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Excerpted from the 2000 House Ways and Means Green Book, "Child Support Enforcement Program"

Child Support Enforcement Program

In 1950, when only a small minority of children were in female-headed families, the Federal Government took its first steps into the child support arena. Congress amended the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) law by requiring State welfare agencies to notify law enforcement officials when benefits were being furnished to a child who had been abandoned by one of her parents. Presumably, local officials would then undertake to locate nonresident parents and make them pay child support. From 1950 to 1975, the Federal Government confined its child support efforts to these welfare children. With this exception, most Americans thought that child support establishment and collection was a domestic relations issue that should be dealt with at the State level by the courts.   

By the early 1970s, however, Congress recognized that the composition of the AFDC caseload had changed drastically. In earlier years the majority of children needed financial assistance because their fathers had died; by the 1970s, the majority needed aid because their parents were separated, divorced, or never married. The Child Support Enforcement and Paternity Establishment Program (CSE), enacted in 1975, was a response by Congress to reduce public expenditures on welfare by obtaining support from noncustodial parents on an ongoing basis, to help non-AFDC families get support so they could stay off public assistance, and to establish paternity for children born outside marriage so child support could be obtained for them.

The 1975 legislation (Public Law 93-647) added a new part D to title IV of the Social Security Act. This statute, as amended, authorizes Federal matching funds to be used for enforcing support obligations by locating nonresident parents, establishing paternity, establishing child support awards, and collecting child support payments. Since 1981, child support agencies have also been permitted to collect spousal support on behalf of custodial parents, and in 1984 they were required to petition for medical support as part of most child support orders.

Basic responsibility for administering the program is left to States, but the Federal Government plays a major role in: dictating the major design features of State programs; funding, monitoring and evaluating State programs; providing technical assistance; and giving assistance to States in locating absent parents and obtaining support payments. The program requires the provision of child support enforcement services for both welfare and nonwelfare families and requires States to publicize frequently, through public service announcements, the availability of child support enforcement services, together with information about the application fee and a telephone number or address to obtain additional information. Local family and domestic courts and administrative agencies handle the actual establishment and enforcement of child support obligations according to Federal, State, and local laws.

The child support program generally does not provide services aimed at other issues between parents, such as property settlement, custody, and access to children. These issues are handled by local courts with the help of private attorneys. Any parent who needs help in locating an absent parent, establishing paternity, establishing a support obligation, or enforcing a support obligation may apply for services. Parents receiving benefits (or who formerly received benefits) under the successor program to AFDC (TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), the federally assisted foster care program, or the Medicaid Program, automatically receive services. Services are free to such recipients, but others are charged up to $25 for services. In the nonwelfare program, States also can charge fees on a sliding scale, pay the fee out of State funds, or recover the fees from the noncustodial parent.

In 1996, Public Law 104-193, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, abolished AFDC and related programs and replaced them with a block grant program of TANF. Under the new law, each State must operate a CSE Program meeting Federal requirements in order to be eligible for TANF funds. In addition to abolishing AFDC, Public Law 104-193 made about 50 changes to the CSE Program, many of them major. These changes include requiring States to increase the percentage of fathers identified, establishing an integrated, automated network linking all States to information about the location and assets of parents, requiring States to implement more enforcement techniques, and revising the rules governing the distribution of past due (arrearage) child support payments to former recipients of public assistance.

Demographic Trends

The need for an effective child support program is clearly supported by a brief review of the demographic trends of the American family. By 1998, there were an estimated 11.9 million single-parent families with children under age 18; about 9.8 million (82 percent) maintained by the mother and roughly 2.1 million maintained by the father. It appears that the rate of growth in the number of single parents has stabilized (Office of Child Support, 1995a, p. 5). The average annual percent increase in the number of one-parent families was 2.3 percent from 1990 to 1998 and 4.1 percent from 1980 to 1990 as compared with 8.2 percent from 1970 to 1980. In 1998, one-parent families comprised nearly 32 percent of all families. The corresponding share of single-parent families in 1970 was 13 percent. In 1998, about 40 percent of the mothers had never been married, 34 percent were divorced, 21 percent were separated from their spouse, and about 4 percent were widowed (U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, p. 36).

Of equal concern, dynamic estimates indicate that at least half of all children born in the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s will live with a single parent before reaching adulthood. For black children, the projection is about 80 percent (Bumpass, 1984). Currently, about 29 percent of the 68 million children under age 18 living in the United States reside in a one-parent family. Although the number of families with a mother who has divorced has tripled since 1970, the number with a mother who has never married has increased fifteenfold from 248,000 to 3,831,000. In these latter cases, paternity must be determined before the other parent has a legal obligation to financially support the child. The 3.8 million families maintained by a never-married mother in 1998 represent a major concern because only about one-third of the children in these families have had their paternity established; for the other two-thirds, a child support obligation cannot be established until a paternity determination is made.

