University of Wisconsin–Madison

Child Support Policy Research Agreement, November 1, 2022–December 31, 2024

This research agreement between IRP and the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (Judith Bartfeld, Principal Investigator) supports data collection and research related to the child support system. The projects and brief summary descriptions appear below. Related publications and reports will be posted upon completion.

1. Court record data collection

Collections from the court record allow us to address a range of child support policy issues. The collected data will include information on legal custody and physical placement, visitation, and details concerning the specific provisions of each order (for example, childcare and child physical placement provisions). Other information collected will include records of deviations from the use of the guidelines, and information on returns to court for purposes related to child placement, child support order revision, or enforcement of child support. During this agreement, we will collect cohorts 40 and 41 of paternity and divorce cases (cases coming to court in 2020 and 2021). For each of the two cohorts, we expect to collect the court history of approximately 1750 cases from court record files in 21 counties, comprising 620 adjudicated paternities, 360 voluntary paternity acknowledgment cases, and 770 divorce cases. We will also complete the processing of data collected in the 2020 –2022 agreement and update data documentation for users.

2. Child support and child welfare system interactions

In previous work, we have analyzed interactions between the child support and child welfare systems, including opportunities and challenges associated with better coordination, and the impact of differences in child support referral practices on child welfare outcomes. A 2013 report (Cancian, Cook, Seki, and Wimer, 2017) provides unique evidence on the impact of child support orders on length of stay in foster care. The findings suggest that cost recovery efforts may be counterproductive, as orders are estimated to increase time in foster care—increasing the financial costs of care, as well as the time children are separated from their parents. Several states, including California and Washington, are considering legislation to substantially limit child support referrals associated with foster care placements. Related policy proposals at the state and national level frequently reference the 2013 report and associated paper. We will update the 2013 analysis of the impact of child support orders on length of foster care placement, incorporating more recent data and using the longer time series with new techniques to improve the estimates.

3. Patterns and correlates of placement arrangements in recent divorce and paternity cases

In recent decades, shared placement has grown dramatically among divorce cases in Wisconsin and, more recently, has also been increasing among voluntary paternity establishments. Research with national data suggests Wisconsin is at the forefront of shared placement growth nationwide, and Wisconsin’s ability to track these changes and their implications via the Wisconsin Court Record Data is unmatched. Our most recent analysis of placement outcomes extended through 2010 for divorce cases and 2013 for nonmarital cases; substantially more current data are now available. This task will provide an updated look at placement outcomes through 2018 using newly available cohorts collected in the 2020 –22 Child Support Policy Research Agreement (CSPRA) (extending our divorce analysis by eight years and our nonmarital analysis by five years).

4. Default orders, income imputation, and implications for child support outcomes

Prior research has identified that child support orders established by default and orders that use imputed income rather than actual earnings are associated with lower rates of child support compliance. However, more information is needed to understand potential inequities in whether some noncustodial parents are more likely to experience orders set by default or income imputation than others. Drawing on data from newly available cohorts of the Wisconsin Court Record Data, we will examine child support outcomes (payments, order amounts, and compliance) based on whether or not order amounts were set or modified by default or using imputed income. We will also explore: (1) prevalence of default orders and income imputation by noncustodial parent characteristics (e.g., race, income, and geographic area of child support case), and (2) whether there is an association between orders set by default or income imputation (i.e., proxies for lack of engagement) and child support outcomes, arrearage accumulation, and employment for noncustodial parents of different backgrounds. Findings will provide insights into the relationship between these practices and child support outcomes, as well as potential inequities in the application of these practices, which have potential implications for how families experience the child support program.

5. Driver’s license suspension and civil contempt as enforcement tools

When noncustodial parents do not pay their ordered support, child support agencies have discretion to pursue several administrative and judicial actions to compel compliance. To better understand county practices related to these enforcement mechanisms, their consequences for child support outcomes, and whether some parents are more likely to experience negative consequences due to these enforcement actions than others, we will conduct a two-part, mixed-methods study. The project will include a particular focus on potential inequities in application and outcomes by race, income, and geographic region (i.e., urban vs. rural residing parents).

