University of Wisconsin–Madison

Child Support Policy Research Agreement, October 1, 2020–December 31, 2022

This research agreement between IRP and the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (Daniel R. Meyer and Judith Bartfeld, Principal Investigators) 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 (CRD) data collection

Collections from the court record allow us to address a range of child support enforcement policy issues that cannot be addressed using KIDS data alone. 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. We will collect any information about serial family child support obligations that parents have from prior orders in other cases. As in the collections we are currently conducting, this collection will use the new process in which we have established remote access agreements with the State Courts Office and each of the 21 counties, so that travel is no longer required.

During the period of this agreement, we will collect cohorts 38 and 39 of paternity and divorce cases (cases coming to court in 2018 and 2019). For each of the two cohorts, we expect to collect the court history of approximately 1750 cases from court records files in 21 counties, comprising 620 adjudicated paternities, 360 voluntary paternity acknowledgement cases, and 770 divorce cases. These data will not be completely processed within this agreement period, but could be used for analysis in the next research agreement.

2. Profile of nonpayers and associated custodial parents

More than 10 years ago, we examined potential reasons for nonpayment among more than 1,000 noncustodial parents who had their first order in 2000 (Ha, Cancian, and Meyer, 2008). Among the nonpayers in the first year of their order, 15 percent were incarcerated, 78 percent had less than a full year of earnings in the UI records, 3 percent changed employers during the year, and 1 percent had low earnings, leaving 2 percent with unidentified potential reasons. Partial payers also were studied. The implications of this research seemed to be that we were asking too much of some noncustodial parents, since the reasons for nonpayment seemed to be that noncustodial parents did not have the ability to pay, rather than that they did not want to.

We will use data from KIDS, UI records, and the Department of Corrections to update this dated analysis with new research that will make three contributions. First, an update will reflect recent trends, such as continued high levels of incarceration and the decline of manufacturing. Second, we will incorporate whether a child support order was based on imputed income as a factor related to nonpayment. Finally, we will describe the economic well-being not just of the noncustodial parents who are struggling, but also of the custodial parents who are partnered with the nonpayers and partial payers. If these custodial parents and children are similarly struggling, this would imply that simply reducing obligations might have substantial negative consequences on the economic well-being of economically vulnerable children. This analysis is of particular relevance given new regulations that require orders to consider the adequacy of resources of noncustodial parents, and at state option, custodial parents.

3. Substance use and noncompliance

Problematic substance use and/or the presence of a substance use disorder (SUD) are potential barriers to child support compliance among noncustodial parents. In this task, we will assess the extent to which problematic substance use affects child support compliance. To identify those with SUDs, we will use Medicaid claims data. We will also explore merging these data sources with CCAP data to identify individuals whose substance use problems resulted in criminal justice involvement. By merging information on these individuals with KIDS, we will examine the extent to which child support noncompliance is associated with problematic substance use and substance use treatment utilization. Finally, integrating employment and earnings data from UI records will then enable us to explore the interrelationships of substance use, treatment utilization, employment, and child support compliance. The results could help inform efforts to promote child support compliance, including considerations for modifications for substance users in treatment.

4. Procedural justice and child support

Many child support agencies in Wisconsin and nationwide have started to incorporate procedural justice approaches (i.e., approaches premised on the notion that perceptions of process fairness affect an individual’s response to the process) into their work, given a growing body of evidence that how people are treated during legal processes affects their compliance with the law. Previous qualitative empirical work including work drawing on data from the Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration Evaluation (CSPED) further supports the notion that perceptions of fairness during the child support process can influence noncustodial parents’ child support behavior. Despite this growing emphasis on process fairness, information about how child support-involved families conceptualize fairness in treatment by the child support system, and whether the perception of fairness of treatment is linked to later child support outcomes, is limited. This task will use a two-pronged approach.

For the first (quantitative) analysis, we will utilize data from Supporting Parents, Supporting Kids (SPSK) and the other CSPED programs to explore whether those noncustodial parents who reported in the follow-up survey that the child support program treated them fairly have higher payments during the six months following the survey. For the second (qualitative) analysis, we will conduct focus groups with noncustodial and custodial parents, and conduct interviews with child support enforcement workers and leadership, in three Wisconsin counties. This second analysis will explore how parents currently experience child support services in Wisconsin; aspects of policy and practice that feel fair and unfair from the perspectives of parents and staff; and how parents envision a system that treats both parents and their children fairly. The focus groups and interviews could also explore any unexpected findings from the quantitative analysis and deepen our understanding of any empirical relationships we find.

