University of Wisconsin–Madison

Child Support Policy Research Agreement, October 1, 2016–December 31, 2018

This research agreement between IRP and the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (Maria Cancian, Principal Investigator) supports data collection and research related to the child support system. The primary projects and 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 gather detailed information not currently recorded in the KIDS data system. The collected data will include information on legal custody and physical placement, visitation, and details concerning the specific provisions of each order (for example, child care and child physical placement provisions). Other information collected will include records for deviations from the use of the guidelines and information on returns to court for purposes relating to child placement, child support orders, revision or enforcement of child support, or referral for criminal proceedings for the nonpayment of child support, and parental income. We will also collect information about serial family child support obligations that parents have from prior orders in other cases.

In this period, we will collect one new cohort of paternity and divorce cases (Cohort 33), consisting of a random selection of cases petitioning for paternity establishment, the setting of child support or child placement in voluntary acknowledged paternity cases, and divorce, in the period of January 1, 2013 to December 31, 2013. We will collect the court history of approximately 698 adjudicated paternity cases, 451 voluntary paternity acknowledgment cases, and 851 divorce cases from court record case files in 21 counties. The number of cases is selected to provide consistent data for comparison with earlier cohorts, and to support some analysis of individual counties.

Product: Memo provided to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.

2. Court Record Data Supplemental Modernization Effort

During this contract period, the 2013 court case records at the 21 counties will still be primarily paper records. However, the State Court record system is changing from paper records to scanned records; each county has its own timeline as to when their divorce, adjudicated paternity, and voluntary acknowledge paternity cases will be available as scanned records. All new cases will eventually be available in this new format; this will generate many changes with how we collect and process this data. This task is designed to prepare us for this transition and assure that we can efficiently maintain a consistent time series of court record data. Specifically, we will work with the State Court to establish central access to these scanned documents. We will also explore the possibility of using administrative data in KIDS and CCAP to improve the proportion of cases selected and rejected and explore fields in KIDS and CCAP that might replace information formerly collected from documents, such as filing date. This task will include an analysis, using cases from cohort 30, comparing the calculation of monthly child support owed based on court record documents versus that available in KIDS. If the information in KIDS does not produce substantially different results, we could stop the manual collection of complex support orders from court record documents. Finally, if we are able to reduce the fields we collect manually and replace them with administrative data extracted from KIDS and CCAP, we will need to alter the electronic instrument and cleaning programs we use to manually collect and clean information from scanned court record.

Product: Memo provided to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.

3. Effect of the ACA on Medical Support Orders

The ACA has changed the array and cost of health insurance options with implications for medical support orders, especially for lower-income families. Assuring that children’s health needs are taken care of is an important concern of the child support enforcement system. For parents whose income exceeds 150 percent of the federal poverty threshold, orders for child support must also include an order for medical support. Medical support provisions may include orders to cover the child under either or both parents’ health insurance policy and/or paying medical costs directly. The ACA expansion of health insurance coverage may have important implications for the population of parents subject to the establishment and enforcement of medical support orders. The implementation of ACA in Wisconsin included changes in eligibility for the state’s Medicaid program, BadgerCare, for parents with incomes that make them subject to medical support orders, but also made private health insurance available to some parents for whom private insurance was not available or affordable. Whether this newly available private health insurance coverage available through ACA marketplaces could be subject to a medical support order may depend on the cost of including a child under that coverage (considering the subsidies that may be available to low-income enrollees, and the cost of deductibles or co-payments), or the extent of services covered. This report will review the policies governing health insurance coverage in Wisconsin under the ACA, the populations with expansions of coverage, and the implications for establishing and enforcing medical support orders.

Product: Memo on a related topic provided to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.

