MADISON — Final implementation findings from an ambitious national five-year demonstration designed to identify effective policies to help noncustodial parents support their children are reflected in a pair of reports issued today by the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) at the University of Wisconsin and its partner, Mathematica Policy Research – one describing CSPED programs, and the other describing characteristics of CSPED participants. The project, known as the Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration (CSPED), was launched by the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) within the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in fall 2012.
CSPED’s goal was to increase the reliable payment of child support by noncustodial parents who are willing but unable to pay. While the child support system is designed to address the potential negative consequences for children living apart from one of their parents by ensuring that noncustodial parents contribute financially to their upbringing, many noncustodial parents, including a disproportionate share whose children live in poverty, have limited earnings and ability to pay. Moreover, child support orders often constitute a high proportion of their income. CSPED tested whether a child support system that enables, as well as enforces, noncustodial parents’ contributions to the support of their children can be effective.
Evaluation Principal Investigator and UW Professor of Social Work Daniel R. Meyer notes, “By better understanding the challenges and opportunities identified by these innovative programs, and the characteristics of those who participated, we can inform future efforts in this critical policy area.”
The final implementation report issued today reflects demonstration activities that commenced in fall 2012, when the eight child support agencies competitively awarded grants by OCSE to participate in CSPED began a one-year planning period, and concluded with the end of the demonstration period in September 2017. Grantees designated 18 implementation sites, ranging from one to five counties per grantee. Grantees enrolled participants in the demonstration over a three year period, from October 2013 through September 2016. Half of the demonstration’s 10,161 enrollees were randomly assigned to receive CSPED services, including enhanced child support services, employment assistance, parenting education delivered in a peer-supported format and case management. Half were assigned to a control group and did not receive extra services. On average, participants assigned to the extra services group received about 22 hours of services.
As reflected in today’s just-released baseline characteristics report, nearly all noncustodial parents who enrolled in CSPED were men, and participants averaged 35 years of age. The largest racial and ethnic group was non-Hispanic blacks or African Americans (40 percent), followed by non-Hispanic whites (33 percent), and Hispanics (22 percent). CSPED programs served a relatively disadvantaged population. Participants generally had low levels of educational attainment – nearly 70 percent held a high school degree or less. These parents were also unlikely to be married, with 14 percent married at the time of study enrollment. CSPED participants often faced multiple and complex barriers to employment, including criminal convictions (70 percent), limited work histories, and limited earnings.
Throughout the demonstration, CSPED grantees and their partners grappled with a complex array of challenges. These included reorienting child support staff and systems toward helping low-income noncustodial parents obtain employment; recruiting noncustodial parents to enroll in CSPED; keeping participants engaged in services; addressing participants’ barriers to employment; establishing partnerships and meshing different organizational cultures; and helping participants with parenting time issues.
CSPED’s impacts on participant outcomes remains to be determined. The CSPED Impact Report is slated for public release in spring 2019. However, even without knowing CSPED’s ultimate effects, the successes and challenges experienced by CSPED grantees offer important insights into strategies from which future programs serving similar populations can learn, adapt, and innovate. These include investing in strong partnerships and communication systems; drawing on strong leaders with a commitment to facilitating a cultural shift towards a customer-oriented approach within child support agencies; staffing programs with employees who support CSPED’s goals, and hiring and retaining a sufficient number of staff to manage large and challenging caseloads; developing services that take into account the substantial barriers to employment faced by the target population; and designing services to promote sustained participant engagement.
There are also important lessons to be learned about the characteristics and situations of these noncustodial parents who are struggling to meet their child support obligations. The report on characteristics highlights challenges these parents face—including limited engagement with their own parents, histories of incarceration, and high levels of depression—but also substantial strengths and contributions. “A better understanding of the complexity of these parents’ lives, the range of their formal and informal contributions to their children, and their motivations to participate in the program, can inform future policy,” noted Principal Investigator and Professor Maria Cancian.
In addition to IRP’s Dr. Cancian and Dr. Meyer, Robert G. Wood, Senior Fellow, Mathematica Policy Research, also serves as Principal Investigator for the demonstration. Dr. Cancian and Dr. Meyer led the team that completed the baseline characteristics report. The CSPED Project Director is Lisa Klein Vogel, IRP Researcher. Along with Ms. Vogel, Dr. Jennifer L. Noyes, UW Associate Dean and IRP Distinguished Researcher, led the team that completed the final implementation report.