Overall, findings could help shed insight into parent perspectives; identify best practices and challenges to implementation; and describe potential opportunities for reflecting parent perspectives into practices.

5. Shared placement, child support payments, and sharing of child-related expenses

Shared placement entails not only a change from traditional placement arrangements in the way children’s time is shared between parents’ homes, but also a change in expectations surrounding child support. While sole-placement child support guidelines are based solely on the income of the nonresident parent, shared-placement guidelines formally incorporate incomes of both parents and the specific division of time between homes. They also, in many cases, involve an explicit sharing of specific kinds of costs that would otherwise be subsumed in a primary order.

This task will look in detail at child support orders and payments in shared and sole placement, using data from the Wisconsin Parents Survey augmented with data from KIDS. Specifically, we will compare the existence (order or not), amount, and specific components (insurance, health costs, childcare) of orders in shared- and sole-placement cases; payment and compliance trajectories over the years since the divorce (using KIDS); receipt of any informal support; and respondents’ reports of how various kinds of child-related costs were, in practice, shared between parents. We will also examine parents’ satisfaction with the overall division of child costs between parents, and their sense of fairness with regard to that division. This will involve coding open-ended responses from parents regarding why they feel their cost-sharing with the other parent is fair or unfair. In doing so, we will provide a much more comprehensive understanding of the different ways that child expenses are divided for shared- and sole-placement couples. Our analysis will inform policy discussions about the current and potential role of child support in the context of shared placement.

6. Shared Placement in Paternity Cases: An Initial Look

Due to the small proportion of paternity cases with shared placement, prior research on shared-placement cases has largely focused solely on divorce cases. Though the number of paternity cases with shared placement remain small, more recent cohorts in the Wisconsin Court Records Data (CRD) suggest some increase in shared placement among paternity cases. This task will include a comparison of the characteristics of paternity cases with shared versus sole placement, including baseline UI earnings of mothers and fathers; a comparison of presence and amount of orders in shared- versus sole-placement cases; and a descriptive comparison of mothers’ UI earnings, FoodShare receipt, child support receipt, and the child support compliance rate in shared- versus sole-placement cases during the first two follow-up years. Results will inform policy discussions regarding the use of shared placement in paternity cases, and the potential and limitations of child support in paternity cases with shared placement.

7. Research related to learning more about new approaches to child support services

The Supporting Parents Supporting Kids (SPSK) program, a new approach to child support for noncustodial parents behind in their payments and having employment difficulties, was implemented in Brown and Kenosha counties 2013-2017. The impact evaluation showed promising results in several domains. Given these results, Wisconsin continues to be interested in learning more about the noncustodial and custodial parents potentially served by child support and exploring how such new approaches might be effectively implemented in other counties. The FCDP extends SPSK, making services available to additional noncustodial parents in Brown and Kenosha counties and beginning a program in three additional counties (Marathon, Racine, and Wood). The program began in 2019 and is planned to be implemented through 2024. The evaluation began enrollment in January 2020. In this research agreement (2020-2022), we will continue to field the baseline survey with noncustodial parents who enter the FCDP program. We will also develop and begin fielding a follow-up survey to be implemented 12 months post-FCDP enrollment.

Infographic: Molly Costanzo, Hilary Shager, Vee Yeo, Lisa Klein Vogel, Hanna Han, and Peter Christenson. 2020 Wisconsin ELEVATE Participants: Characteristics at Baseline Enrollment. Submitted to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, March 2021.

8. Evaluating the Effects of Medicaid Birth Cost Recovery on Health and Child Welfare Outcomes

“Birth cost recovery” is the practice of billing unmarried fathers when the mothers of their children have births paid for by the state Medicaid program. Under current law, if an unmarried mother is enrolled in Medicaid/BadgerCare at the time of a child’s birth, the state may recover up to one-half of the actual costs of the pregnancy and birth from the child’s father, subject to an income-based formula. In 2016, Wisconsin collected $16 million under this policy. Federal law authorizes incentive payments to county child support agencies equal to 15 percent of amounts collected, with the remainder going to the state and federal governments as reimbursement of Medicaid program expenses.

