New Directions for Child Support Agencies When Domestic Violence Is an Issue
Griswold, Esther Ann, Pearson, Jessica, Thoennes, Nancy, Policy & Practice of Public Human Services
There is little doubt that many low-income women suffer from domestic violence. According to a 1996 Bureau of Justice Statistics report (Craven, 1996), women living in households with annual incomes below $10,000 are four times more likely to be violently attacked, usually by their intimate partners. Some reaearchers place the frequency of domestic violence at 50 to 80 percent of women receiving public assistance (Raphael, 1996).
With the enactment of the welfare reform legislation in 1996, families are limited to public assistance for five years (or less, depending upon state policy). With these time limits, child support takes on added significance for families as they make the transition from welfare to selfsufficiency.
Yet, domestic violence victims may not be able to comply with all of the requirements embodied in the welfare reform legislation. For example, the laws require welfare applicants and recipients to provide information about the absent parent, such as name, social security number, and employer. Child support personnel use these data to establish paternity, generate child support orders, and collect child support for the children. Applicants and recipients must either cooperate with their child support enforcement agency by helping to identify and locate the father of their children, or applying for and receiving a "good cause exemption" to the child support cooperation requirements due to the risk of harm.' Those who do neither face at least a 25 percent reduction in the family's public assistance grant for noncooperation. Some have argued, however, that cooperation requirements increase the threat of harm to families when the absent parent is abusive by alerting the abuser to the victim's location, precipitating physical contact between the abuser and the victim in the courtroom, or arousing the anger of the abuser who may be subject to automatic wage withholding or driver's license suspension.
Recognizing that domestic violence victims may not be able to comply with the welfare reform legislation, 39 states have adopted the Family Violence Option (FVO) and others have developed their own programs and policies to meet the needs of domestic violence victims. The FVO allows states to screen welfare applicants and recipients for a history of domestic violence, to refer those identified to counseling and supportive services, and to waive certain program requirements if compliance might put them at risk of harm.
Also in response, public assistance and child support agencies are experimenting with different ways of assisting victims to meet both their safety and self-sufficiency needs. Some of this experimentation has been fueled by recent demonstration and evaluation grants awarded by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE). Three such projects, in Colorado, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, focus on how to identify domestic violence victims in public assistance and child support agencies and meet both their safety and child support needs, and how to improve cooperation with child support agencies and to identify barriers to that cooperation. Each project offers strong clues about clients' understandings of the requirements they face and their reactions to agency efforts to address their needs.
Colorado was one of the first states to test the process of screening public assistance applicants for domestic violence. It involved:
* notifying all welfare applicants that victims of domestic violence may apply for certain exemptions if cooperating with agency requirements might result in violence or a threat of harm,
* briefly screening for domestic violence by public assistance staff using an explicit behavioral question, and
* providing good cause exemption information to clients who disclosed domestic violence.
Clients voluntarily filed for a good cause waiver, and the decision to approve or deny the application was made by a committee of public assistance and child support workers. …