Bringing Procedural Justice Principles to Child Support Programs

Woman's hands opening envelope

Child support agencies aim to secure payments from noncustodial parents to support the well-being of their children. When noncustodial parents fall behind on child support, they may face consequences, such as driver's license suspensions, civil contempt, and even jail time. These enforcement actions can make it harder for parents to make future child support payments.

The Procedural Justice-Informed Alternatives to Contempt (PJAC) demonstration, sponsored by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), integrates principles of procedural justice into enforcement practices in six child support agencies across the United States. Procedural justice is the perception of fairness in processes that resolve disputes and result in decisions. Research has shown that if people perceive a process to be fair, they will be more likely to comply with the outcome of that process, whether or not the outcome is favorable to them.

MDRC, MEF Associates, and the Center for Court Innovation are evaluating the effectiveness of the PJAC model. As part of the demonstration, the PJAC Peer Learning initiative provided training and support to several additional child support agencies that were interested in procedural justice but not part of the PJAC study.

In this episode, Leigh Parise talks with Michael Hayes and Tanya Johnson from OCSE, Melissa Froehle from Minnesota Child Support Enforcement, and Maria Lasecki, Director of Brown County Child Support in Wisconsin, about the role of procedural justice in child support, how the Peer Learning initiative works, and what the sites have learned so far.

Leigh Parise: Policy makers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Welcome to Evidence First, podcast from MDRC that explores the best evidence available on what works to improve the lives of people with low incomes. I'm your host, Leigh Parise.

When a child in the United States doesn’t live with both of their parents, the parent who doesn't live with them may be responsible for paying child support. When parents make payments regularly, child support can help maintain the well-being of children and help keep them out of poverty. But it doesn't always work out this way. When parents fall behind on child support, there may be consequences for nonpayment, such as driver's license suspensions, civil contempt, and even jail time. These enforcement actions can sometimes make it harder for noncustodial parents to make child support payments that can help support their families. There may be a different way to increase parents' cooperation with child support, called procedural justice.

Procedural justice aims to shift people's perceptions of fairness within a system. Research has shown that when people feel that a process is fair, they're more likely to comply with the outcome of that process, regardless of whether or not the outcome was favorable to them. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement is testing this approach in a demonstration project called the Procedural Justice-Informed Alternatives to Contempt, called PJAC for short.

MDRC, MEF Associates, and the Center for Court Innovation are evaluating the effectiveness of the model in six child support agencies. Part of that demonstration, the PJAC peer learning project, provided procedural justice training and resources to child support agencies who were interested in integrating procedural justice principles into their agencies but weren't taking part in the PJAC study. In this episode, we'll take a closer look at some peer learning project interventions, reflect on the role of procedural justice and child support, and take stock of what the sites have learned so far. For this episode, I spoke with Michael Hayes and Tanya Johnson from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, Melissa Froehle from Minnesota Child Support Enforcement, and Maria Lasecki, Director of Brown County Child Support in Wisconsin. Welcome. Michael and Tanya, thank you so much for joining me today. It's really great to have you.

Tanya Johnson: Thanks for having us.

Michael Hayes: Yeah, it's so great to be on.

Leigh Parise: Great. All right. So let's dive in with the first question. Can you tell us a bit about procedural justice? What is it? What research informs it? And how does it relate to child support?

Michael Hayes: So procedural justice is the idea that fairness and transparency in processes used in decision-making or dispute resolutions are the critical elements for parties involved in that dispute to accept outcomes. And that maybe runs a little bit contrary to what people expect, right? Because I think in most people’s minds for the court—in legal context, especially—we think people want to win. And while people do want to win, it turns out it's even more important that the process is respectful, transparent—that they get to tell their side of the story and they understand how the final decision was reached and how the rules were applied to them. And if all those things were in place, even if they don't win, it turns out they're more likely to accept the outcome. And so at the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, we’re thinking about our demonstration project to try to test some kind of alternative to contempt.