Proponents of Medicaid birth cost recovery assert that the policy holds fathers accountable for responsibilities related to the birth of their children and that the funds recovered support the solvency and sustainability of state Medicaid and safety net programs. Critics of the policy argue that birth cost recovery deters women from enrolling in Medicaid coverage and seeking prenatal care, deters paternal participation in the family, and may contribute to infant mortality. Others have suggested that birth cost recovery has disparate impact on racial and ethnic minority populations, as they are more likely to rely on Medicaid for their prenatal and childbirth services. However, the evidence to date is limited, and more research is needed.

Dane County, as of 2020, has ceased collection of birth-cost recovery funds. Milwaukee County is considering adoption of this policy for its next budget. This change of policy at the county level provides a natural experiment by which to assess the effect of the policy on the outcomes of interest. We will use this policy change, and the comparison opportunities it provides, to assess the following questions: What is the effect of birth cost recovery, and its elimination, on paternity establishment? What is the effect of birth cost recovery, and its elimination, on the non-custodial parent’s compliance with child support orders? What is the effect of birth cost recovery, and its elimination, on the non-custodial parent’s labor market participation? What is the effect of birth cost recovery, and its elimination, on the mother’s enrollment in Medicaid, on participation in prenatal care, maternal stress/health behaviors, and on birth outcomes? And finally, how do all of these effects vary by race and ethnicity? This work will provide valuable new information to policymakers about the impacts of birth cost recovery practices.

9. Are the child support guidelines implemented?

Policies that are not consistently implemented rarely achieve their intended effects. In a series of reports, IRP researchers have examined court records to see if the child support guidelines are being used. This research generally finds that the rate of usage of these guidelines is fairly low. However, analyses using court records are limited to what is in the record and available to researchers. During the proceedings, judges or commissioners could state verbally a reason for not using the guidelines, and this would not necessarily be reflected in the court record. In this task, we will explore guideline use from a new perspective—based on information from the key actors involved in court processes and from the court processes themselves. A primary focus will be the factors linked to discretionary application of guidelines as currently implemented in Wisconsin counties. We will also explore perceptions of the extent to which, and how, factors associated with deviations have changed over time, including the role that the Covid-19 pandemic has played in guidelines deviations.

This research will supplement the series of quantitative reports that IRP has done under previous agreements. The project will focus on the current use of guidelines in three Wisconsin sites, drawing on interviews with family court commissioners and judges and supplemented with courtroom observations. This project will help to inform a broader understanding of how family court commissioners and judges use the guidelines and the circumstances under which they choose to employ or not employ them. The study’s findings will provide insights into how aspects of the guidelines could potentially be modified or augmented as to facilitate greater consistency in application.

10. Tribal child support research

This project will lay the groundwork for longer-term research focused on child support in Wisconsin tribal communities. It includes two components: a review of the literature on the current and potential role of child support in the tribal context, and a summary of potential research projects that are responsive to the priorities of tribal communities in the state. The literature review will synthesize existing research on tribal child support processes and outcomes, as well as the demographic and economic context in which child support operates in tribal communities. As part of this review, we will also develop a fuller picture of tribal child support, using quantitative descriptions of child support-eligible tribal populations, including demographic and economic characteristics of custodial and noncustodial parents, that are relevant to the current and potential role of child support.

A second component will draw on conversations with key stakeholders in most or all of the tribes in Wisconsin. The purpose is to identify tractable research projects that are responsive to priorities of tribal communities. The conversations will also help us to develop a deeper understanding of how tribal child support programs operate, including how they work with families, what services they provide, and the ways this might benefit communities beyond simply the issuance and collection of child support orders. Based on these conversations, we will develop suggested research topics that are feasible to address and responsive to tribal priorities. This work will provide important insights into the ways that research can best inform child support policy in tribal communities.

11. States’ child support guidelines for children with disabilities

Children with special health care needs often require greater economic and caregiving resources than typically-developing children. State child support guidelines vary in the ways in which they address the needs of these children in setting orders, and some states allow child support payments to continue beyond the age of majority in these cases. We will summarize differences in states’ treatment of these cases. Additionally, we will use the Wisconsin Court Record Data to examine how often order amounts deviate from the guidelines as a result of a child’s disability, and the magnitude by which they differ. This research will provide valuable information to Wisconsin policymakers regarding the various policy approaches to this issue that are in use around the country.

Report: Molly A. Costanzo. States’ Child Support Guidelines for Children with Disabilities. Submitted to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, April 2021.