The first study component will consist of quantitative analyses utilizing the Wisconsin Administrative Data Core (WADC). Across all Wisconsin counties we will describe rates of license suspension, court hearings, and contempt findings; trajectories of use of these enforcement tools over time; and characteristics of NCPs (e.g., race, income, and geographic area of child support case) most likely to experience them. We will also examine the effects of these actions on child support compliance, arrears accumulation, and noncustodial parent earnings. In the second phase, we will examine current agency practices and policy directives related to license suspension; beliefs and attitudes about license suspension as an enforcement tool; and factors affecting its use within the county. Together, these analyses will shed insight into state-wide patterns and trends regarding use of license suspension, motivations for use of license suspension, impacts of license suspension on child support outcomes, and identify potential inequities in how noncustodial parents experience the impacts of license suspension.

6. Reducing the interest rate charged on arrears

The Department of Children and Families conducted a pilot program reducing interest accruing on arrears. This change was legislated in 2013 and effective April 1st, 2014. Wisconsin implemented a pilot program reducing interest charged on arrears from 1 percent per month (12 percent per year) to 0.5 percent per month (6 percent per year). In the 2014–2016 Child Support Policy Research Agreement (Task 4), IRP researchers examined the growth in arrears over a one-year period after the policy change and compared it to the growth in arrears one year before the policy change. The investigators also compared the mean amounts of payments on arrears the year before and after the policy change. They found some evidence that the growth in arrears interest slowed down and payments on arrears increased following the policy change. At the time of the initial report, however, data were only available for one year following the policy change. With newly available data, we will extend (including additional waves of data) the initial investigation on the impact of reducing the interest charged on arrears to examine if the effects of the policy change persist.

7. Systematic review of racial and ethnic disproportionality in child support

Low-income noncustodial parents, particularly those who are racial or ethnic minorities, are overrepresented among those who are behind on child support payments which, in turn, increases the risk of encountering punitive enforcement actions after failure to pay child support. Although previous research has provided suggestive evidence of racial disproportionality in the child support system, few published accounts have explicitly focused on this topic. This research would offer a systematic literature review of racial disproportionality in child support systems and related topics. The paper will document any differentials by race and ethnicity in the process (e.g., setting and modifying orders, enforcement tools, court proceedings, etc.) and in consequences (e.g., drivers’ license suspension, incarceration, etc.) in the child support system. It will include literature in which racial disproportionalities are addressed, even when they are not the primary research focus.

8. Understanding the neighborhood contexts of custodial and noncustodial parents in the child support system

A robust literature has emphasized the importance of neighborhood contexts for a range of family well-being outcomes, including children’s social mobility (e.g., Chetty, Hendren, and Katz, 2016), family health (e.g., Arcaya et al., 2016), and economic well-being and advancement (e.g., Ludwig et al., 2013). Critically, neighborhood contexts can either compound or mitigate the impact of individual and household factors as determinants of current and future well-being. We know relatively little about the neighborhoods in which Wisconsin custodial and noncustodial parents and children live, but we expect that these contexts may matter both for capacity to support children and for a range of parent and child outcomes. Furthermore, location may matter for ability to engage with the child support system.

The central goal of this project is to expand our understanding of neighborhood contexts of parents and children involved in the child support system. To do this, we will generate a novel dataset that links individual-level data in KIDS (via geocoding of addresses) to tract-level neighborhood characteristics from publicly available sources including the American Community Survey (ACS) and the National Neighborhood Data Archive (NaNDA, housed at the University of Michigan). Together these sources provide a wealth of information about the demographic, economic, and built environments, allowing us to characterize neighborhoods in terms of dimensions such as poverty, employment, housing costs, residential crowding, grocery stores, neighborhood services, etc. Using these data, we will describe neighborhood characteristics of custodial and noncustodial parents, and explore how neighborhood characteristics are associated with different child support outcomes.