You know, there's been a lot of criticism of contempt in the past—that it’s kind of punitive or coercive and used inappropriately. And so we were thinking about what research is out there on things that might be a replacement or at least another tool in the tool kit for contempt. And there's been a lot of research on procedural justice, mostly in the courts, some in law enforcement. And so thinking about child support as another authority, we were thinking about what it is that leads to people following the decisions of authorities.

And so there are four or five principles of procedural justice, depending on whose research you're reading. Much of the research will talk about voice and participation. So that's the litigant or the participant’s perception that they got to tell their side of the story and the decision-maker listened to their story and took that into account. Another is neutrality in process. And so it really is the litigant’s or the participant's perception that the decision-making process is unbiased and trustworthy. It's not the authority's belief that the process is unbiased or trustworthy. It's the participant's perception of that. A third is respect: the individual is going through the process, feels like the system treated them with respect and with dignity, and the system players—like the judges, the child support authorities—treated them with dignity. And then understanding, and that's the litigant’s understanding of the process and how decisions are made, that they understand what's going on. And then we also focused on a fifth principle that some researchers cite, and that is helpfulness. And that's just that perception that the system players were as helpful as they could be; the people were trying to be helpful to the extent that the regulations and rules allowed them to be.

Leigh Parise: So that's really helpful to hear all of those details and to hear you walk through the principles. So how can child support programs apply procedural justice principles to their existing practices? What are some examples of what this actually might look like?

Tanya Johnson:  Procedural justice really is both a mindset and a structured research-based approach that really gets child support back to its mission: to improve children's well-being by ensuring that they're receiving financial support from both their parents. And because procedural justice promotes fair and equitable processes, it is really critical to building trust in legal and social services systems like the child support program. So using procedural justice doesn't mean abandoning traditional child support enforcement tools such as contempt, but it really does mean not using them blindly and automatically. Child support is highly automated and while it works great for most cases, this project, using procedural justice, really allowed us to look beyond automation in child support and really start to begin to consider the individual.

So PJAC sites are focused on using procedural justice as an alternative to contempt. But in June of 2020, we invited other state and tribal child support programs who were not already part of this project to apply to become PJAC peer learning sites, to explore using procedural justice-informed approaches to improve other areas of their program operations. Five programs participated—Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, Texas, and Wisconsin—and the PJAC peer learning site model really required each peer learning site to develop, adopt, implement, and evaluate the procedural justice intervention in their program.

So each peer learning site was able to examine their current child support process, identify an area where they could apply procedural justice principles, and then they developed an intervention plan to begin addressing the challenges in that area. For example, we have Wisconsin and Indiana, they looked at the very first step in the child support process, which is establishing a case. Texas looked at using a procedural justice lens when modifying child support orders.

Michael Hayes: And Tanya, one thing I think I want to just add to what you said is that was really the beauty of the peer learning models. As we were doing the demonstration, which was focused on contempt, many of the child support workers and those sites were like “Ooh, we wish we'd had this before we got to contempt.” And so having those tools available to additional states to test in other stages of the child support process really highlighted how effective it can be throughout the entire life of a child support case. And not waiting until you got to contempt and then having to undo some of the bad feelings, bad experiences that had accrued over time in parents' involvement in child support.

Leigh Parise: Great. That makes a lot of sense. That's helpful to hear those specific examples too. So can you tell me a little bit about where the idea for the peer learning sites initiative came from? What were you really trying to do with that initiative? What was the goal?

Michael Hayes: What led us to develop a structure for peer learning and testing interventions was a very common experience, I think, for those of us in public service: We go to a conference, and we hear some other state or jurisdiction describe a really creative or innovative project that they've developed. And we think, “Ah, I want to do that.” And then we go back to our local setting and the everyday demands of running our programs and all that kick in, and we think, “Oh, well, I'll reach out to that other state later. And I need more details on how to do this and I don't even know where to start.”