4. Use of Enforcement Tools and Their Relationship to Payments.

Policymakers have provided a variety of tools designed to increase the level of compliance with child support orders. The current enforcement structure, with its emphasis on locating nonresident parents, establishing orders, and then compelling compliance, originated in 1974. Additional tools designed to improve enforcement efforts have been provided in the intervening time period and include, for example, income withholding, intercepting state income tax refunds, immediate wage withholding, and revocation of drivers’ licenses and professional licenses for parents delinquent in paying support. The potential also exists, using currently available tools, for delinquent parents to be incarcerated for failure to pay child support as a result of contempt and criminal nonsupport. This task will include two reports. The first will focus on county policy and practice, drawing from interviews with child support and court agency staff.  The second will analyze Wisconsin’s use of available administrative enforcement tools and contempt, including their relationship to payments and other established performance measures, drawing on available administrative data. In order to place Wisconsin’s recent experience in context, we will seek permission to use administrative data available from the other states participating in the CSPED evaluation to compare enforcement strategies across states.

Report: Lisa Klein Vogel. Child Support Enforcement Tools and Their Relationship to Payments: A Review of County Policy and Practice. Report to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, September 2019.

Report: Daniel R. Meyer, Maria Cancian, and Melody Waring. Use of Enforcement Actions and Their Relationship to Payments. Report to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, November 2019.

Related Publications:

Vogel, L. K. (2021). The Right Tool for the Job: Child Support Enforcement Tools and Their Relationship to Payments. Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance, 1–22.  Abstract

Meyer, D.R., Cancian, M., & Waring, M.K. (2020). Use of child support enforcement actions and their relationship to payments. Children and Youth Services Review, 108(104672).

5. Interactions of the Child Support and Child Welfare Systems

Previous analyses conducted by IRP documented the relationship between the child support and child welfare systems, and the role of child support in offsetting the costs of out of home care for children in foster care, and the associate benefits and costs. Considering the implications, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) is developing new policy on appropriate referrals of families in the child welfare system to child support. A Workgroup was recently established as part of this effort. The new policy, when adopted, is expected to require new information and processes within the child welfare system, changes in the timing and content of information provided in court hearings, as well as IT systems changes. Some changes (e.g. to IT systems) are expected to be implemented state-wide; others may vary by county. This project will serve to support Workgroup activities, document state and county policy development and implementation efforts through the winter of 2017, and collect information necessary to support a future non-experimental impact evaluation of the policy change.

Related Publication: Howard, L., Vogel, L. K., Cancian, M., & Noyes, J. L. (2019). Building Connections: Using Integrated Administrative Data to Identify Issues and Solutions Spanning the Child Welfare and Child Support Systems. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 5(2), 70-85.

6. Changes in Complex Families across Cohorts

Developing appropriate child support guidelines for serial family cases, and effectively enforcing the associate child support orders, is an important, and growing, challenge for child support enforcement agencies. Previous analysis of first births in 1997 showed that a majority of first-born children to unmarried mothers had half-siblings from one or both parents by the time the child was 10 years old. This means that the non-resident parent generally owed support to more than one resident parent and/or the resident parent was due support from more than one non-resident parent. Understanding changes over time in the proportion and characteristics of cases with these complex family arrangements is important for the development of appropriate child support policy. For this report we will update data from the child support administrative records for all children born in 1997, and add data for children born in 2002, and 2007. We will follow these children through the end of 2015 and document the extent to which the custodial parent, the noncustodial parent, or both, have child support orders with multiple partners. We will address implications for child support performance and policy.

Report: Maria Cancian, Daniel R. Meyer, and Steven T. Cook. Changes in the Incidence of Complex Families and the Implications for Child Support Orders. Report to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, December 2017.

7. WiscMoms Survey

Concerns have been raised that current child support guidelines reflect data and analysis of the contributions of parents in simple married couple families, and fail to reflect the complex and dynamic family relationships and resource transfers that may characterize nonmarital families. However, appropriate alternative data are not currently available. The lack of appropriate data reflects the difficulty of identifying and surveying the relevant population (e.g., families characterized by nonmarital births and multi-partnered fertility), collecting detailed information on complex resource transfers within and between households, and identifying how family compositions and resource transfers change over time. The WiscMoms Survey will interview low income unmarried mothers in complex families selected from Wisconsin child support records and interview them three times in a 12 month period. Using an innovative collaborative interviewing protocol and associated technology, the survey will collect detailed information on complex family and residential relationships, including measures of informal resource transfers between resident mothers and non-resident fathers and other family and non-family members. The effort will support a better understanding of how formal and informal child support and other resources are shared in complex families, and the feasibility of more extensive data collection.