Poverty is endemic among mother-headed families. In 1998, 38.7 percent of the 8.9 million families maintained solely by a mother with children under 18 had incomes below the poverty threshold (U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, p.17). A little more than 16 percent of these families were poor despite the fact that the mother worked year round, full time. Today, an unprecedented number of children live in single-parent homes, nearly 40 percent are poor, and many lack adequate or any support from the nonresident parent.

Program Trends

In response to these demographic trends, the Federal-State child support program grew rapidly. By 1998, about half of all child support eligible families were actually receiving government funded child support services. Most of the information in this chapter applies to the families receiving these government services.

In 1998, almost $3.6 billion was spent by State child support programs to collect $14.3 billion in child support. The combined Federal-State program had 55,300 employees. A sum of $4 was collected for every dollar of administrative expense, up by 38 percent from the low point of only $2.89 in 1982. In addition, in 1998 nearly 6.6 million absent parents were located; 848,000 paternities were established; over 1.1 million support orders were established; 3.5 million cases had collections; 356,000 families were removed from TANF because of child support collections; and 16.1 percent of TANF payments were recovered as a result of child support enforcement.

These program trends demonstrate that more and more positive child support outcomes are achieved by the Federal-State program. But whether these trends indicate program success is a complex matter that will be discussed in more detail below. We turn now to a detailed explanation of the Federal-State program and both its achievements and problems.


The Federal statute requires the national child support program to be administered by a separate organizational unit under the control of a person designated by and reporting directly to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Presently, this office is known as the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE). The Family Support Act of 1988 required the appointment of an Assistant Secretary for Family Support within DHHS to administer a number of programs, including the Child Support Enforcement Program. Currently, this position is entitled the Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families.

A primary responsibility of the Assistant Secretary is to establish standards for State programs for locating absent parents, establishing paternity, and obtaining child support and support for the spouse (or former spouse) with whom the child is living. In addition to this broad statutory mandate, the Assistant Secretary is required to establish minimum organizational and staffing requirements for State child support agencies, and to review and approve State plans.

The statute also requires the Assistant Secretary to provide technical assistance to States to help them establish effective systems for collecting support and establishing paternity. To fulfill this requirement, OCSE operates a National Child Support Enforcement Reference Center as a central location for the collection and dissemination of information about State and local programs. OCSE also provides, under a contract with the American Bar Association Child Support Project, training and information dissemination on legal issues to persons working in the field of child support enforcement. Special initiatives, such as assisting major urban areas in improving program performance, have also been undertaken by OCSE.

The Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984 (Public Law 98-378) extended the research and demonstration authority in section 1115 of the Social Security Act to the Child Support Enforcement Program. This authority makes it possible for States to test innovative approaches to support enforcement so long as the modification does not disadvantage children in need of support nor result in an increase in Federal TANF costs. The 1984 amendments also authorize $15 million for each fiscal year after 1986 for special project grants to promote improvement in interstate enforcement. In fiscal year 1999, 38 States had section 1115 grants or waivers which directly impacted child support: 6 States had waivers to implement models of collaboration among the CSE agency, Head Start Programs, and child care programs; 4 States had waivers to test new ways of reviewing and modifying orders; 4 States had waivers designed to improve CSE for Native Americans; 3 States had waivers to test different approaches to handling CSE cases with a history of domestic violence; 3 States had waivers to measure and improve CSE Program performance; and other States had waivers related to access and visitation, child support assurance, fatherhood initiatives, job training, parenting, interviewing and client referral, paternity establishment, and staffing standards.

The Assistant Secretary for Children and Families has full responsibility for the evaluation of the CSE Program. Pursuant to Public Law 104-193, States must annually review and report to the DHHS Secretary information adequate to determine the State's compliance with Federal requirements for expedited procedures, timely case processing, and improvement on the performance indicators. To measure the quality of the data reported by States and to assess the adequacy of financial management of the State program, the Secretary must conduct an audit of every State at least once every 3 years and more often if a State fails to meet Federal requirements. Under the audit's penalty provision, a State's TANF Block Grant must be reduced by an amount equal to at least 1 but not more than 2 percent for the first failure to comply substantially with the standards and requirements, at least 2 but not more than 3 percent for the second failure, and at least 3 but not more than 5 percent for the third and subsequent failures.

The 1996 welfare reform law set aside 1 percent of the Federal share of retained child support collections for information dissemination and technical assistance to States (including technical assistance related to automated systems), training of State and Federal staff, staffing studies, and related activities needed to improve the CSE Program, and research, demonstration, and special projects of regional or national significance relating to the operation of the CSE Program. An additional 2 percent of the Federal share of retained child support collections is set aside for the operation of the Federal Parent Locator Service (FPLS).