So we developed a model that created a structure and some accountability for people who said, “Hey, this is a really great idea for states and tribal child support programs. This is a really great idea that I heard about at this conference. I want to test some of these same innovations in my program.” Do we put out a call for people who are interested or states and tribes that were interested in this? [We] included training and technical assistance from experts, but it also created some accountability because they said, “Yeah, we want to do this project. We're going to be part of this.” And we built in some report and follow-up and they reported to each other on how they were doing.

Tanya Johnson: Just to add to what Michael just said. You know, the neat thing about the peer learning sites is that they received absolutely no funding. So we were able to demonstrate that training, technical assistance, guidance—other child support agencies could learn from the lessons learned in PJAC and apply these principles at a low cost.

Michael Hayes: Yeah. Because it's not uncommon for state child agencies to say, “Oh, we'd really like to do that, but we didn't get the grant.” And so in both of these settings, we demonstrated that it wasn't the grant that was the critical element. It wasn't the extra funding. These were things that could be done within programs with existing resources.

Leigh Parise: Great. Thank you. Yeah. I think we've all experienced that. “Oh, wow, that sounds like it'd be super helpful to the challenges that I've been experiencing”—and then just got back to our everyday work or personal lives. So it's really great that you were able to create this opportunity for people to do that. So talk a little bit about what kinds of challenges procedural justice is really designed to address, and are there some systems or processes that require changes that are actually beyond procedural justice?

Tanya Johnson: As I said earlier, procedural justice really promotes fair and equitable processes. Some aspects of the child support systems really can serve as barriers to engaging parents positively. All staff members in the child support agency really play an important role and contribute to the fairness of the child support process based on how they treat participants and procedures that they promote. For example, front desk staff: They're often the first point of contact for a parent. So before getting started on a project to improve child support processes using principles of procedural justice, it's really, really important that agencies engage in careful planning. They need to take a hard look and really examine their current processes. And then once they assess their needs and the barriers, it's really critical that agencies move their projects forward in a way that is really responsive to those needs.

Michael Hayes: Yeah. Thanks, Tanya. I think to get to some of the challenges that child support agencies face that procedural justice is not going to be a solution to is for us to think a little bit about economic and structural barriers to parents' ability to support their kids. So procedural justice is focused on will, right? On one's willingness to comply, one’s willingness to follow the child support order. And it's not going to be able to address lack of employment opportunities, or employment opportunities being closed to people with criminal records, or racial injustice when it comes to employment or housing or transportation. It can't address those things. And so there are some structural challenges it's not effective with. But the ones of will and openness, following those decisions, it can work. And so I think that's really critical. It's not going to be the solution to every child support problem. If a state has child support guidelines, and those guidelines are perceived to be unfair…procedural justice can't fix that. So I think we want to be clear about the challenges that it can't address.

Leigh Parise: I think a lot of what you're saying will really resonate with people who are listening. You're acknowledging that procedural justice can't solve all the challenges, but really focuses on promoting fair and equitable practices. And that all staff really play an important role in the process, and the way that they interact with families really matters. And that it's about changing the culture and helping to empower parents and be their partners. I appreciate hearing you stress the importance of thinking about people's individual experiences and circumstances and meeting them where they are. And so that all feels really critical. Michael and Tanya, thanks so much for joining me today. It's been really great to get to hear from you.

I also spoke with Melissa Froehle from Minnesota Child Support Enforcement and Maria Lasecki, Director of Brown County Child Support in Wisconsin, whose child support agencies took part in the PJAC PLS program. Here's that conversation now.

Well, Melissa, Maria, thank you so much for joining us today. We're really excited to have you. I think the first thing that we really want to hear from you is what made you interested in taking part in the PLS pilot program? Why did you think procedural justice would be a helpful approach for your agency? Melissa, do you want to kick us off?