12. Child support agencies as connectors to employment programs and other supportive services

For many noncustodial parents, limited employment opportunities and earnings potential make meeting child support obligations difficult. Previous work (Vogel, 2019) indicates that child support staff consider employment resources a crucial tool for improving child support compliance, but the robustness, quality, and accessibility of these programs varies across counties. Further, insights from Wisconsin’s SPSK program—and other Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration Evaluation (CSPED) programs—identify complex barriers faced by many noncustodial parents behind on their child support obligations, many of which are outside the scope of traditional child support services. Findings from CSPED suggest that as child support agencies evolve from a strictly enforcement culture towards a more supportive orientation, some agencies find it beneficial to connect to a wide variety of local employment programs and other community agencies to help address noncustodial parent employment barriers. The ability of county child support agencies to leverage these resources requires expanding the role of child support agencies to systematically collaborate with employment services and other community partners; local community partner capacity for providing these services; and strong communication and collaboration practices across child support and partners.

In this task, we will gather information from Wisconsin counties about how child support staff connect, partner, and exchange information about noncustodial parents with employment programs and other community partners; operational and cultural challenges associated with partnerships across agencies; and resources and service gaps across Wisconsin counties. Data collection activities will include semi-structured interviews with child support agency staff and leadership in five Wisconsin counties as an initial step, followed by a survey of child support agencies statewide building from the initial findings, in order to systematically gather information about the resource landscape and service gaps; current agency referral and communication practices; and perspectives on the future of child support partnerships with employment providers and other community agencies across counties. This analysis could support the development and implementation of policies and practices designed to improve noncustodial parents’ ability to pay child support through employment programs and related supportive services.

13. COVID-19, child support enforcement, and the income packages of custodial parents

COVID-19 has had a dramatic effect on economic conditions with important implications for child support collections and payments. Widespread job losses and declines in work hours and earnings have led to declines in economic well-being for noncustodial parents at the same time that many custodial parents are also experiencing economic hardship. This raises difficult issues for how strenuously child support staff should pursue the enforcement of child support obligations while also protecting custodial parents’ economic well-being. This task will use a two-pronged approach to examine how the Covid-19 pandemic has led to changes in: (1) child support agency practices and policies for enforcing noncustodial parents’ child support order and (2) custodial parents’ income packages.

The first (qualitative) analysis builds on findings from previous work on how county staff select, sequence, and time their use of enforcement tools by exploring how staff make enforcement decisions in the era of COVID-19; how county practices for enforcing child support orders and making referrals for contempt have changed; and staff perspectives on how changes resulting from the pandemic might persist in future practice. We will also gather other information on agency practices, including the extent to which order modifications are requested and how the court is handling income imputations for those who have recently lost their jobs. We will interview child support and court staff in five Wisconsin counties, to be jointly selected in consultation with BCS staff. Findings will help document decision-making processes and challenges encountered by staff; highlight best practices; and identify areas in which staff could potentially benefit from additional guidance.

In the second (quantitative) analysis, we will focus on understanding the extent to which custodial parents’ earnings and child support receipt have declined during Covid-19, and whether safety net benefits have made up for these declines. We propose using KIDS and UI data to examine child support outcomes (such as orders, payments, receipt, compliance, arrears, and regularity) and custodial parents’ earnings before and after the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. We will also examine changes in custodial mothers’ income packages before and after the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. Income sources could include some or all of: child support payments, earnings, UI, TANF, SNAP, Medicaid, and childcare subsidies.

Overall, findings will provide insight into child support agencies and policies during COVID-19 and into the repercussions of COVID-19 for custodial parents’ economic well-being.

14. COVID-19 and low-income noncustodial fathers

In this task, we will explore the ways the stresses and uncertainty posed by COVID-19 compound existing economic instability and family pressures for low-income and noncustodial fathers. We will leverage an existing, multi-partner initiative in Milwaukee to do this. The Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative (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, citywide gatherings of fathers which offer father-focused legal, health and education services to promote self-sufficiency.

We will survey fathers participating in programs of the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, and conduct focus groups and interviews with a subset of participants, to learn about new or heightened financial and parenting/coparenting challenges during the pandemic (e.g., challenges related to loss of employment, hours, or income, child support obligations, visitation or shared custody, father-child relationships). We will use the survey data we gather to explore pandemic-related difficulties among the population of vulnerable fathers who participate in Fatherhood Initiative programming; asking retrospective questions will help us understand which aspects of fathers’ experience now are new or plausibly connected to the pandemic and related family separation or job precarity. Using purposive sampling, we will conduct focus groups and interviews with a subset of fathers to increase understanding of the nature of obstacles encountered, existing sources of support and gaps in support, and ideas for resources to address impacts on low-income, noncustodial fathers and their families. By highlighting the challenges faced, this work will enhance the capacity of child support agencies to serve vulnerable fathers.

