Judge Joseph Perkins has been enforcing child support orders in Texas for 20 years, but it's a case from a year ago that he thinks about most often. It involved a young woman who wanted to open a tattoo shop in her garage to earn money so she could pay the overdue child support she owed and avoid jail time.
"That was unacceptable," says Perkins. Whatever one thinks of tattooing, the woman wasn't trained for it and seemed unlikely to earn a living that way. Instead, she was enrolled in the state's "Non-Custodial Parent Choices" program, and was trained to be a welder. The woman now is a welding inspector at a nearby crane manufacturing plant and earns $26 an hour. "She had been chronically unemployed and had never really been taught how to get a job," the judge says.
The "choice" that this program offers parents who have fallen behind on their child support payments is a simple one: pay up, get training or go to jail. Most get training, and it works surprisingly well. On average, those who enter the program get jobs within eight weeks, state data show. Four years after they've completed the program, most continue to pay child support more often and in greater amounts than they had before, a study shows.
The Texas Non-Custodial Parent (NCP) Choices is not a huge program — 10,000 parents have gone through it since it began in 2005, out of some 1.2 million cases statewide. But it's a groundbreaking approach, and it is one of several innovative approaches that have boosted Texas into first place in the nation in child support collections. Equally important, the state says, are its efforts with employers . About two-thirds of its collections come from withholding income out of workers' paychecks and from other programs that go after parents who are behind on child support.
"We are aggressive with the bad guys," says Deputy Attorney General Alicia G. Key. "But we don't treat everyone like a deadbeat dad. We have innovative programs to help others…and the NCP is a good example of that." Key has headed the AG's Child Support Division since 2004.
"Texas operates what may be the best child support enforcement program in the nation," says Celia Cole of the Center for Public Policy Priorities , an advocacy group in Austin. And one of the most cost-effective. Texas collects nearly $9 in support for every $1 spent, the latest federal data show.
For the past five years, Texas has also led all states in raking in child support "bonus" money from the federal government, collecting $53.4 million in 2009, up from just $35 million in 2004. The federal government factors in not only cost-effectiveness but the number of cases in which paternity is established, and the total amount of money collected on child support that is overdue.
States benefit from efficient enforcement because families that get their child support payments don't have to rely as much on welfare and other state programs. Texas estimates that the $2.9 billion in child support collected in 2009-10 helped taxpayers avoid $1.2 billion in public assistance costs, including welfare and Medicaid. The NCP program is a small part of that. NCP brought in more than $13.5 million in child support between August 2005 and July 2009, state data from the Texas Workforce Commission show.
In addition to withholding income from a parent's paycheck, Texas has the authority to intercept federal income tax refunds, suspend drivers' and professional licenses, and seize assets held in financial institutions. The state has a "special collections" unit that handles liens, a "cold case" unit devoted to severely delinquent child support and a "Texas's Top 10 Most Wanted Child Support Evaders" list, topped by a chiropractor who owes nearly $405,000 in support for two children.
The attorney general's office also is active in schools with the aim of teaching "the reality of parenting." Since the 2008-09 school year, the attorney general and the state Department of Education have provided a curriculum known as "p.a.p.a" that schools can use to meet a state law requiring high school health classes to include "parenting and paternity awareness."
Child support enforcement is not without controversy. Some conservative groups see the federal bonuses as only enlarging the state welfare bureaucracy. Others raise the issue of fairness. The custodial parents, typically the mothers, get tax and social service benefits, while the noncustodial parents, typically the fathers, generally do not, and they still have to pay child support even if they earn very little. Fathers for Equal Rights, for example, says Texas judges rarely consider the financial circumstances of the parent receiving child support or the amount of time each parent has physical custody of the child.
For all of their effectiveness, Texas' child support enforcement programs were not immune to budget cuts this year that helped close the state's $27 billion state budget deficit.
For the first time, the attorney general is charging families a fee for recovering funds in certain child support cases. Paternity testing and some other services will continue to be free, but starting next month, custodial parents who have never been on welfare and get "full-service" help from start to finish will have to pay a $25 service fee for each year they receive at least $500 in child support collections. The federal government has allowed states to charge this fee for years and many states do, but Texas never has, until this year. The fee is waived for the lowest-income families.
On top of the state budget crunch, federal stimulus dollars for child support have run out. Overall, the attorney general's office says it will have $110 million less in federal and state money for child support enforcement over the next two years than in the previous biennium. So far, the office has not had to lay off child support enforcement staff.
The NCP program — the training program with which Judge Perkins works — is a collaboration between the Attorney's General Office, Texas Workforce Commission and the courts. The program actually received a boost in funding. The NCP program is funded in part with $4.4 million from the welfare program, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The program will see an extra $500,000 per year for each of the next two years.
Still, there is belt tightening going on. "Our people are working to the maximum," says Perkins, who this summer won the National Child Support Enforcement Association's Judicial Excellence Award for his work. "We just aren't able to hire anybody else."
For Jill Grissett, the NCP program supervisor for the East Texas Workforce Board, the threat of budget cuts earlier this year forced "some adjustments" but no major changes thus far in the training the NCP program provides. With the help of nearby colleges, the program provides training for jobs that local employers are trying to fill.
For instance, she says, her local area still needs workers who know how to respond to workplace hazardous spills, prompted, in part, by last year's offshore oil spill in the Gulf. More than 45 parents who owe payments now have OSHA-HAZMAT certifications that meet federal requirements for cleaning up dangerous chemicals.
Grissett says that more than 90 percent of the parents who go through her NCP program get jobs, and she doesn't think the state budget woes will change that. "This is a very collaborative effort between government agencies and private employers," she says. "Employers are even calling me now" with openings. "That's why it works."