Melissa Froehle: Sure. So I'm from the Minnesota State Child Support Division, and the program that we applied for—this peer learning opportunity with procedural justice—was to look at our driver's license suspension in the state of Minnesota. So we knew—and we had some work done at the state level for a couple of years, trying to improve our driver's license suspension process—we knew that we had a disparity or a difference in outcomes for different racial and ethnic groups in the state of Minnesota, in terms of who's affected by driver's license suspension for child support nonpayment. And what we know is that our business-as-usual process really relies on sending out a written notice and is very reactive.

So we rely on people to call the program to stop their driver's license from being suspended, and that hasn't been super effective. And so this procedural justice opportunity really gave us the chance to look at how to do customer service in a different and better way, incorporating the procedural justice principles and really incorporating people's voices in this process. And trying to really make driver's license suspension: (1) not do it so much, because we know that's going to have unintended consequences and be counter effective, but (2) also really try to engage people and what's happening with their case. Why this case is coming for suspension, what's the barrier to nonpayment? So we just saw it as really a good way to infuse some really good customer service principles into this work to try to impact this process.

Leigh Parise: For people who are listening, if it's not immediately obvious, can you say a little bit about how disruptive it is to have your license suspended, for people who haven't been through that or don't know people who've experienced it?

Melissa Froehle: Yeah. So there's really been a growing movement nationwide to look at driver's license suspension for non-driving-related reasons. Child support is one of those. So for those who don't know, federal law requires that states have a driver's license suspension remedy for nonpayment and child support. So it's something that states are required to do. How states do it varies from state to state. But we know from research that people who have a license suspended, who lose a job, have a hard time getting another job. And when they do get another job, there's a study out of New Jersey that shows that they have an 88 percent decrease in wages. So again, if our goal in child support is to help collect child support and support families and children, then using a tool that is counterproductive or counter effective isn't really getting us to that goal. There's also research that shows that 75 percent of people continue driving even when their license is suspended.

It doesn't stop people from driving. It just can increase then the ramifications and collateral consequences.

Leigh Parise: Right? So Melissa, you already were starting to talk about that you didn't think that the system, as it was in place, was super effective. And so this was really a chance to look at customer services in a different way. How did you apply the procedural justice principles to address the challenge that you were seeing in Minnesota?

Melissa Froehle: We did it in a number of ways. We had the workers that were in the pilot project. We did this as a pilot to make specific outreach efforts, both by phone and by sending procedural justice-informed letters. So we created a second notice that was much more friendly. That was really, “We're trying to help, call us. In one phone call we can come up with a case plan so you don't have these negative repercussions.” So it was infused in both the way that we did outreach. And then when a child support worker was on the phone with a noncustodial parent, we had procedural justice-informed scripts, and did training around how to have conversations. So a typical approach when there was a conversation would be, “Well, what can you pay? Like, okay, you want to keep your license? What can you pay?”

And instead, this conversation using these procedural justice principles moved into better understanding what people's barriers were and really trying to hear their voice. “What type of impact does this have on you?” And really expanding the conversation to “What else can we do to help you? What else can we look at? Can we give you resources? Can we give you referrals?” I would say a third way that we really informed or used procedural justice was around helpfulness. We become very bureaucratic and say, “You have to sign a payment agreement,” even when people have already resumed paying what they were supposed to be paying. So one of the things that we did in our case assessment process was gave workers tools to not require these papers that said, “You're going to basically pay what you're already court ordered to pay.” So there are a couple different ways in which we tried to infuse this in our process.

Leigh Parise: So you talked a little bit about the challenges that you were trying to address, right? So tell us about what it was like to design and actually implement your pilot.

Melissa Froehle: So one is since we're a state supervised county administered program, obviously we couldn't do this without county child support agencies. And in applying for this opportunity, we knew that we had a lot of county support and county interest because county agencies see this and realize it isn't working as great as it could be and wanted to do something different too. So we put out the opportunity for counties to apply to be a pilot site. And we had 12 counties that were, as I mentioned earlier, that were selected. As I mentioned, the two interventions–one is really doing proactive outreach to counties or to child support participants.