The statute creates several Federal mechanisms to assist States in performing their paternity and child support enforcement functions. These include use of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Federal courts, and the FPLS. The Assistant Secretary must approve a State's application for permission to use the courts of the United States to enforce orders upon a finding that either another State has not enforced the court order of the originating State within a reasonable time or Federal courts are the only reasonable method of enforcing the order. Although Congress authorized the use of Federal courts to enforce interstate cases, this mechanism has gone unused, apparently because States view it as costly and complex.

Finally, the CSE statute requires the establishment of a FPLS to be used to find absent parents in order to secure and enforce child support obligations. The role of the FPLS was expanded by the 1996 welfare reform law. For purposes of establishing parentage; establishing, setting the amount of, modifying, or enforcing child support obligations; or enforcing child custody or visitation; the FPLS is to provide information to locate any individual: (1) who is under an obligation to pay child support or provide child custody or visitation rights; (2) against whom such an obligation is sought; or (3) to whom such an obligation is owed. Upon request, the Secretary of DHHS must provide to an authorized person the most recent address and place of employment of any noncustodial parent if the information is contained in the records of DHHS or can be obtained from any other department or agency of the United States or of any State. Public Law 105-33, which was enacted in 1997 and made numerous changes to the 1996 welfare reform law, allows FPLS information to be disclosed to noncustodial parents except in cases where there is evidence of domestic violence or child abuse and the local court determines that disclosure may result in harm to the custodial parent or child. The Secretary also must make available the services of the FPLS to any State that wishes to locate a missing parent or child for the purpose of enforcing any Federal or State law involving the unlawful taking or restraint of a child or the establishment or maintenance of a child custody or visitation order.

Historically, the Federal Government held the view that visitation (also referred to as child access) and child support should be legally separate issues, and that only child support should be under the purview of the CSE Program. Both Federal and State policymakers have maintained that denial of visitation rights should be treated separately and should not be considered a reason for stopping support payments. Nonetheless, Census Bureau data indicate that it was more likely for noncustodial parents to make payments of child support if they had either joint custody or visitation rights. Thus, in order to promote visitation and better relations between custodial and noncustodial parents, the 1996 welfare reform law provided $10 million per year for grants to States for access and visitation programs, including mediation, counseling, education, and supervised visitation. In addition, as mentioned above, the 1996 law also expanded the scope of the FPLS to allow certain noncustodial parents to obtain information regarding the location of the custodial parent.

All States and territories applied for and received funding for access and visitation grants in fiscal year 1997. According to a preliminary report on the grant program (American Institutes, 1999), most participating individuals received parenting education, help in developing parenting plans, and mediation services. Based on data from 28 States and 2 territories, nearly 20,000 individuals were served by the grant program in its first year of operation.


The Social Security Act requires every State operating a TANF Program to conduct a Child Support Enforcement Program. Federal law requires applicants for, and recipients of, TANF to assign their support rights to the State in order to receive benefits. In addition, each applicant or recipient must cooperate with the State to establish the paternity of a child born outside marriage and to obtain child support payments.

TANF recipients or applicants may be excused from the requirement of cooperation if the CSE agency determines that good cause for noncooperation exists, taking into consideration the best interests of the child on whose behalf aid is claimed. If good cause is found not to exist and if the relative with whom a child is living still refuses to cooperate, then the State must reduce the family's TANF benefit by at least 25 percent and may remove the family from the TANF Program. (Federal law also stipulates that no TANF funds may be used for a family that includes a person who has not assigned child support rights to the State.) Before the 1996 welfare reform law, cooperation could have been found to be against the best interests of the child if cooperation could be anticipated to result in physical or emotional harm to the child or caretaker relative; if the child was conceived as a result of incest or rape; or if legal procedures were underway for the child's adoption.

Unlike previous law, the welfare reform law provides States rather than the Federal Government with the authority to define ``good cause.'' The law now requires States to develop both ``good cause'' and ``other exceptions'' to the cooperation requirement. The only restriction is that both the ``good cause'' and ``other exceptions'' must be based on the ``best interests of the child.'' In addition to defining good cause and other exceptions, States must establish the standard for proving a claim. States also will have to decide which State agency will inform TANF caretaker relatives about the cooperation exemptions, and which agency will make the decision about the validity of a given claim. These responsibilities can be delegated to the State TANF agency, the CSE agency, or the Medicaid agency.

Each State is required to designate a single and separate organizational unit of State government to administer its child support program. Earlier child support legislation, enacted in 1967, had required that the program be administered by the welfare agency. The 1975 act deleted this requirement in order to give each State the opportunity to select the most effective administrative mechanism. Most States have placed the child support agency within a social or human services umbrella agency which also administers the TANF Program. However, Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, and Massachusetts have placed the agency in the department of revenue and Guam, Hawaii, Texas, and the Virgin Islands have placed the agency in the office of the attorney general. The law allows the programs to be administered either at the State or local level. Ten programs are locally administered. A few programs are State administered in some counties and locally administered in others.

States must have plans, approved by the director of OCSE, which set forth the details of their child support program. States must also enter into cooperative arrangements with courts and law enforcement officials to assist the child support agency in administering the program. These agreements may include provision for reimbursing courts and law enforcement officials for their assistance. States also must operate a parent locator service to find absent parents, and they must maintain full records of collections and disbursements and otherwise maintain an adequate reporting system.

In order to facilitate the collection of support in interstate cases, a State must cooperate with other States in establishing paternity, locating absent parents, and securing compliance with an order issued by another State.

States are required to use several enforcement tools. They must use the IRS tax refund offset procedure for welfare and nonwelfare families, and they must also determine periodically whether any individuals receiving unemployment compensation owe child support. The State Employment Security Agency (part of the Federal-State Unemployment Insurance System), is required to withhold unemployment benefits, and to pay the child support agency any outstanding child support obligations established by an agreement with the individual or through legal processes.

Other enforcement techniques States must use include:

  1. Imposing liens against real and personal property for amounts of overdue support;
  2. Withholding State tax refunds payable to a parent who is delinquent in support payments;
  3. Reporting the amount of overdue support to a consumer credit bureau upon request;
  4. Requiring individuals who have demonstrated a pattern of delinquent payments to post a bond or give some other guarantee to secure payment of overdue support;
  5. Establishing expedited processes within the State judicial system or under administrative processes for obtaining and enforcing child support orders and determining paternity. These expedited procedures include giving States authority to secure assets to satisfy payment of past-due support by seizing or attaching unemployment compensation, workers' compensation, judgments, settlements, lotteries, asset held in financial institutions, and public and private retirement funds;
  6. Withholding, suspending, or restricting the use of driver's licenses, professional and occupational licenses, and recreational and sporting licenses of noncustodial parents who owe past-due support;
  7. Denying passports to persons owing more than $5,000 in past-due support;
  8. Requiring unemployed noncustodial parents who owe child support to a child receiving TANF benefits to participate in appropriate work activities;
  9. Performing quarterly data matches with financial institutions; and
  10. Voiding of fraudulent transfers of assets to avoid payment of child support.

Each State's plan must provide that the child support agency will attempt to secure support for all TANF children. The State must also provide in its plan that it will undertake to establish the paternity of a TANF child born out of wedlock. These requirements apply to all cases except those in which the State finds, in accordance with standards established by the Secretary, the best interests of the child would be violated. For families whose TANF eligibility ends due to the receipt of or an increase in child support, States must continue to provide CSE services without imposing the application fee.

Foster care agencies are required to take steps, where appropriate, to secure an assignment to the State of any rights to support on behalf of a child receiving foster care maintenance payments under title IV-E of the Social Security Act.

State child support agencies are also required to petition to include medical support as part of any child support order whenever health care coverage is available to the noncustodial parent at a reasonable cost. And, if a family loses TANF eligibility as the result of increased collection of support payments, the State must continue to provide Medicaid benefits for 4 calendar months beginning with the month of ineligibility. In addition, States must provide services to families covered by Medicaid who are referred to the State IV-D agency from the State Medicaid agency.

With respect to non-TANF families, States must provide, once an application is filed with the State agency, the same child support collection and paternity determination services which are provided for TANF families. The State must charge non-TANF families an application fee of up to $25. States may charge the fee against the custodial parent, pay the fee out of State funds, or recover it from the noncustodial parent.

States also have the option of charging a late payment fee equal to between 3 and 6 percent of the amount of overdue support. Late payment fees may be charged to noncustodial parents and are to be collected only after the full amount of the support has been paid to the child. States may also recover costs in excess of the application fee from either the custodial or noncustodial parent. If a State chooses to make recovery from the custodial parent, it must have in effect a procedure whereby all persons in the State who have authority to order support are informed that such costs are to be collected from the custodial parent.

Child support enforcement services must include the enforcement of spousal support, but only if a support obligation has been established with respect to the spouse, the child and spouse are living in the same household, and child support is being collected along with spousal support.

Finally, each State must comply with any other requirements and standards that the Secretary determines to be necessary to the establishment of an effective child support program.

See also:

This document is not necessarily endorsed by the Almanac of Policy Issues. It is being preserved  in the Policy Archive for historic reasons.

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