The numbers alone give shape to what is a staggering problem in Colorado. Approximately one-third of parents with monthly child support obligations do not make their payments.
That amounts to nearly 32,000 parents per month who, willfully or not, are failing to support more than 39,000 children.
“If these parents paid their full monthly child support obligation, it would result in an increase of approximately $10 million per month (to Colorado children),” said Larry Desbien, acting director of the state’s Division of Child Support Services.
The money could lift virtually thousands of children out of poverty, Desbien said.
But the reasons behind failure to pay can be vexing. Some parents who owe the child support are unemployed. Some are homeless. Some get thrown in jail. Debt piles up. Meanwhile, the families most in need of child support are the least likely to get it and public assistance becomes their only lifeline.
This is not Colorado’s problem alone, of course. Nationally, child support arrears totaled $116 billion at the end of 2013, accumulated debt dating back to 1975, the year the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement was launched and started keeping track of the numbers.
Colorado is on track to collect $345 million in child support in 2014, aiding 165,234 children. Still, current arrears stand at $1.17 billion, according to the state’s estimate.
Against this crush of hard to collect debt, Colorado is one of eight states participating in a small federal pilot project that is trying a new – and some would say softer – approach.
The goal is to test whether helping – rather than punishing – so-called deadbeat parents will increase child support payments, decrease welfare dependency by custodial parents and encourage absent parents to become more involved with their children. If successful, the five-year pilot could receive long-term federal funding.
The verdict will come from a small sample size. In Colorado, only Jefferson, Arapahoe, Boulder, El Paso and Prowers counties are participating in the $2.3 million grant program known as the Colorado Parent Employment Project, or CO-PEP. And in the participating counties, only 1,500 non-custodial parents out of a total of 46,551 open child support cases are involved.
But two years in, all five counties are reporting an increase in collections that some attribute to the more supportive approach, which includes employment training and job search, help with resume writing and interviews, work clothing, transportation in the form of bus passes and re-instatement of a driver’s license if it has been suspended for failure to pay child support.
The CO-PEP approach also includes referrals for those in need of food stamps, mental health services and housing. It helps to modify child support orders to a level that is more in line with the participant’s income, and offers life coaching, fatherhood and parenting classes. Parents who establish a good work record and payment schedule can earn reductions in arrears owed to the state.
CO-PEP found a natural landing spot in Jefferson County, where human services officials decided more than a decade ago to take a more supportive approach to helping absentee parents find jobs so they could pay their child support obligations.
Jeffco officials concluded that the traditional child support enforcement method of punishing non-paying dads would be used only as a last resort. Punishment, they decided, was a costly effort that stripped fathers of their dignity and failed to get the payments owed.
“It was like trying to get water out of a rock,” said Lynn Johnson, executive director of the Jefferson County Department of Human Services, which runs the county child support program. “There was a reason they weren’t paying their child support. Many did not have the money. Many didn’t have jobs. Many were also hungry.”
Parents in the Struggle
Ten years ago, Rebecca’s life was that of a stay-at-home wife and mother, never imagining that one day she would be a single parent on public assistance, struggling to feed her two boys and begging her ex-husband for child support.
Her slide into poverty was precipitated by a divorce and her ex-husband’s recession-induced layoff.
“You lose all dignity,” said Rebecca, whose last name is being withheld to respect her children’s privacy. “You feel like absolute refuse. It’s a poverty I didn’t know existed.”
Marc Fehervari is a struggling dad who owes child support for his son, 10, and is having problems paying. Like Rebecca’s husband, he fell behind after being laid off last year. Even working two temporary jobs, he couldn’t afford to pay both his full child support bill and his own rent.
“I was pretty destitute,” Fehervari said. “I’ve been a responsible dad for a long time, but this time is different.”
Fehervari and Rebecca are parents who were caught on different sides of a child support enforcement system that proponents of the pilot project call antiquated. Both are now engaged with CO-PEP.
Approximately 8,400 Colorado families owed child support in any given month are forced onto the welfare rolls, known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, (TANF), usually reserved for the neediest, single-parent families.