And then really the second piece of what we were doing was looking at our policies and amending our state policy and coming up with different and yet consistent ways that counties could work with obligors around their driver's license. So for example, we came up with six different categories when they do a case review, when they get a case that might be eligible for the pilot: Go in and look and see if what their current and recent payment history has been or if they're on public assistance, that type of thing.

Leigh Parise: Great, thank you so much. So it would be great, Maria, to hear a little bit about what made you at Brown County interested in participating in being part of the PLS pilot program. Why did you think that procedural justice would be a helpful approach for your agency?

Maria Lasecki: Sure. I was so excited when I saw the opportunity that was shared by our leadership at the state level. And really the pilot was just immediately intriguing because it was a continuation of the work that we have been doing in Brown County over the past 10 years. We've been working tremendously hard to engage parties and compel collaborative involvement, I guess, if you will, with the child support agency. And I really felt that PLS pilot would be just a continuance of that transformational journey for us. It's been a two-pronged approach, I guess you could say. We've worked really hard internally to change the culture of our agency. Enforcement has shifted from being solely heavy handed, if you will, to more of a holistic approach to case management services. Getting to root causes for nonremittance. And really, I don't know, trying to find that balance between a remedial helping hand and a heavy punitive hand. And that's been an ongoing goal for us, trying to hit that balance.

But secondarily, an outcome of this has been changing the perception of the agency from a participant perspective. And making this transition is really essential to creating a less oppositional relationship between not only NCPS and CPs but the child support program itself. But when we saw the pilot opportunity come through, it melded all of our aspirations and our work to what we see our mission being, just in another aspect of our program. And we weren't really sure exactly where we were going to focus our efforts and our intervention, but we decided on our paternity establishment process. But ultimately the goals remain the same. We're looking at ultimately increasing that reliable remittance of support, but simultaneously improving customer service. And, of course, availing our agency as a community resource agency. One participant said that “I used to run from you guys, and now I run to you.” And that's the change we're seeking.

Leigh Parise: Wow. “I used to run from you and now I run to you” is a huge statement. That must be like a big victory. So I think one of the things, Maria, that would be helpful: What's the summary of the specific project that your team is taking on? What's the challenge that you're trying to address, and how does participating in this work? How is it helping you to address that specific challenge?

Maria Lasecki: The overarching goal that we had was to simplify the extremely complicated process involved in paternity establishment or getting an initial order. So through our initiative, we wanted to dig into and try to positively impact cooperation with the agency by improving understanding, which we were hopeful would decrease court time and mitigate the instances of default judgment and set parties up for a good relationship and good interaction with the agency going forward. So what we did was we took a close look at what we weren't doing as compared to what we were, because we knew that what we were doing was really not well understood. We realized we made a lot of assumptions about what mom and potential father knew about the process—or didn't. And the procedural justice principles of respect and helpfulness and understanding—they sort of became our beacons, if you will, as we peel the onion of paternity establishment to get to its most basic form, so that we could have a good starting base.

And from there, we just committed to finding something that would resonate, from a nonthreatening way to present the process of paternity establishment to people we were serving that eventually took the form of an interactive board game. And it was familiar and recognizable, but just similar in many ways to something that people have played throughout their life. And then from that basic layout, we changed it to describe the steps that had to be accomplished as part of the process. And then behind those steps, people could drill into the context and the related information and expectations, I guess, in an informative, but an easily understandable way that used terminology that was understandable and not threatening. Both mom and potential father could make decisions about how they wanted to proceed, based on their own circumstances. And they could do so in an informed and really systematic way that made sense to everybody and helped us explain that complex process and boil it down to something that was meaningful.

Leigh Parise: I'm picking up on some of the terms that you used, right? You said, “We want people to have interactions that are nonthreatening.” One of the places you started also was that “We just felt like it was really important to set up positive interactions from the start.” And that positive interaction with the agency was so critical. Can you say a little bit more about either what you think people had experienced in the past or just why setting that tone from the beginning is really important for the longer run?