9. Noncustodial parents’ child support and custodial parents’ income packages: Comparing the Great Recession and COVID-19 recession eras

Research on the Great Recession (2007–2009) demonstrates that child support payments to low-income custodial mothers declined due to wage and job losses among low-income noncustodial parents with these losses substantially offset by mothers’ take-up of safety net programs. Similarly, COVID-19’s recessionary effects substantially induced under and unemployment, especially among low-wage workers. Yet, pandemic expansions to a number of safety net and social insurance programs may have better facilitated noncustodial parents’ child support payments during COVID-19 compared to the Great Recession, and custodial parents’ income may have also been bolstered by these provisions. In a recent CSPRA project, Pilarz & Cuesta examines the short-term effects of the pandemic (through end of 2020) on noncustodial parents’ child support outcomes and on custodial mothers’ income packages, including child support, earnings, and safety net programs (e.g., TANF, SNAP). This project will build on these analyses in two main ways by: 1) examining the longer-term effects (through 2022) of the pandemic on noncustodial parents’ child support outcomes and custodial parents’ income packaging strategies; 2) comparing noncustodial parents’ child support outcomes and custodial parents’ income packages during the pandemic (2020–2022) and Great Recession (2007–2009) periods. Our findings will demonstrate the changing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of declining unemployment rates, the expiration of unemployment insurance expansions, economic stimulus payments, and the expanded Child Tax Credit.

10. An overview of findings from the WiscParents survey

As the focus of child support programs expands from payments and cost recovery to broader family support, understanding the interrelated ways divorced parents navigate parenting over the longer term, and the ongoing challenges including but not limited to child support-related issues, can offer valuable insights. The recently fielded WiscParents survey provides important insight into the context and circumstances surrounding parents’ child support behaviors. This task will involve an analysis of a wide range of information covered by the survey designed to provide an informative overview of what we learned regarding the financial, logistical, and relational circumstances of divorced parents. The report will provide a unique look into the lived experiences of divorced parents, an important subgroup of families. The report will also elevate the voices of parents who participated in the survey.

11. Incarceration, child support, and family relationships

In this project, we will examine the relationship between noncustodial fathers’ incarceration (differentiating between those with a long spell, a short spell, and never incarcerated) and later father involvement. We will use data from the evaluation of the Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration (CSPED), drawing from baseline measures of incarceration history, and measures of father involvement that are both relational and financial. We will then investigate the association of paternal incarceration with financial and relationship outcomes by race to assess differences between African American noncustodial parents and their White counterparts. Incarceration is more likely for African Americans, so if the impact is also greater, this would result in particularly large disparities in compliance and family functioning and could have program and policy implications relevant to imprisonment and reentry of fathers.

12. Documenting the extent and reasons for incarceration among noncustodial parents

Incarceration can have significant impacts on noncustodial parents’ ability to pay child support. Past IRP research (e.g., CSPRA 20–22 Task 2) has found that noncustodial parents who are not in compliance with child support have substantially higher rates of incarceration than those in full compliance. Furthermore, incarceration has downstream impacts on employment and child support payments. Based on patterns of incarceration in the state, the negative repercussions of incarceration are likely of particular concern for minority populations. Wisconsin’s guidance for handling child support in the event of incarceration was updated in 2017, such that child support agencies must now proactively contact noncustodial and custodial parents about their right to request a review if they learn a noncustodial parent will be incarcerated for over 180 days. Nonetheless, there are no provisions to automatically update orders and, in practice, judges retain considerable discretion even when parents request a review. As such, incarceration remains an important concern both for its potential impact on payments and for its potential impact on incarcerated parents themselves.

The purpose of this analysis is to assess the extent of incarceration and, when possible, the reasons for incarceration among recent cohorts of noncustodial parents. We are particularly interested in how this varies across geography (by county) and by race. The intent is to better understand the degree to which incarceration impacts noncustodial parents, recognizing that incarceration interacts with the child support system in ways that have potentially serious implications for all parties. This will provide substantial insight into the nature of criminal justice system interactions for noncustodial parents in the child support system and variability by race and geography.

