Procedural Justice in the Child Support Process

An Implementation Guide

By Kate Wurmfeld

The Procedural Justice-Informed Alternatives to Contempt (PJAC) demonstration project, which began in 2016, integrates principles of procedural justice into enforcement practices in six child support agencies across the United States. Procedural justice involves perceptions 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 was favorable to them. It is important to note that procedural justice should not be a replacement for examining underlying structural issues and unfairness in systems. In other words, the focus should be not only on how people perceive a process but also on addressing underlying problems. Principles of procedural justice should be considered as tools in a toolbox to achieve broader reforms in the way systems interact with and affect the public.

The target population for the PJAC demonstration project is noncustodial parents who are at the point of being referred to the legal system for civil contempt of court. These parents have not met their child support obligations, even though child support agencies, based on state guidelines, have determined that they have the ability to pay. The PJAC demonstration project aims to address parents’ reasons for not paying, improve the consistency of their payments, and promote their positive engagement with the other parent and their children, as well as the legitimacy of the child support program.

In 2020, PJAC added five new “peer learning” sites, selected to address specific agency challenges and develop their own procedural justice-informed projects at various stages of the child support process. As opposed to focusing only on the contempt phase, they also considered the establishment, modification, and enforcement of child support orders. These new sites benefited from the experience and expertise of the original PJAC sites and from training and technical assistance from the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), MDRC, MEF Associates, and the Center for Court Innovation.

This guide is intended to assist child support agencies to develop more people-centered practices, using the principles of procedural justice to build trust, better engage participants, and create a more fair and effective process for serving families and supporting children. The guide begins with some principles for the field and suggestions for how to plan and assess needs. It then offers examples of strategies and processes (developed by the original PJAC sites) that agencies could consider implementing as alternatives to the traditional, coercive contempt process. This is often the point where parents need the most support to avoid the most severe sanctions, including potential jail time. The guide then provides tips and examples (developed by the peer learning sites) from earlier stages of the child support process, beginning with the initial establishment of an order, through modification requests, and enforcement. When child support agencies can adapt processes to fit their unique needs and characteristics, they are better able to promote procedural justice in the context of broader efforts to reform child support systems. The last section contains 14 examples of materials the PJAC sites used that reflect principles of procedural justice. They include planning, implementation, and assessment tools for child support staff members, and new call scripts, sample letters, brochures, and other written materials to engage participants.

Wurmfeld, Kate. 2022. “Procedural Justice in the Child Support Process.” New York: MDRC.