Families have been changing and evolving over the past several decades. Increases in divorce rates and unwed pregnancies continue to drive the rise in single-parent households; the trend is most prevalent among families living in poverty and African American families. Unfortunately, policies have largely failed to keep up with these trends, and as a result, families suffer.
As we celebrate another Father’s Day, we should consider revising one federal program that could benefit fathers, as well as children and families: Child Support Enforcement, or CSE. As its name implies, the program is already working to help families with their child-support arrangements and issues. But it could play a greater role in visitation, a key to fostering and maintaining the connection between fathers and their children.
Currently, 35 percent of families are headed by single parents, usually mothers, leaving many children to grow up in homes without their fathers. Those numbers are a lot higher for families living in poverty (69 percent) and African American families (63 percent). Various studies suggest that connections to active and nurturing fathers are associated with positive factors for children such as better verbal skills, academic achievement, and social connections with peers. Despite these findings, current systems don’t make it easy for low-income fathers to establish formal arrangements for spending time with their children. The combination of growing changes in family structure and the inherent value to a child of having a good connection with their father suggests a significant pool of families may be able to benefit from visitation assistance.
While there is limited information available about the demand for visitation assistance, we do know that the nation’s free legal-services providers turn away more than 390,000 requests for family-law help a year due to lack of resources. And localized efforts such as Texas’s Access and Visitation hotline are overwhelmed with requests for assistance.
Families currently have only one place to turn to get help with their visitation needs: state and locally funded family-court systems. But there is potentially a second place to turn: the Child Support Enforcement system.
Visitation help through the courts
The primary avenue for resolving visitation issues is through the state courts. Unfortunately, that system has its challenges.
In 2011 the American Bar Association passed a resolution declaring that state-justice systems were underfunded and in crisis. Court services were already being cut before the Great Recession; since then, additional cuts of 10 percent to 15 percent have meant serious consequences, including failure to fill judicial vacancies, staff layoffs, and case backlogs.
This funding crisis is affecting the courts’ ability to serve families, but there is another major issue at play: the rising costs of attorneys’ fees. This is a primary reason why more low-income and middle-class families are representing themselves in court, particularly in family matters. Pro se litigants, or people who represent themselves, must learn to navigate often-complex court processes without a lawyer. This can be frustrating for the individual, while also taking longer to resolve. And large numbers of these cases can clog the system, causing everyone to wait longer to have their issues heard.
The potential for visitation help from CSE
These court-system challenges suggest an unrecognized value of the Child Support Enforcement system: its potential to provide an accessible means of helping families with visitation agreements using a mixture of federal and state funding. But the key word is “potential,” since visitation or parenting-time agreements are currently not integrated into CSE services.
The Office of Child Support Enforcement does administer a small Access and Visitation Grant that has existed since 1997. But its nationwide budget has never increased above $10 million per year, despite bipartisan support to grow the effort from both former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. Recently, the Obama administration went a step further, recommending the incorporation of visitation arrangements in all new child-support orders.
Unless Congress acts on the administration’s recommendation, CSE families must continue to struggle with two separate processes: one for child support and the other for visitation. This stands in stark contrast to divorcing families who are not involved in CSE—they pursue just one court process that simultaneously resolves both child support and visitation questions. Ultimately, a bifurcated process wastes resources of the courts, as well as those of mothers and fathers.
CSE should integrate visitation assistance into its service model; however, it should be sure to do so in ways that most benefit children and families. Making mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution universally available to families is a great start.
Considered a best practice in family courts across the nation, mediation and similar forms of alternative dispute resolution involve both parents in the negotiating process, along with the help of a third party. Parents are empowered to make their own decisions, creating individualized decisions that best suit the needs of their families.
When compared to adversarial court processes, various studies have associated family-law mediation with a whole host of positive outcomes that include higher rates of parental satisfaction, children spending more time with their fathers, and improved co-parenting relationships. In addition to this general research, limited federal investments in mediation through the federal Access and Visitation Program have demonstrated similar results for the populations already being served by CSE:
- Parenting-time increases. Forty-one percent to 42 percent of parents who reached an agreement reported that fathers were spending more time with their children post-mediation.
- Some children’s behavior improves. Thirty percent to 39 percent of mothers reported that their children’s behavior improved after mediation, although a smaller number reported the opposite—that their child’s behavior worsened.
- Co-parenting relationships showed signs of improvement. Fathers who reported that their relationship with the other parent was “hostile and angry” dropped from 39 percent to 17 percent post-mediation. Similarly, mothers reported a drop from 36 percent to 14 percent.
- Parents were more likely to pay support. Forty-four percent to 64 percent of fathers increased their child-support payments after participating in mediation to develop visitation arrangements. Even greater gains were made by fathers who were never married to the mothers, and by fathers who were not making full payments prior to mediation.
A growing number of families—not just fathers—stand to benefit from visitation or parenting-time assistance. The courts are one available resource but they are experiencing some significant crises. The nation should view Child Support Enforcement as another resource for meeting the need for visitation help. In doing so, however, they must change the CSE model to universally incorporate proven strategies that promote the well-being of families: mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution. Cultural shifts such as this are difficult, but with appropriate guidance from our lawmakers and the administration, it is possible.
Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress.