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Colorado emerges as national model by helping ‘deadbeat’ parents get jobs, fight addiction

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.

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