Non-Residential Fathers and Child Support: Innovations and Partnerships

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Publication Date
May 7, 2019

Non-residential fathers are diverse, and they face diverse circumstances. Young fathers, divorced fathers, and fathers who may not have a formal relationship with a child’s mother all experience complex situations that require understanding and attention to specific challenges they face. These challenges are often compounded by other circumstances, and fatherhood programs should be aware of and prepared to help fathers navigate these challenges. Among the most typical are challenges with child support. It is sometimes difficult for fathers, particularly those who have been or are currently incarcerated, to meet their mandated child support payments, which can lead to the accumulation of a significant amount of debt.

To help fathers avoid accruing child support debt, four child support enforcement agencies experimented with implementing behaviorally-informed interventions . The interventions consisted of behavioral “nudges,” such as reminders or simplified, personalized letters that target major bottlenecks that limit action on the part of the father (be it applying for child support modifications or making child support payments). Then, the programs tested the impact of their intervention through a rigorous evaluation called a randomized controlled trial. Five of the eight child support interventions had a statistically significant impact on at least one of their primary outcomes.

These interventions occurred as part of the BIAS (Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency) project funded by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation of the Administration for Children and Families. BIAS launched in 2010 as the first major initiative to apply behavioral insights to human services programs that serve poor and vulnerable families in the United States. The project used what we already know about neuroscience and what motivates people to influence their behavior and, ultimately, motivate change that leads to better self-sufficiency outcomes.

Child support was one of the three human services domains included in the BIAS project.  The child support interventions targeted two action areas: 1) increasing order modification requests by incarcerated noncustodial parents; and 2) increasing payment rates on existing child support orders. To influence the first action area, child support enforcement agencies encouraged incarcerated parents to apply for child support modifications by providing simpler forms, pre-paid return envelopes, and reminder postcards. To influence the second action area, enforcement agencies instituted mail and text messages reminders of when child support payments were due.

The results are extremely promising, according to the findings from the BIAS project. The interventions are relatively low-cost (averaging no more than $11/per person to implement, and usually closer to $2-$3) and highly scalable–meaning they can be easily applied to a larger setting. Although we still have a lot to learn about how they work, these behaviorally-informed interventions could change the way human services programs work with their clients. For more information, check out the Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS) project, which builds off the initial findings of BIAS. This work takes the application of behavioral insights to child support contexts even further and may eventually shape the way programs work with fathers who pay child support.

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