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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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: Vogel, Lisa Klein. 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.

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.

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.