Maria Lasecki: Well, we chose paternity establishment because it is the beginning. It's the first brush with our agency that parents typically have. And, arguably for potential fathers, that experience or that first encounter was—by way of a process server—informing them of a pending court action. So what we wanted to do is make sure that we changed that up and took that complicated process down to an understandable level where it compelled participation and engagement. That was based on a hypothesis we've held for quite some time. Lack of understanding contributes to noncompliance and forced outcomes, such as in the case of a default paternity judgment. People we serve, participants—whether it's mom or dad—they just don't even understand why child support is involved in their lives in the first place, particularly at this juncture, this paternity juncture.

In the end we learn the same thing in the demonstration. You need to meet people where they're at. It's so critically important, and every case is so different. Everybody's circumstances are so incredibly different, but what better way to start understanding that than at the beginning? And that's the paternity establishment process. Our pilot changes that whole initial experience entirely, and it lays the groundwork for a more positive relationship with us as cases move through that enforcement life cycle. And it hopefully will have not only a positive effect there, but it'll be a lasting effect as we continue to provide services in the enforcement arena.

Leigh Parise: Can you say a little bit more about what you've learned about procedural justice since you started to implement your intervention?

Maria Lasecki: I've just learned that it's imperative that we look at everything we do. Whether or not it's a whole intervention or whether or not we're just looking at updating a form. And putting that procedural justice lens on, if you will, to see how we can better communicate with the people we serve in a way that isn't just meaningful and effective for us as experts or as agents of the program, but it's meaningful for the people we're serving so that they know how to engage in what's expected. And for me, everything I've learned about procedural justice gives me that groundwork. It lays the premise and the basis from which I need to look at verbiage and look at acronyms and be mindful of the fact that people are not familiar with those things like we are. And it compels me to step back, step far enough away from what it is that we do and what it is that we think we want to accomplish to be able to not drag the participant along through it, but to walk with them so they can make informed decisions.

Leigh Parise: Great. Thank you so much. Melissa, same question for you. Say a little bit about what you've learned about procedural justice since you started to implement your intervention?

Melissa Froehle: Yeah. I think one of the big things—and this resonates or alludes to a lot of what Maria's been saying throughout—is I think one of the big learnings for us is this is really a culture change. So the history of child support has been, as Maria said, you're balancing a heavy hand trying to really have more of a helping hand. But it's really been heavy handed, right? It's really, again, to use driver's license, we're threatening you to take your license. And so we've had an informal tagline that came up during this pilot that is now being bandied about more, which is moving from a culture of threats to a culture of engagement. And so really trying to help people understand—and by people, I mean child support staff that are working cases—it's a new day.

And so we're trying to change course in the middle of a case, where someone's maybe had some really bad experiences. But it takes a mindset change from “Why do I have to call them? It's their responsibility. They should call me, they have a court order, they know they're not paying,” to “Hey, we all want the same outcome. We want to help families receive support.” Like Maria said, meet people where they're at, and hearing their voice is so important to understanding what needs to happen in the case. How can we help someone? Because the reasons for nonpayment are the reasons why their case come up for suspension. As Maria said, cases are really different. And so just really needing to continually reinforce the culture change and why procedural justice is important, I would say is one of the big things that we've learned about this.

Leigh Parise: All right. So really interested to hear this has come up a little bit through your responses so far, but what have you heard from parents and from staff about how the project is going?

Maria Lasecki: We heard great things. We're very excited about some of what we've heard. I went with this question to my staff: Our paternity worker said our process map is visually stimulating and it's a way to open the dialogue about some really important matters in a nonconfrontational, non-overwhelming way. And she said it's really helped to have that visual aid to address questions as they come up. Which is a good and a new thing because participants didn't feel informed enough to even ask an informed question. So there's enough information being laid out that that dialogue and that interaction can happen more systemically and naturally.

