University of Wisconsin–Madison
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The COVID-19 Pandemic and Child Support Enforcement

The COVID-19 pandemic caused significant economic hardship for many Wisconsinites, including those served by child support. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised difficult questions about how strenuously child support staff should pursue enforcement of child support orders during economic crises and the circumstances under which courts should modify orders. This report seeks to address these questions: (1) What pandemic-related effects have staff observed on the ability of noncustodial parents (NCPs) to work and pay support? (2) How have enforcement practices changed due to the pandemic? (3) How have court practices that affect child support order amounts changed due to the pandemic? (4) What practice changes do staff expect to persist, and what promising practices or lessons learned have staff identified?

Data were gathered through semi-structured interviews with 24 child support directors, frontline enforcement staff, child support attorneys, and court commissioners across five Wisconsin counties. Counties were selected purposively to account for variations in location, population size, and COVID-19 positivity rates. Interviews occurred between February and April of 2021 and averaged about 60-90 minutes. Data were coded in NVivo12 and analyzed thematically.

This study found that child support agencies encountered many NCPs who experienced employment-related difficulties during the pandemic, with variation across demographic groups and job sectors. In turn, staff observed decreases in payments, though reductions were lower than staff expected due to stimulus payments and expanded unemployment benefits. Results from this study indicate that agencies and courts adapted outreach and enforcement practices in response to economic hardship among NCPs, in some cases catalyzing practice changes towards a more cautious, supportive approach to enforcing orders. Courts varied in their general willingness to modify orders in response to pandemic-related factors due to uncertainty about the pandemic’s duration and in the specific circumstances under which they would consider granting a modification.

Categories

Child Support, Child Support Policy Research, Enforcement

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