Why Doesn't She Have a Child Support Order?: Personal Choice or Objective Constraint*

Article excerpt

Abstract:

Quantitative analyses were conducted in order to examine maternal characteristics connected to the establishment of a child support order and reasons why some mothers did not have an order. Based on single-mother reports from the Current Population Survey during the 1994-1998 period, results indicated that approximately 36% of mothers eligible for child support did not have an order, and, for the majority of them, objective constraint such as establishing paternity played at least some role in not having an order. Findings suggest the need for interventions employing diverse approaches that are sensitive to racial and demographic patterns amongst single mothers in order to remove barriers connected to child support award.

Key Words: child support enforcement, child support order, nonresident fathers, single mothers.

The proportion of single-mother families in the United States has increased dramatically over the past three decades, peaking at 26.6% of all families with children in 1996, although declining slightly to 25.8% in 2000 (U.S. House of Representatives, 2000 & 2004). State and federal legislators continue to focus on the persistent economic disadvantage associated with single motherhood and have often targeted legislation and resources aimed at preventing nonresident fathers from financially abandoning their children (for a brief history, see Garfinkel, Meyer, & McLanahan, 1998). In 1975, Congress created the Child Support Enforcement (CSE) Program, which established state Offices of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) and authorized federal matching funds for states to assist with locating nonresident parents, establishing paternity, establishing child support orders, and obtaining child support payments. From 1981 through 1999 (with the exceptions of 1983, 1985, and 1991), Congress passed new laws each year to strengthen the child support system (Lerman & Sorenson, 2000).

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) is the most noteworthy of recent public policy efforts designed to improve the collection of private child support. To reinforce paternity establishment, it streamlines the legal processes for establishment; requires states to adopt voluntary, in-hospital paternity establishment programs; and provides mandatory genetic testing in contested cases. PRWORA also requires states to develop the bureaucratic capacity to monitor all child support payments and to administer universal withholding. PRWORA established a national directory of new hires that can be used to match state directories of fathers with child support obligations to facilitate interstate enforcement of child support obligations. In short, the enforcement system has undergone substantial strengthening in the past 20 years, from one where payment was often discretionary to one where payment is mandatory and automatic (Garfinkel, Meyer, et al., 1998; Legler, 1996; Wolk & Schmahl, 1999).

The Importance of Child Support Orders

Successful enforcement of child support is a myriad process with two main steps: establish a legal child support order and collect the payment. A child support order legally obligates nonresident parents to provide financial support for their children and stipulates the amount of the obligation and payment method. A custodial parent or state OCSE can ask the court to issue a child support order. The process of setting up an order with OCSE includes opening a child support case, locating the nonresident parent, establishing paternity, and determining a support order and amount. For welfare recipients, cases are referred automatically to OCSE without a fee. Nonwelfare parents can apply for child support services for a small fee. To complete the process, custodial parents need to provide accurate information on nonresident parents, without which a child support order is unlikely to be established. Without establishing a legal child support order, the likelihood of collecting child support payment is low (Hanson, Garfinkel, McLanahan, & Miller, 1996; Miller & Garfinkel, 1999). …