So that's a good thing. So our takeaway is that PJAC has broken through some stereotypes that people have about the agency on whole, and it allows for that sharing of who we are and what we do and why we do it in regular terminology, in an understandable way. [Which] really is important because, again—and I may have said this before—that fear and noncompliance or nonengagement oftentimes is a veil for misunderstanding or lack of understanding and not having the knowledge of what steps to take next.

Leigh Parise: Great. Thank you so much. Melissa, how about you? What have you been hearing from parents and from staff about how the project is going?

Melissa Froehle: Yeah, so some of the individual success stories that have been shared with us from the counties are…for example, a noncustodial parent who got his driver's license reinstated that had been suspended for years, who never thought it would be possible to ever be able to get his license back. And so just the hope that provides to that person and also showing, “Hey, yeah, we want to be on the same page. We want to have the same outcomes. We see the importance of a driver's license.” Some other stories too, this was a noncustodial parent who joined the pilot after child support hearing. And they were able to connect with a worker after and hear about the pilot and felt like, for the first time, that child support agency's really, really working with him.

So parents, I think, are starting to feel like—again, to use the phrase Maria used—like we're meeting them where they're at. We don't have these unrealistic expectations of these huge amounts of money that people need to pay. We've also been doing more graduated payment agreement. So this is one of the lessons that we learned in the pilot, was that our state law allows counties to do graduated agreements. So it doesn't change the amount that you owe every month, but you can do partial payments to work your way back into full payments in order to keep a license. And this has been part of our state law for a long time and been part of our policy. But what we learned was that some counties weren't using this or had very little experience. So we had to do some more training around this, and again, how do you have a conversation and negotiate a graduated payment agreement when they're court ordered to pay a certain amount every month?

So one of the success stories was, again, a worker who was new to doing this and was able to negotiate a graduated agreement and the person was able to do a job search in order to keep their license. So those are some of our individual success stories that we're hearing. But also on the systemic level, one of the supervisors that's involved has shared with us that child support workers are starting to use these procedural justice skills as more second nature. So what may have been not business as usual and more stilted and maybe felt—again, as I mentioned earlier—like, “Oh, we're doing a lot of bending over backwards,” or something like that…it's becoming more of that, how you have a conversation and how you really encourage people's voices to be part of the process so that we can meet them where they're at. So there's some of what we're what we're hearing.

Leigh Parise: That's good to hear. So I want to just pause for a minute to see if you two may have any questions for each other.

Maria Lasecki: I agree with everything that's been said. It's been a journey. What procedural justice has taught us is that there just might be better ways to do it. And sometimes we are so close to the process that we're not seeing it for the deficiencies that exist, that are really huge roadblocks for the parties who are experiencing the service. You know, it's not uncommon. It's the challenges that we were presented with, we should have expected. And change is hard, but it's necessary and it's good. And it does wonderful things for the program and the people you serve. And it really simplifies the work that the agencies do in profound ways. It's just a little bit of initial work up upfront.

Melissa Froehle: And I would just add to that, maybe just some reflections on some of the things Maria shared. One was around uncovering and making assumptions of what people know about the process.

We wanted to do—and did—a lot of work in the pilot about the assumptions about what people knew. Because one of the common misunderstandings with our process is that, oh, if they start paying again, then the license won't get suspended. And it doesn't matter if they start paying again, they have to take certain steps. It doesn't matter. And so that's a big misunderstanding that people have.

And so that's why the outreach is really important. Because even if people get their mail and they open their mail and they read the letter, they're like, “Oh, well, I have a new job, and now it's coming out of my income withholding. And so I just don't need to worry about this anymore.”