Thousands of others, like Rebecca’s family, qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and the school lunch program. Since the boys’ father was laid off in 2007, he has worked intermittently and his payment record has been unreliable. A health issue limits Rebecca to part-time work.
“When you’re a stay-at-home mom for so long, getting back into the workforce is exceptionally difficult,” said Rebecca. “You have no work experience at all. Your college degree is essentially null and void.”
Historically, the boys’ father might have been jailed, had his driver’s license suspended and faced other consequences for failing to pay. As circumstances would have it, Rebecca’s ex-husband lives in Jefferson County, and is now enrolled in CO-PEP.
Rebecca believes her former husband has had the means to pay but has been unwilling to do so. “With CO-PEP, the one thing I think should happen is there needs to be complete transparency about income,” she said.
But she acknowledges that her ex-husband has made full child support payments since October for the first time in many months and visits with his sons have been more positive.
“A lot of personal closure came from (CO-PEP sponsored) mediation,” she said. “I look forward to moving on.”
Fehervari is obligated to pay $899 a month for his son and is sinking deeper into debt with each missed or reduced payment. He joined the CO-PEP program last July in hopes of finding a job so he could meet his obligations.
“I had been a responsible dad for a long time,,” said Fehervari, who had been a senior engineer in a global information technology company. “I was blessed with having work.”
Fatherhood classes have helped him to understand that he isn’t alone. “There are fathers out there all struggling who care about their children and want to be part of their lives,” he said.
Fehervari is taking college classes to update his skills, working nights and weekends and sending his former wife “a couple hundred dollars here and there.” Mostly, he worries that missed payments could impact visits with his son, who lives out of state with his mother.
Fehervari said his goals are to get a job with a sustainable income, support his son and be as involved with him as possible.
Does CO-PEP Coddle “Deadbeat Dads?”
CO-PEP has also run into some political buffeting.
“The county’s function is not to be a career service adviser to deadbeat dads,” said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank. “It’s well meaning, but there are other dads having problems putting food on the table and still pay their child support. Do they need to become a deadbeat so they can get help from the government?”
Still, in the Colorado counties where it is operating, CO-PEP is getting thumbs up.
In 2013, Arapahoe County had only two months in which it exceeded $2.2 million in collections. “In 2014, February was the only month in which we have not collected at least $2.2 million,” said Bob Prevost manager of the county’s child support program. “With these programs, we can change the course of a child’s potential future.”
Jefferson County had its highest collections in history last year, said Johnson. “This year, we’ve beat that already by $1 million. This is money going back to the families.”
In Prowers County, CO-PEP coordinator Anthony LaTour said of the 24 parents in the program that 18 have jobs and are paying support, thanks to the new approach.
Dan Welch, CO-PEP grant manager for the state, said that while the collections are higher, it’s too early to make a direct connection between the increase in collections and the program.
“We see these five counties are doing better but we can’t say it’s because of CO-PEP,” said Welch. A better short-term connection can be made with the program’s employment numbers, he said.
In the first six months of the program, 73 percent of the non-custodial fathers – and a few mothers – who entered the program unemployed or underemployed, meaning they worked less than 20 hours a week, became fully employed. The majority are paying some amount of child support, said Welch.
El Paso County’s Child Support Director Jeff Ball believes another early link can be made between the level of compliance with child support orders and the CO-PEP program. Before CO-PEP, noncustodial parents in his county paid 50 percent or less of the child support they owed. Those same parents now enrolled in CO-PEP are paying 80 percent or more, Ball said.
The increase illustrates the positive impact of combining jobs programs with fatherhood, parenting and other services, he said.
“It would be great if we had proof that the way we used to do it worked,” said Jeffco’s Johnson. “But when you look at my numbers, you look at Arapahoe County’s numbers, when you look at numbers of other child support efforts that are doing it the new way, we’re bringing in the money. So if the intent is to punish the dad, then the old way works. If the intent is to get the money and have the dad establish a good relationship with the kids so they can co-parent, our way works.”