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Child Support Agencies as Connectors

For many noncustodial parents (NCPs), limited employment opportunities and earnings potential, as well as complex barriers to work, make meeting child support obligations difficult. Previous research with Wisconsin counties has identified that as child support agencies (CSAs) evolve from a strictly enforcement culture towards a more supportive orientation, some CSAs find it beneficial to connect NCPs to supportive services. Understanding CSA needs, resources, constraints, and practices sheds insights that can support county efforts. This project explores how Wisconsin CSAs identify and connect NCPs with employment barriers to local resources; which partners they work with and how they communicate and collaborate; NCP needs and local service gaps; and challenges CSAs face in making these connections.

Data were gathered through semi-structured interviews with CSA directors and staff in five Wisconsin counties, followed by a web-based survey of county CSA directors. Counties that participated in interviews were selected purposively for variety in location, population size, and local availability of NCP-specific programs. Findings from interviews were used to develop the survey instrument and provide additional context for survey findings. Directors from all 71 Wisconsin CSAs were invited to participate; 85.9% of directors completed a survey. Findings are exploratory and descriptive; we present findings aggregated across counties for the main analysis, though when significant differences are observed by county size (identified as especially salient for county experiences in interviews) we present findings by county size subgroup.

Directors report similar challenges finding and keeping work among NCPs served by their CSAs. CSA directors broadly find it within the CSAs purview to refer NCPs to employment and other supportive services and see building these relationships as a high priority for the future; relatively few believe that CSAs should provide employment services directly to NCPs. Directors also identified gaps within their local service referral array. CSAs currently engage in efforts to connect NCPs to local employment resources and other supportive services. Where and how these efforts occur varies, as the local contexts in which CSAs operate vary; CSAs experience differences in the type, availability, accessibility, proximity, and services offered through partners. Directors also identify factors that can limit NCP engagement in services—with NCP awareness of service offerings as the greatest barrier—and also identify challenges that can make it hard to collaborate with other providers to the extent they want to, with inadequate time and lack of financial resources emerging as top barriers. These challenges sometimes led to uncertainty about what services a partner offers, which NCPs are eligible, and the quality of those services. Directors expressed a desire for state support for expanded service offerings, modernized computer systems, additional state-level coordination and information-sharing, advocacy for infrastructure improvements, funding for additional staff to reduce caseload sizes, training and resources on connecting NCPs to services to support their efforts.

These findings suggest that CSAs, and the ways they interact with families, are changing. CSAs see connecting NCPs to supports that can help address employment barriers as logical and valuable. Policymakers could support these efforts by consolidating and making available—to CSAs and other stakeholders—information about local resources; providing technology supports to facilitate information-sharing; providing technical assistance, training, and funding for additional staff; and resources or advocacy for expanded infrastructure.


Child Support, Child Support Policy Research, Employment, Related Social Policies, Unemployment/Nonemployment


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