So understanding the assumptions, or that we're making assumptions of what people know and understand…but also assumptions about who people are. There's a lot of talk in the child support world about this matrix of willing and unwilling and able to pay and unable to pay. And our enforcement tools are really geared toward—and driver's license is a perfect example of this—the assumption is that people have the ability to pay, they're just not willing. And so how do you distinguish those? You're looking at dozens of cases. How do you distinguish where people are? And part of that is you have to have a conversation with people, and you have to start from a position of not making an assumption that people are just unwilling to pay.

Because we know that a lot of people, they're not working, they're in inconsistent jobs, they might have effects from COVID-19. And so not only understanding that we make assumptions about what people know, but also assumptions about who people are and why they are not paying or having challenges. The other reflection I would say too, coming off some things Maria said, is as a program we also have to listen to workers in the program. And again, being a state supervised county administered program, we know that we've had some inflexibility in how we've been approaching this. And so that's one of the things we really wanted to provide in the pilot, was much more flexibility. And to give room for counties to infuse their ideas and to come back and say, “Hey, here are some things that we think we can do to improve; here are some of the challenges.”

So really partnering as a state child support system to listen to what people have to say and make those changes, because they've been saying it for a long time. There are things that we need to do better in this process and things that really aren't working. And so this pilot has given us the opportunity to do that. And so in a way, it's taking procedural justice with each other, right? Like listening to the voices of child support staff, listening to the voices of child support administrators in our process.

Leigh Parise: That's great. The last question we have is if there's advice that you would give to other child support agencies who are looking to incorporate some of the procedural justice approaches into their programs; what would you say to them?

Maria Lasecki: From my perspective: Don't hesitate. And I had mentioned this earlier, it makes our jobs easier. It's a great deal of work up front and reinventing your forms and your service delivery model and the mechanism that you use. You know, it's all an investment in what it is you're doing and how you're reaching the people that you serve. I would challenge anyone who is involved in the child support program to look at even the small things they do. This does not have to be a full-blown intervention to be able to be helpful and meaningful and perhaps even profound in your agency.

Melissa Froehle: Yeah. And I would just add, wherever in the process you're using procedural justice, really tying it into “What's our goal, what are we trying to accomplish? Is it helping us to collect child support?” And so continually having to come back to that point—yes, maybe they didn't respond, or they didn't this, or they didn't that; they said they were going to make a payment and now they've fallen off their payment agreement—but is this really going to help us collect child support, if we suspend the license? There are some cases in which that does work, right?

There are cases in which it doesn't work. But bring it always continually back to, “What's the goal that we're trying to accomplish and how can we use those procedural justice principles to help us accomplish the goal?” So how do we keep bringing it back to, “What does this look like in everyday life?” And this idea of moving the culture from a culture of threats to a culture of engagement. And that's really what's going to help us over the long term collect child support. Because what we know from driver's license research is when it is effective, it's often effective just for one-time lump sum payments. And that's good, but that's not what our goal is. Our goal, as Maria talked about, is to get reliable child support to families. And so we really need to work on that relationship piece. And that's what I think the procedural justice helps us do.

Leigh Parise: Maria, Melissa, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

Melissa Froehle: Thank you for having us.

Maria Lasecki: Yes. Thanks a great deal.

Leigh Parise: I want to thank all of our guests for joining me. The peer learning sites program concluded in the spring of 2022. MDRC has published several briefs and reports on the PJAC demonstration evaluation and more are forthcoming. One resource that listeners may be particularly interested in is a guide for child support agencies about incorporating procedural justice into child support practices. While it's geared toward child support agencies, practitioners, and policymakers who are interested in procedural justice, many state and county agencies—as well as community-based organizations—may find the guide useful. To find these and other resources, visit Did you enjoy this episode? Subscribe to the Evidence First podcast for more.

About Evidence First

Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? MDRC’s Evidence First podcast features experts—program administrators, policymakers, and researchers—talking about the best evidence available on education and social programs that serve people with low incomes.

About Leigh Parise

Leigh PariseEvidence First host Leigh Parise plays a lead role in MDRC’s education-focused program-development efforts and conducts mixed-methods education research. More