15. COVID-19 and transitioning to a virtual workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic forced child support agencies to quickly pivot towards new methods of working virtually. In Wisconsin’s state-supervised, county-administered child support environment, we have observed that counties vary in their experiences with, and approaches towards, providing child support services remotely. As some scientific experts indicate that challenges related to COVID-19 will likely persist in the months and years ahead, understanding how counties approached this transition, and the challenges and opportunities they encountered, could provide important insights for policy and practice moving forward. Through interviews with child support staff and leadership in five Wisconsin counties, this task will explore county changes to service delivery models and working arrangements as a result of Covid-19; how counties approached this transition and made decisions; challenges counties encountered; and strategies leaders employed to overcome these barriers. The task will help to inform the relative trade-offs of models enacted by counties; identify best practices and resource gaps for facilitating transitions to a remote workforce; and describe challenges and opportunities identified for engaging with noncustodial parents virtually. It will also describe staff perspectives on how changes resulting from the pandemic might persist in future practice and identify areas in which staff and agencies could potentially benefit from additional guidance or resources.

Report:  Lisa Klein Vogel and Vee Yeo. COVID-19 and Transitioning to a Virtual Workforce. Submitted to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison, August 2021.

16. Exploring the long-term effects of child support

Some research has shown that children who receive child support have better educational and behavioral outcomes than those who do not (or who receive less). However, little work has examined the long-term effects of receiving support. In this task, we take a two-pronged approach to examine the impact of receiving support as a child on family and economic outcomes in young adulthood. In the first analysis, we consider more than 5,000 children whose parents were in the early cohorts of the WCRD (divorce and paternity cases from the early and mid-1990s); these children are now young adults. We develop statistically matched comparison groups, identifying those who received support when they were children and a comparable group of children who did not receive (or who received less) support. We merge information from child support, public program, and earnings records from 2015 on (their young adult years), with the child support records from the 1990s (when they were children). We examine whether those who received support as children are themselves less likely to have a child who lives apart from one of their parents, whether they have lower public program (e.g., SNAP) participation, and whether they have higher rates of employment and earnings, than those who did not receive child support when they were children. A strength of this analysis is that it is not limited to low-income families. However, this analysis relies on statistical matching on observable characteristics, so the comparison group may not be identical.

To address the limitation that the comparison groups may not be identical, in the second analysis we use data from the Child Support Demonstration Evaluation (CSDE), in which mothers receiving benefits were randomly assigned to receive either all or some of the child support that was paid during periods of benefit use. This random assignment assures equivalent comparison groups (on both observable and unobservable characteristics) except that some were eligible to receive more child support than others. Nearly 3,800 mothers had children whose youngest child was at least age 6 at program entry in 1998-1999, so by 2015 these children are 23 or older. This second analysis then follows the first in merging in child support, program participation, and labor market data from 2015 on, when the children were young adults, and comparing outcomes in these domains. The strength of this approach is that the random assignment allows us to identify causality; however, because the sample is drawn from welfare participants, the analysis is only of lower-income families, and the variation in child support is limited to the difference due to the policy change. Taken together, these analyses provide substantial new information on whether child support can have long-lasting effects. The first analysis addresses a broader sample and may consider greater variation in child support amounts. The second analysis more clearly supports identification of causal effects. Because the two analyses draw on related data and measures, each will inform the other.

17. Child support, post-divorce economic well-being and material hardship: combining survey and administrative data

The Wisconsin Parents Survey contains a host of data relevant to understanding custodial parents’ post-divorce economic circumstances—including information about food security, difficulty paying bills and making ends meet, ability to cover emergency expenses, liquid assets, home ownership, and pension and retirement accounts. It also sheds light on adjustments that parents have made to their employment in response to parenting responsibilities. And, it contains detail about sharing of child-related expenses. By combining this multidimensional information with administrative records of earnings, child support, and FoodShare, we will provide a multifaceted look at post-divorce economic well-being that goes well beyond what we have been able to do in the past. The ability to focus on multiple dimensions of economic well-being, not just income, will offer policymakers a much more nuanced understanding of economic security, material hardship, and variation in well-being among divorced parents with different levels of child support receipt than is possible when limited to administrative data.