Implement Self-Starting Enforcement and Establish a Central Registry for Child Support

The Legislature should implement a self-starting enforcement program and establish a central registry for child support cases.


Background
Congress established a federal child support enforcement program in part to maintain the financial stability of non-Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) families by making sure they receive regular support payments. The most effective way to fulfill this mandate is to enforce all support orders from the time they are established. Some states have implemented self-starting enforcement to improve their Child Support Enforcement (CSE) program s authority to enforce non-AFDC cases. 1

Self-starting enforcement means that every child support case comes under the authority of the state CSE office when it is established. Because the federal government requires that non-AFDC cases come to the CSE program by application, state s with self-starting enforcement include a short application for CSE services in all divorce and dissolution papers. Federal requirements allow the application to be as simple as a box for the parents to check.

Under self-starting enforcement, every case is monitored for delinquency from the moment it is established. The state s automated system identifies each case which has grown delinquent by a certain number of days and initiates the enforcement process by generating a series of letters to the delin quent absent parent, much the way utility and credit card companies automatically send out periodic reminders.

Self-starting enforcement improves collections by increasing voluntary payments and by discouraging absent parents from building up large delinquent balances. Usually, absent parents only need reminders to bring their payments up to date. In these cases, t he state is spared the costs of judicial processes. Prompt enforcement also prevents cases from going for months or years with no payments. The state is more likely to collect the full amount due in cases without large delinquent balances. 2

Michigan, Montana and Washington have implemented self-starting enforcement. 3 Michigan collects nearly five times more non-AFDC related payments than Texas and three times more AFDC-related payments. 4 While not all of these collections may be due to self-starting enforcement, studies show that self-starting enforcement is perhaps the strongest factor contributing to high rates of compliance with support orders. 5 Texas has a federally funded demonstration project in Bexar County involving self-starting enforcement that has been very effective in increasing child support collection rates. In the Bexar County project, judicial enforcement processes have been necessa ry in less than 10 percent of the cases.

Self-starting enforcement is supported by a database containing records of all the child support orders in the state. This database is known as a central registry, or unified registry. Some states have established central registries without implementing self-starting enforcement, because the record of a support order is useful even if enforcement is sought at a later date. Also, the registry provides useful demographic information. Self-starting enforcement is not possible without a central registry.

In Texas, there is no central registry of all child support orders. As in other states, Texas CSE program maintains files on the state s CSE caseload. These cases include almost all AFDC and Medicaid cases, as well a s all non-AFDC cases in which the custodial parent has applied to the state for CSE services.

The state s CSE caseload does not include cases in which the custodial parent is not receiving public assistance and has not applied for CSE services. Currently, those records are maintained in the county in which the support is ordered. They are not enfor ced by the county or the state. In implementing universal self-starting enforcement, the state could choose to have all child support records maintained only in the central registry; to have the county continue to maintain records and be responsible for forwarding records to the CSE office periodically; or to have the records filed in both the central and county registries at the time of order establishment.


Recommendations
A. The Legislature should direct the Attorney General s office to develop a five-year administrative cost and savings estimate of establishing a central registry for child support orders and self-starting enforcement for all new and modified cases. The estimate should include the additional child support collections that would result from implementing these measures. If the savings exceeds the costs, the Legislature should proceed with implementing these measures.

The Attorney General s office should assume that all divorce and dissolution decrees would be required to contain an application for CSE services that may be signed by either parent. If possible under federal mandates, the application would be phrased in an opt-out rather than opt-in form; that is, parents should be required to indicate that they do not wish to receive services, rather than saying they do wish to receive services.

B. The Legislature should encourage counties to automate sufficiently to allow for electronic transfer of child support records between counties and the state s automated system.

The Attorney General should offer technical assistance to small counties wishing to automate to ensure that the counties systems are compatible with the state s automated system.


Implications
Self-starting enforcement has significant advantages over the current system. Self-starting enforcement does not rely on the custodial parent s willingness to report delinquency. It also provides a more civilized way to remind absent parents that they ar e under obligation and that they can be punished for failure to pay. Currently, cost estimates are unavailable; consequently, an estimate is needed to determine if implementation would be cost-effective.

Implementing self-starting en forcement and automated monitoring would entail some administrative costs to the CSE program. It might also require modifications to the new automated system because of the additional capacity needed to process the larger caseload. The automated system sho uld be capable of expanding to meet new needs.

A central registry would provide the state with more complete information about child support needs and would enable the state to develop better policies for child support in Texas. A cost and savings estima te would enable the Legislature to judge the benefits versus the costs of this policy.

Establishing a central registry would entail some administrative costs. These costs would fall to both the state CSE program and to county registries. Depending on the nature of the registration process, the counties might be responsible for forwarding to the state the records of all newly established child support orders. Without standard automation many counties would rely on manual processes to transmit information.

Any administrative costs associated with establishing a central registry or implementing self-starting enforcement and automated monitoring should be more than offset by administrative savings. These savings would result from the decrease in costly enforce ment processes necessary in delinquencies.

In the future, the state may be required to establish a central registry. Federal regulations may expand the CSE program s mandated caseload.

Some individuals, including members of the U.S. Commission on Interstate Child-Support Enforcement, believe that the state should not be involved in every divorce and dissolution. 6 These individuals believe that universal self-starting enforcement may constitute an invasion of privacy.

However, people paying child support are under a court order to pay, and failure to pay child support is a crime. Monitoring absent parents payments is not an invasion of privacy but a service to help them meet their obligation and a service to the custodial parent to ensure that court-ordered payments are received.


Fiscal Impact
The fiscal impact of self-starting enforcement and a central registry for Texas would need to be calculated by the Attorney General s office. However, based on experience in other states and in Bexar County, the ability to enforce all child support cases would significantly improve child support collections for both AFDC and non-AFDC cases. This would help stem the state s AFDC and Medicaid costs and draw additional federal money to the program. Administrative costs of the recommendations would be eligible for federal administrative matching funds.

A cost and savings estimate developed by the Attorney General s office would provide the Legislature with the information needed to make a decision about statewide self-starting enforcement and a central registry.



Endnotes
1 Bee Moorhead, State Survey of Innovative Child-Support Enforcement Practice (The University of Texas at Austin, September, 1992). (Draft).
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, 1992 Green Book: Overview of Entitlement Programs, Background Material and Data on Programs Within the Jurisdiction of the Committee on Ways and Means, p. 752.
5 Texas Office of the Attorney General, Child Support Enforcement Division, New Directions for Child Support Enforcement, Self-Starting Enforcement Within an Integrated Statewide Registry (Austin, Texas, October, 1990).
6 U.S. Commission on Interstate Child Support Enforcement, Report to Congress: Supporting Our Children: Blueprint for Change (Washington, D.C., 1992).