Product: Memo provided to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.

8. Challenges and Opportunities in Expanding Employment and Other Related Services to Non-resident Parents

The child support system is designed to address the potential negative consequences for children living apart from both parents by ensuring that noncustodial parents contribute financially to their upbringing. Changes in the social safety net, which no longer includes an entitlement to cash assistance for low-income single parents, have only increased the importance of reliable child support. However, research has shown that many noncustodial parents, including a disproportionate share of those whose children are living in poverty, have limited earnings and ability to pay child support. Moreover, child support orders often constitute a high proportion of their limited income. While it has been suggested that children in single-parent households could benefit from a child support system that enables, as well as enforces, noncustodial parents’ contributions to their support, such efforts require the expansion of employment and related services beyond the child support system’s traditional boundaries. Such an expansion, in turn, requires the capacity to provide these services either internally or through partnerships with other providers within the county. This task will focus on developing a better understanding of the operational and cultural challenges associated with such a shift, as well as the capacity to provide employment and related services, in order to inform the design and implementation of related policies and practices. The task will include a survey and structured interviews with a range of county child support as well as other local service providers designed to develop information about current related activities as well as attitudes toward and the capacity for expanding employment and related services. Counties will be selected, in consultation with Bureau of Child Support staff, to include variation in current service range, local economic context, and caseload. This effort will support the development and implementation of policies and practices designed to support noncustodial parents’ ability to pay child support through employment, taking into account existing capacity to provide services beyond those traditionally offered by child support agencies.

Report: Lisa Klein Vogel. Challenges and Opportunities for Engaging Noncustodial Parents in Employment and Other Services. Report to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, September 2019.

Related Publication: Vogel, L. K. (2020). Help me help you: Identifying and addressing barriers to child support complianceChildren and Youth Services Review, 110, 104763.

9. The Relationship between Child Support and Educational Outcomes

Both income and family structure have been linked to educational outcomes for children. The link between family economic wellbeing and school performance across a variety of metrics is well documented, with persistent gaps between children from higher and lower income households. Likewise, children from single-parent households fare more poorly in terms of educational outcomes, a relationship that is partly though not entirely explained by income differences. Finding ways to counter persistent inequities among children from different backgrounds continues to be a high priority for schools, in Wisconsin and nationwide.

This task will include two reports. Due to its relevance as an income source, child support could be an important factor explaining the academic outcomes of children living in single-parent families. Relying on KIDS data on child support receipts—including for example amount, frequency and consistency—and DPI data on educational outcomes, the first report will build on previous research to examine the role of formal child support on the academic achievement of children during middle childhood, with a focus on children’s eighth grade standardized test scores. The second report will extend IRP’s work around shared placement. IRP has documented the growth of shared placement in Wisconsin as well as contributed to the understanding of the implications of shared placement for children’s economic wellbeing across a wider range of dimensions. However, very little is known about the implications of shared placement for children’s educational performance. There are a variety of reasons placement might impact educational outcomes, related to its impacts on income, on children’s relationships with their parents, and on overall structure of children’s lives, all of which may influence school performance. Using information available through the unique administrative data set housed at IRP and DPI data on educational outcomes, this task will provide information on whether and under what circumstances shared placement appears to influence school performance.

Report 9A: Vanessa Ríos-Salas. The Role of Formal Child Support in Children’s Academic Achievement. Report to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, June 2017.

Report 9B: Judith Bartfeld and Fei Men. Post-Divorce Placement Arrangements and Children’s Test Scores. Report to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, July 2018.

10. Review of child support policy variation and best practices

Under this task, IRP will prepare a series of two policy memos and two reports on topics required for the administration and evaluation of the child support enforcement program. These memos and reports will include reviews of policy options and best practices.

