensure that non-custodial parents consistently support their children, applauds the state’s legislators for being among the first in the nation to enact the credit two years ago, which applies to dads making less than $33,000 a year.
But Mincy calls this EITC an example of “good policy that is compromised by bad politics," because he thinks the value of the credit should be expanded to a larger pool of fathers. Currently, the highest value for the credit, at $1,095, applies to non-custodial parents making $9,000 a year, while a non-custodial parent who makes $33,000 qualifies for a credit of just $31.
“You can only make $9,000 a year in New York if two things happen,” he says. "You can work part-time, which makes it difficult for full compliance [with child support payments], or you're unemployed for part of the year” – which would make non-custodial parents ineligible for the credit.
Mincy also points to the added challenge in today’s economic climate for those lower-income fathers who may be cycling back into the workforce from public assistance or the correctional system.
“It is true that he has to pay for his child the same way a mother does,” he says. “But in the same way that we ask what makes work pay for single mothers, we need to ask the same question” for non-custodial parents – who are usually fathers.
Courts, costs and minimizing complications
For their part, the city’s child support program and its family courts have recognized that child support as an antipoverty measure hardly ends with simply locating and compelling lower-income absentee fathers to pay their share.
The city’s enforcement office recently announced the launch of a three-year pilot program, for non-custodial parents who have missed payments, which would adjust the amount of arrears owed to the government.
In addition to being eligible for an adjustment of arrears of up to $30,000, non-custodial parents may also qualify for an additional $5,000 adjustment if they complete a parental training class. “We believe that if we can adjust the arrears for non-custodial parents, it will lead to compliance going forward,” says Pardus-Abbadessa.
While OCSE may be tasked with following up on the process of collection, the city’s family courts are the forum for parents across the economic spectrum seeking to have the amount specified in a collection order reduced.
Pardus-Abbadessa notes that $1.3 million in revenue is collected each month from non-custodial parents through the city’s Support Through Employment Program (STEP), a program aimed at locating jobs for non-custodial parents, which was started in Manhattan family court in 2002.
“If someone comes into court and says they’re out of work and can’t afford to pay support anymore, and shows they’ve lost their job,” says Family Court Chief Magistrate Peter Passidomo, “the order is going to be lowered with few exceptions.”
Mincy credits family court with reducing default judgments of support for those non-custodial parents who missed a hearing due to work obligations.
“You really can’t afford to take risks with your job,” says Passidomo.
He notes that the court has been working to streamline the child support process by providing legal clerks who can explain the process to parents on both sides and tries to reduce the time for a support hearing to an average of 20 minutes.
HRA is implementing other new approaches in addition to the arrears pilot. The agency recently expanded the scope of its “Back to Work” program, which provides vocational training and employment search services to public assistance recipients, to include outreach to unemployed non-custodial parents.
And OSCE is reaching out to Rikers Island discharge planners, to provide a new level of help with preparing inmates who are returning to the community to handle their child support responsibilities.
A hidden challenge
Although the office of support enforcement can help to prepare all of the documents necessary for a custodial parent to bring an order to court, it is the parent's decision to actually go through with the order. For every single mother who follows through, there are others who don't (a number not traced by OCSE).
Currently in New York state, as a condition for applying for public assistance and for child care subsidies with the city’s Human Resources Administration, single mothers are often encouraged to file petitions for child support.
For Susan Lob, director of the Voices of Women Organizing Project, an organization for survivors of domestic violence that works to address government and court policy and procedure that may inadvertently endanger women, a key question is: “Should a mother who’s making an informed decision about not contacting her ex be forced to do that?”
OCSE maintains that it does not require any single mother applying for cash assistance or childcare subsidies to file a petition for support if there is any fear of retaliation or violence from the non-custodial father. “We’re sensitive to the issue of domestic violence and it is an issue that’s serious, that we should also be attentive to,” says Pardus-Abbadessa.
But from Lob’s perspective as someone who often deals with single mothers recovering from domestic abuse, pursuing support through the court system, as opposed to voluntary arrangements, is problematic “because it puts [an abuser] back in her life and it usually encourages [the abuser] to go for custody and visitation rights” as a means of possibly reducing the child support order.
Meanwhile, bills are making their way through the state legislature that would eliminate the requirement that custodial parents earning up to 200 percent of the poverty level would have to file for child support in order to receive childcare subsidies through HRA. The first version of the bill (S2091), sponsored by state Senator Velmanette Montgomery of Brooklyn, passed the senate last week. In the Assembly, sponsor William Scarborough of Queens expects a similar version (A3657) to pass when it is referred to the committee he chairs on Children and Families.
A number of advocates support this change, pointing to the hundreds of mothers who withdraw their applications for subsidized child care once confronted with the need to apply for child support first. "During this difficult economic time, it is more important than ever that barriers to child care be eliminated so that parents can work. Low-income workers should not have to spend days in court, instead of at work, seeking court-ordered child support," said associate executive director for policy Stephanie Gendell of the Citizens' Committee for Children.