When a child does not live with both parents, the parent with whom the child does not live is known as the “noncustodial parent.” The noncustodial parent may be responsible for a share of the costs associated with raising the child. Parents who do not make their child support payments can be subject to enforcement measures such as license suspensions or interceptions of tax refunds. If these measures do not yield sufficient payment, child support programs can refer parents to the legal system for civil contempt of court. Civil contempt proceedings require noncustodial parents to attend hearings and may lead to arrest or jailing.
In recent years, some child support policymakers and researchers have questioned the fairness and effectiveness of pursuing civil contempt to secure child support payments, particularly for parents with low incomes. Civil contempt proceedings are costly, burdensome, and often counterproductive to the goals of the child support program. They can impede employment, increase child support debt, alienate noncustodial parents from their children, and decrease parents’ future cooperation.
The Procedural Justice-Informed Alternatives to Contempt (PJAC) demonstration tested a different approach to improving child support payments. Developed by the Office of Child Support Services (formerly the Office of Child Support Enforcement), it integrated principles of procedural justice (the idea of fairness in processes) into enforcement practices in six child support agencies across the United States as an alternative to standard contempt proceedings. PJAC services aimed to address noncustodial parents’ reasons for nonpayment, promote their positive engagement with the child support program and the other parent, and improve the consistency and completeness of their payments, all while avoiding the civil contempt process.
The PJAC demonstration used a random assignment research design. Parents who had reached the point of a contempt referral were assigned either to a PJAC services group, which had access to child support services informed by procedural justice, delivered by a specially trained PJAC case manager, or to a business-as-usual group, which proceeded to the standard contempt process.
This report compares the benefits and costs of PJAC services with those of business-as-usual child support enforcement. Benefit-cost analysis brings together information about the costs of an intervention and the monetary value of its effects. The results provide information about what different parties (for example, government, parents, or society as a whole) might gain or lose monetarily and help decision-makers compare the costs and benefits of various policy alternatives. Benefit-cost analysis sums the benefits of an intervention and subtracts its costs to arrive at its net benefits. Findings include:
Though the PJAC intervention did not meet its primary goals of improving payment compliance and regularity, it successfully reduced reliance on civil contempt filings, which resulted in a small savings. Although PJAC used a more intensive case management approach with lower caseloads per staff member, because it reduced the use of the expensive contempt-of-court process, business-as-usual services cost about $70 more per sample member than PJAC services in the 12 months after study enrollment.
PJAC services produced small, positive net benefits for society at $33 per PJAC participant in the 12 months after study enrollment due to changes in child support debt owed. These changes meant that PJAC services produced positive net benefits for the government and noncustodial parents, but negative net benefits for custodial parents and children. (The overall net benefits for society are estimated by combining the positive and negative net benefits for all parties calculated separately.) Across all perspectives, the gain or loss amounts were small. The estimated loss to a custodial parent of $139 in the first year is unlikely to reflect a material difference in a child’s standard of living.
In order for custodial parents and children to benefit monetarily from PJAC services, they would have needed to experience an increase in child support payments. All noncustodial parents in the study were assessed as having an ability to pay child support. Nevertheless, both parents and child support staff members reported that, in actuality, many struggled with obtaining and maintaining consistent employment that paid enough for them both to meet their own basic needs and to make child support payments in the amount they were ordered. Noncustodial parents’ difficulty meeting their child support obligations point to some of the limitations of the PJAC model: limited earnings may make it difficult for many parents to comply with their orders, whether or not they perceive the process to be fair.
The PJAC benefit-cost analysis suggests that child support agencies can adopt alternatives to contempt-of-court processes, for example the approach used in PJAC, without having a large effect on child support agency costs, child support payments, or debt levels. It is noteworthy that only small decreases in payment outcomes accompanied PJAC’s large reduction in civil contempt filings, and child support agencies experienced savings, at least in the short term, suggesting that PJAC may still be a better option overall. Additionally. the PJAC case management approach may have also led to nonmonetary benefits to families that were not captured in this analysis via less involvement with the justice system, improved parent-child interactions, or improved relationships between parents.