Report 10A: Maria Cancian and Molly A. Costanzo. Comparing Income-Shares and Percentage-of-Income Child Support Guidelines. Report to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, December 2017.

Report 10B-1: Molly A. Costanzo. Closures of Unenforceable Cases: A Review of Child Support Agency Practice. Report to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, December 2018.

Report 10B-2: Molly A. Costanzo. States’ Treatment of High-Income Payers. Report to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, December 2018.

Related Publication: Cancian, M., & Costanzo, M. A. (2019). Comparing income-shares and percentage-of-income child support guidelines. Children and Youth Services Review, 96, 451–462.

Task 11: How Are Child Support Burdens Related to Child Support Payments, Compliance, and Consistency?

In concept, child support guidelines could be determined based on a number of factors, including principles of justice, parents’ ability to pay support, or the needs of children. But high levels of unpaid support contribute to practical concerns that higher orders may not always result in higher payments. If child support orders are set too high, this may result in noncustodial parents being less likely to pay or paying a lower percentage of what is due (lower compliance). Higher orders could even result in lower payments (not just lower compliance), if, for example, they motivate noncustodial parents to exit the formal labor market to avoid child support enforcement, or if noncompliance results in incarceration that then results in lower payments.

In this task, we will undertake new analysis, updating and expanding prior analysis, and explicitly considering evidence for a threshold order level (as a proportion of noncustodial parent income) above which compliance tends to decline, and a threshold order level above which payments tend to decline. In addition, we will explicitly test whether orders that are higher than 19% of income, identified as the compliance threshold in California, appear to result in lower compliance and/or lower payments, with a special focus on those noncustodial parents with limited ability to pay. We hope to be able to provide clearer documentation of the level at which the burden of orders seems to result in lower payments, and lower compliance.

Report: Leslie Hodges, Daniel R. Meyer, and Maria Cancian. How are Child Support Burdens Related to Child Support Payments, Compliance, and Regularity? Report to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, March 2019.

Related Publication: Hodges, L., Meyer, D.R., & Cancian, M. (2020). What happens when the amount of child support due is a burden? Revisiting the relationship between child support orders and child support payments. Social Service Review, 94(2), 238–84.

Task 12: Potential Effects of a Self-Support Reserve in Wisconsin

Under the new Flexibility, Efficiency, and Modernization in Child Support Enforcement Programs regulations, states are to ensure that their guidelines “take into consideration the basic subsistence needs of the noncustodial parent (and at the State’s discretion, the custodial parent and children) who has a limited ability to pay by incorporating a low-income adjustment, such as a self-support reserve or some other method determined by the state.” The Wisconsin guidelines currently require a particular percentage of income for noncustodial parents based on the number of children, but this base rate is for those noncustodial parents with incomes over 150% of the federal poverty guidelines; for those with income less than this threshold, there is a low-income adjustment. The adjustment essentially allows discretion in the setting of orders for those noncustodial parents whose incomes are less than 75% of the federal poverty guidelines and suggests a lower percentage of income from those whose incomes are between 75% and 150% of the federal poverty guidelines, with the percentage increasing as income increases in this range. The new regulations have placed renewed emphasis on considering how low-income cases are treated by the guidelines. This provides an opportunity to revisit Wisconsin’s current provision, and, in particular to consider a self-support reserve as an alternative to the current adjustment.

This task will use the state’s administrative records on child support (KIDS), combined with earnings records from the Unemployment Insurance system, and data on SNAP and TANF benefits. We will identify a small number of possible self-support reserve options. For each option, we will determine: (1) The number and proportion of recent child support cases in Wisconsin that would be affected by application of a self-support reserve, and descriptive information on the characteristics of these cases; (2) Estimated child support orders given application of each self-support reserve being considered; and (3) Comparison of custodial parent family income relative to noncustodial parent income, given application of each self-support reserve, relative to the current guidelines.

Report: Maria Cancian, Molly Costanzo, Angela Guarin, Leslie Hodges, and Daniel R. Meyer. Potential Effects of a Self-Support Reserve in Wisconsin. Report to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, March 2019.