Implementing the Family Violence Option: Lessons from Child Support "Good Cause" Policies
Nov 01, 1997 | Vicki Turetsky
"Good Cause" Policies(1)
In order to qualify for AFDC (and now TANF), applicants and recipients must cooperate with the state child support program in establishing paternity and obtaining support for their children. Collected support payments are kept by the state as reimbursement for assistance. The old cooperation law required custodial parents to tell what they knew about the identity of their children's father. But a custodial parent saying that she didn't know who the father was could sign a simple attestation to that effect, and the welfare agency would leave her alone.
The new law ratchets up the pressure on custodial parents to identify the father. Now, the custodial parent must "cooperate in good faith" by providing the name and other information required by the state. Nearly every state has interpreted the "cooperation in good faith" provision to allow the custodial parent to prove that she doesn't have the information. However, it is likely that the agency is looking more closely at her circumstances and starting from the position of not believing her. The new law gives the state discretion to make the entire family ineligible for TANF based on non-cooperation, and shifts the cooperation decision making from the welfare agency to the child support agency.
While the Family Violence Option (FVO) allows the state to waive child support cooperation requirements for domestic violence victims, the child support program contains a separate mechanism to excusing custodial parents from cooperation called "good cause." A custodial parent on AFDC could claim good cause if she could prove emotional or physical harm to herself or her child. Other good cause grounds include rape, incest, and pending adoption proceedings. But the good cause exemption has been rarely used. In the past, less than one percent of custodial parents receiving AFDC nationwide have claimed good cause. Yet we know that roughly twenty percent of women on welfare are current domestic violence victims, and sixty percent have had violent relationships in their past adult lives. What gives? States implementing the FVO should take a close look at how the good cause exception has worked in the child support program.
There have been several problems in administering the good cause exception:
- Client notice has been inadequate. Good cause was a "universal notice" model. Federal regulations prescribed the precise language to be included in a written good cause notice to each AFDC recipient. However, responsibility for advising clients on cooperation and good cause requirements was fragmented, with neither the welfare agency nor the child support agency fully devoted to the task. Women never heard of good cause, or only heard the jargon. If a client heard the term when she was completing the paperwork for AFDC benefits, she never heard it again. And she had no ability to stop the child support enforcement train once it left the station. There was no effort to get women to talk.
- Lack of training, lack of understanding. Child support and AFDC workers knew that some non-custodial parents were abusive. However, they usually didn't understand the prevalence, dynamics, or consequences of domestic violence. In addition, child support workers had only limited contact with clients. They got all of their information about the client from the welfare agency, usually on paper.
- Good cause was a yes or no decision. Good cause was set up as a decision about whether to open a child support case, not a decision about how to handle the case. It was an eligibility decision, not a case management decision. If a client got good cause, her child support case did not proceed. Her case was put on the shelf. Treating good cause as an exemption put the emphasis on proof and law, rather than assessment and individualized handling.
- The evidentiary standards were set high. Because good cause was set up as an exemption to enforcement, the federal government and states worried about creating a loophole and undermining the credibility of the child support program. Consequently, the evidentiary standard for establishing good cause was set high. There was an emphasis on official records. There were verification requirements. These evidentiary standards often have been applied in an arbitrary and inconsistent way. Jessica Pearson's research in Colorado(2) shows that often a restraining order or medical report was not accepted by workers as proof of good cause, particularly when the documents lacked full detail.
- Many women did not want an exemption. Many -- not all -- but many domestic violence victims wanted to pursue child support. They did not want their cases to be put on the shelf. They wanted the money, and made a judgment to go forward. The system never knew what it was dealing with, and no special steps were taken to minimize the risks.
- Attestation provided a safety "out". Attestation was another way to avoid child support enforcement. Women who attested to the lack of information could be reasonably confident that their child support case would not proceed, and their information would not be in the system. Workers suspecting that enforcement might not be a good idea could accept the attestation and sidestep the need for extensive documentation.
- Women did not see the payoff. Many women had the perception that the child support system did not work very well. They had no confidence that if they disclosed their sensitive personal circumstances, the state would do a good job of following up. There did not appear to be any benefits resulting from disclosure.
As the child support community reassesses the effectiveness of cooperation and good cause requirements, many states and advocates are concluding that many women who have suffered domestic violence might want to proceed with child support enforcement, but only if they can do so with confidentiality; with safety; with her individual circumstances in mind; and with some expectation of results.
However, this model -- child support enforcement with greater safety, coupled with temporary waivers -- runs against the current grain of the child support program. The child support program is moving toward a highly automated, computer-driven model, with limited caseworker involvement and uneven data security mechanisms. On average, a child support worker handles over 1000 cases at a time.
Some states interested in pursuing child support on behalf of domestic violence victims have begun to consider "peeling off" identified domestic violence cases from the automated caseload and creating special handling units with staff who are well-trained in domestic violence issues or hired from the domestic violence community. Such a unit would involve (1) a strategic case management approach; (2) client participation in decision-making; (3) notice to clients before taking establishment or enforcement actions; (4) confidential procedures; and (5) preservation of paternity information for future enforcement. The client should be able to stop the enforcement train at any point that she feels endangered.
As states implement the FVO, it is important that the child support cooperation and good cause requirements be integrated, or at least harmonized, with FVO procedures. To get it right, the state must establish a collaborative work group to assess program capacity and to develop specific safety-conscious policies and procedures. Staff from the child support, TANF, and child protection programs, advocates from the domestic violence community, and women themselves must be at the table to work through new approaches to child support.
There are important reasons to help domestic violence victims obtain child support. Child support can be a critical supplement to wages, particularly as TANF time limits are implemented. In addition, child support enforcement can be a way to hold the abuser accountable. However, the state must proceed with caution and a clear sense of its administrative capacity. The need for safety must be the bottom line.
1. Adapted from a presentation given at the Invitational Symposium on Welfare Reform and Domestic Violence sponsored by the School of Social Work, State University of New York at Stony Brook.
2. Jessica Pearson and Esther Ann Griswold, "Child Support Policies and Domestic Violence," Public Welfare (Winter 1997).