13. Collaborating to provide a gateway to services and supports for noncustodial fathers

The Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative (MFI; an interdepartmental collaborative with The Mayor’s Office and Housing Authority of Milwaukee) offers programs which primarily support low-income, African American fathers who do not have full custody of their children. These programs include Child Support 101, designed to assist volunteer and court-mandated fathers without full custody through coaching, personal responsibility education, and employment consultation; and Fatherhood Summits, city-wide gatherings of fathers which offer father-focused legal, health, and education services to promote self-sufficiency. MFI recently moved into a new building, and Milwaukee County Child Support Services will soon be moving into the same building. In this task, we will explore how the two newly co-located agencies partner to facilitate child support payments, employment, and paternal engagement to build stronger families and increase child well-being. Through interviews with MFI staff, Milwaukee County Child Support staff, and noncustodial fathers who receive services from MFI and/or Milwaukee County Child Support Services, we will examine how MFI and Milwaukee County Child Support Services collaborate to increase noncustodial fathers’ access to services and support and boost fathers’ understanding of child support policies, relationship to the local child support agency, and payments. Learning about the strengths and limitations of collaboration between MFI and Milwaukee County Child Support Services can inform enhanced collaboration in Milwaukee County and illuminate opportunities for other counties to better assess and address individual needs and coordinate resources through increased inter-agency partnerships.

14. Researching new approaches to child support services

The evaluation of the Supporting Parents Supporting Kids (SPSK) program, a new approach to child support for noncustodial parents behind in their payments and having employment difficulties, showed promising results in several domains. The Five County Demonstration Project (FCDP) introduced a new version of SPSK, “ELEVATE,” making services available to additional noncustodial parents in Brown and Kenosha counties as well as three additional counties (Marathon, Racine, and Wood). In this task, we seek to continue to explore the circumstances of the parents served by ELEVATE. In this agreement (2022–24), we will continue to field ongoing surveys follow-up surveys with noncustodial parents who enroll in the ELEVATE program and conduct detailed analyses of the survey responses. In addition, we will conduct focus groups and interviews with custodial and noncustodial parents regarding their experiences with alternative approaches to child support services.

15. Peer parenting groups for noncustodial fathers

Fathers play unique roles in the lives of children and the importance of fathers’ engagement and financial support for child well-being and development, especially in low-income families, is well-documented. However, many noncustodial fathers experience barriers to financially supporting and spending time with their children, including confusion about their fatherhood role, difficulty navigating the legal system, and conflict with the child’s other parent. As a result, noncustodial fathers are less likely to be engaged in their children’s lives than resident fathers or fathers with shared custody. Further, fathers who are more involved with their children are more likely to be financially responsible for their children.

This project involves a collaboration between IRP and UW –Madison Division of Extension to adapt their recently-developed peer support program for fathers, called Focus on Fathers, to meet the specific needs of noncustodial families. The existing Focus on Fathers program provides 1) education around parenting and child development and 2) a shared space for fathers to learn from and support each other. The program was motivated by the findings of a recent statewide fatherhood needs assessment, which found that fathers without primary custody seek support and education on topics such as successful co-parenting and navigating the child support system, as well as the desire to learn from other fathers who owe child support and live apart from their children. The program in its original form has been well-received by fathers but is not specifically tailored to noncustodial fathers and their unique needs and concerns.

For this project, we will 1) adapt this program to meet the specific needs of noncustodial fathers, by including education on child support, custody, and co-parenting, and 2) evaluate the adapted program. We will examine the program’s impacts related to knowledge about navigating the child support program; attitudes towards the child support program; and awareness of supports and resources related to access and visitation. Additionally, we will explore the effectiveness of programmatic strategies for reaching and engaging noncustodial fathers and father preferences related to the format and structure of peer-based programming. Results from the evaluation will provide insights into fathers’ needs and strategies for engaging fathers in supports to meet those needs; the potential for the program to improve father understanding of the child support system and access and visitation resources available to them.