Colorado is pulling off a culture shift in child-support collection, a new era far from the 1990s’ call to track down “deadbeat” parents, freeze their accounts and suspend their driver’s licenses.
The state has renamed its “Division of Child Support Enforcement” to the kinder and more constructive “Child Support Services.” And under an experimental program, it’s helping parents behind on child-support payments find jobs, fight alcohol and drug addictions, and reconnect with their kids.
The five-year program — aimed at parents who want to pay but don’t have the money — has been so successful it has attracted national attention as a model for other states. Colorado officials are hoping it will motivate Congress to change federal law, which limits division spending strictly to enforcement.
Colorado’s approach hardly resembles former President Bill Clinton’s “Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act” of 1998, a crackdown on child-support evaders that authorized prison time.
“The notion was ‘we are going to go after these mostly men who could pay child support and are choosing not to,’” Colorado human services director Reggie Bicha said. “But many are dealing with no job or house, struggling with mental health or substance abuse.”
“What if we don’t just come after them with enforcement measures, but actually help them build a relationship with their children, help them get a job?”
Turns out the approach works, according to preliminary results from Colorado’s experimental program, which included 1,500 unemployed or under-employed parents in four counties — Arapahoe, El Paso, Jefferson and Prowers. “Willing but unable is the group we were targeting,” said Dan Welch, Colorado’s grant manager for the program.
Besides not having full-time jobs, many parents selected for the program had suspended licenses, no transportation, criminal records, frozen accounts and bad credit.
The 1,500 parents behind on child support, 85 percent of whom are men, were split in two groups. Half got regular treatment, which is to say no services save for a pamphlet from a local employment office. The other 750 people sat down with a case manager who asked why they weren’t making payments, about their job status, housing, mental health, substance abuse, relationship with their kids and living situation, among other things.
The division agreed not to suspend their driver’s licenses or seek other sanctions if the parents agreed to participate in services offered, including meeting with job-placement officers. Participants were assigned job counselors from local employment agencies. Some needed only minor help: a pair of work boots, a uniform, gas vouchers, a bus pass.
Within six months, two-thirds of the parents receiving services had full-time employment. And within a year, three-quarters of them were working full time.
“We are very impressed with the numbers,” Bicha said. “This is a population that is more challenged at getting jobs and sustaining jobs.”
The four counties so far are reporting child-support payment increases from 10 percent to 20 percent among the experimental group.
Colorado is one of eight states that received federal grant money to try a new approach in collecting child support, though each state developed its own program. Colorado received $2.3 million throughout the five-year grant, and will run out of grant funds in September.
More state data is coming, including comparisons in payment and job status between the control group and the experimental group. And a national report expected in 2019 will calculate total cost savings of increased child-support payments by examining whether families use less public assistance — Medicaid, food stamps and temporary cash assistance for housing, utilities and medical expenses.
The national study, tracking 10,500 families, also will include research about whether the additional services reduced incarceration and recidivism — among the parents as well as the children.
Human services director Bicha calls it “two-gen work,” meaning it attacks two generations affected by poverty. More than half of Colorado participants behind on child support did not have “father figures” in their lives.
“We believe that if we can focus efforts on parent and child simultaneously, we have a much better shot of moving the family out of poverty in this generation and the next,” he said.
Juan Vazquez, 34, is among the parents in Colorado’s experimental group. The Aurora father of six is an insurance adjuster and credits the child-support program with not only improving his earning potential, but reconnecting him with some of his children.
Vazquez’s struggle to make child-support payments goes back to Puerto Rico, where his oldest children were born and where he worked as a housekeeper at a Hilton resort. In his 20s, he made $13 per hour and repeatedly missed his $650 monthly payment.
He fell far enough behind that police officers tracked him down at work and brought him into custody. “When a SWAT team shows up at a five-star hotel to pick you up, you lose your job,” he said.
Vazquez later moved to Florida, where he had another child, and then to Colorado. By the time he began the Colorado child-support program about three years ago, he owed $17,000 in back child support in the states, plus an an ever-increasing, unknown amount in Puerto Rico.
His case manager helped Vazquez navigate acquiring insurance adjuster licenses from several states, boosting his job potential. He now travels throughout Colorado and beyond inspecting vehicles and boats for insurance claims. He has paid off the $17,000 debt, and Colorado officials are helping him communicate with the Puerto Rico division to settle his debts there.
“I have no words to describe how helpful my case manager has been to me,” he said. “From eight years ago to now, my life is so different.”
Vazquez also took parenting classes, and now has custody of two of his children and is working on gaining custody of a third.
“In Florida and Puerto Rico, it was more like, ‘Where do you live?’ and then someone is knocking on your door to arrest you,” he said. “Here, if you’re ready to move forward, you can use the resources they provide you. I’m very thankful.”
Before Colorado’s grant money runs out this fall, the Colorado Department of Human Services is looking for better ways to spend existing funding. State officials also are hoping Congress will modernize federal law, which prohibits using child-support division dollars on unemployment services, parenting classes or therapy.
County child-support offices no longer will have the funds to hire case managers as they did with the grant money, but existing staff can coordinate better with other county agencies that have money available for job counseling and other support, state officials said.
“We want to take what we’ve learned from the pilot counties and show the rest of the counties,” said Larry Desbien, director of Colorado’s child-support services. “It is absolutely forming the direction that we’re moving.”
The division, he said, is becoming one that “people don’t run away from but come to for help.”