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Child Support Survival Guide: The Child Support Enforcement System

Federal CSE system facilitates support collection from both parents.


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The Child Support Enforcement (CSE) system was created by the federal government in 1975 to facilitate the collection of child support for children who needed support from both of their parents. The object of enforcing support obligations was to prevent poverty among children and to reduce welfare rolls.

At its inception, the primary target of federal legislation was the reduction of welfare costs caused by Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). State departments of social services-the government agencies that supervise welfare programs-referred cases to state-established agencies responsible for child support enforcement. The CSE agency then pursued the absent parents to obtain reimbursement for welfare. It soon became obvious that by collecting child support from noncustodial parents, children could be removed from AFDC.

In the early 1980s, the CSE program was expanded to provide services to custodial parents who were not receiving welfare, in order to prevent families from needing to apply for AFDC.

States are required to establish CSE agencies to collect child support for custodial parents who receive welfare and those who do not. The federal legislation was enacted as Section (D) of Title IV of the Social Security Act. Hence, CSE agencies are now called IV-D agencies. The federal government now supervises and regulates the CSE program. States implement the program by enacting their own laws creating and empowering agencies.

New laws have given the agencies more power to enforce child support orders; the advent of computers has accelerated child support collections and caseloads; annual child support collections have increased; and the pace of new welfare cases has slowed.

Money Matters

The Nineteenth Annual Report to Congress for the fiscal year 1994, compiled by the National Reference Center-Administration for Children and Families, reported that between 1990 and 1994 the CSE program grew from 12.8 million cases (8 million of which were AFDC cases) to 18.6 million cases (10.4 million of which were AFDC cases). During this period, the non-AFDC portion of the caseload increased by 69 percent, while the AFDC portion grew by 36 percent. Child support collections increased from $6 billion to $9.9 billion. Non-AFDC collections accounted for 74 percent of the total amount collected. It is easy to see how the CSE program has helped reduce the ranks of welfare recipients and saved billions of dollars each year.

Purpose of the CSE

The CSE agency does not represent the custodial parent (the caretaker who has physical custody of the children), the noncustodial parent (the parent who is absent from the home), or the children, although it provides services to each of these groups. The agency is responsible for protecting the financial interest of the taxpayers. Consequently, the state has a vested interest in assuring that child support is paid for these children by the parents, and not by the taxpayers.

All CSE agencies operate under a common set of federal standards through each state's Central Registry, and are required to work together. In California, the local office of Child Support Enforcement is a part of the District Attorney's Office called the Family Support Division or Family Support Bureau. In other states, CSE agencies operate through their Department of Human Services (welfare), the Department of Justice, the state tax agency, or the Attorney General's Office.

To locate your local CSE office, refer to the United States Central Registry page.

CSE Services

CSE agencies offer five basic services. They are:

Locating the absent parent.

Establishing paternity of the father.

Establishing child support orders.

Establishing medical support orders.

Enforcing and collecting child support, spousal support, and medical support orders.

CSE agencies do not become involved with custody or visitation disputes, even though the child support order can contain custody and visitation clauses. The Welfare Reform Act contains a $10 million authorization for states to enact programs to facilitate noncustodial parents' access to their children. However, this program might take states years to implement and develop. Until these visitation centers are established, parents must continue to initiate a separate legal action on their own initiative for enforcement of custody and visitation orders.

CSE agencies do not create or enforce property settlements, unless the court order specifically provides that property or revenues from the sale of property be used to offset a child support obligation.

CSE agencies do not become involved with divorce proceedings, except on child support questions as part of a marriage dissolution. In a marriage dissolution in which the children receive public assistance, the agency must participate in the child support portion of the divorce. In nonaid cases, the custodial parent can request that the CSE office intercede on his or her behalf regarding the child support portion of the divorce. Contact your local CSE agency for clarification on that office's policy regarding involvement in marriage dissolutions.

CSE agencies do not try to prevent parents from harassing each other, nor do they handle restraining orders. The parent who is being harassed must initiate legal action without the involvement of the CSE agency. Harassments and threats should also be reported to the police and courts.

CSE agencies receive support in three ways:

The Welfare Department refers all new AFDC, medical-only, or foster care cases to the agency

A custodial or noncustodial parent presents a completed application for nonaid services to the agency.

An agency in another state or country refers a child support case to the agency on behalf of the custodial parent or welfare case in the other jurisdiction.

Although each agency has a unique structure, each agency usually consists of two parts:

A unit to establish child support orders (for example, locating a missing parent, adjudicating the father's paternity of the child, and the establishing of an order for support).

A unit to enforce child support and medical support orders (for example, serving a wage assignment and health insurance order on an employer, recording a child support judgment and filing a property lien, and intercepting state and federal tax refunds, and unemployment and disability benefits).

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