Anticipated Changes to Child Support Enforcement Guidelines

The Obama administration reportedly plans to make changes to regulatory rules governing child support obligations of incarcerated parents. The rule changes are designed to prevent large debt accumulation and ease the re-entry of parents upon release so they can fully meet parental responsibilities after prison.

The proposed rule change would require states to allow parents to lower their support payments while in prison. Although states manage their own child support enforcement systems, the federal government maintains national standards and, under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act. reimburses states for 66% of their cost. Currently most states (including Illinois) permit a lowering or suspension of child support obligations while a parent is in prison, but 14 states do not. A federal guideline change would bring parity.

Although the administration has not yet shared the proposed rule, draft regulations with similar goals were submitted in 2015 but rejected by the Republican-led Congress. The 2015 proposal made changes also included the provision of job services as an optional—but reimbursable—part of child support enforcement services offered by states. Such a revision would strongly support the welfare reform goal of promoting employment which was tied to child support enforcement in 1996. This revision would also support Chicago Appleseed’s court reform goal of improving services to families involved in the domestic relations court system.

Although Illinois has provisions that permit incarcerated parents to reduce their child support payments to reflect their income while in prison, in 2013, there was $986,000 in new current support debt per month with more than $97.4 million in accumulated debt.

As part of our participation in the Domestic Relations Task Force, which is working to consolidate all child support cases into a single court division (cases concerning children of never-married parents are currently heard in a different division than cases concerning children of previously-married or divorcing parents), we have been examining ways to make the Cook County Hearing Officer process more efficient and more expansive. Because the Hearing Officers are not authorized under the current regulations to spend more than an insignificant amount of time on family issues other than determining paternity and setting the child support order, they cannot address all issues facing families in their hearing rooms.

Even though they are limited in the time  they can spend on such issues, Hearing Officers currently have access to an expansive bench book which helps them connect parents with job services, housing services and other assistance. If the proposed rule includes the similar provisions to the 2015 proposal regarding job services, Cook County’s Hearing Officers would be empowered to address barriers to child support payment and collection.

Allowing Hearing Officers to address a wider range of issues facing parents who do not live together—such as barriers to employment, housing or child care facing specific parents—would greatly improve outcomes in child support court. We hope to see the reported changes implemented.

Many groups—such as the ACLU, National Women’s Law Center, and the Children’s Defense Fund—supported the proposed rule in 2015.  So did groups working to reduce mass incarceration, to improve re-entry or eliminate cycles of debt created by incarceration which increase the likelihood of re-incarceration. Because many states consider incarceration “voluntary unemployment”, time in prison can create very high child support arrearages and create a cycle of debt and prison that “[asks women and children] to become dependent on men who are just as poor as they are.” We believe the focus on federal child support enforcement should be bringing both parents out of poverty for the benefit for all children, regardless of which parent’s home they live in.