With a lame duck session approaching and little oxygen left for legislating in Washington, the Strengthening Families for Success Act introduced last week is largely a conversation starter for the 117th Congress set to be sworn in this January. But it’s a conversation of significance to the child welfare field, and more importantly for the families served by the broader social safety net.
The bill, introduced by Sens. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Rep. Danny Davis (Ill.) – all Democrats – would ban the use of child support to pay for Temporary Assistance for Need Families (TANF) payments or foster care costs. It would also reauthorize the Healthy Marriage Promotion and Responsible Fatherhood program through 2025.
The bill has the support of the Child Welfare League of America, the Center for Law and Social Policy and Obama-era child support commissioner Vicky Turetsky.
“This bill ensures that child support payments are used to support children, and not kept as government revenues,” Turetsky said, in a statement issued by the Senate Finance Committee announcing the bill.
The core concept of child support is to ensure that non-custodial parents of children are contributing at least to the costs of raising kids. Enforcement of this is a process done in tandem between the federal and state governments.
Generally the payment goes to the custodial parent or caregiver of the child in question. But when that parent receives a welfare payment through TANF, or if the child is in foster care, states are currently permitted to essentially claw back some of the costs for those programs by taking some or all of the child support payments.
The problem with this in regard to TANF is obvious. The whole point of the welfare payment is to provide supportive income to a family in need; it seems counterintuitive to then draw back some of the existing income that was coming in at the time the household was deemed eligible for TANF support.
“When families are depending on social services to make ends meet, it’s cruel to then turn around and take child support payments intended to help children to pay back the state and federal governments for TANF aid,” said Wyden, in a statement announcing the legislation.
Some might look at the situation of foster care and think it is more rational to allow states to clip child support. The state is stepping in to care for the child because of the custodial parent’s action, so why should the mom or dad draw child support while the child is out of the house? But in the vast majority of cases, the first priority once a child is in foster care is to bring them back home through reunification. Sapping the financial resources of the home during a foster care episode certainly does not improve the odds that a parent or caregiver will be poised for success when the child comes home.
Data suggests that the nexus between child support and foster care comes up with some frequency. A 2017 study published in Children and Youth Services Review found that 52% of mothers with a foster care episode were owed child support in the month before the removal. And according to preliminary federal figures for fiscal 2019, the combined amount of child support retained for foster care and TANF was about $1.1 billion – $613 million went to the federal government, $487 million to state coffers.
The Strengthening Families for Success Act would phase this practice out by fiscal 2026. It would help states adjust to the loss in revenue by temporarily adjusting up the federal participation rate in child support enforcement.
When it comes to foster care payments, the bill would give the state an option on how to handle child support. The state could send some or all of the the child support collected to the relative or other foster parent caring for the child, “or to the person responsible for meeting the child’s
day-to-day needs.” That language would seem to preclude any group home or residential care setting from getting the money.
Or, the state could let child support accrue in a savings account to be released in the event that the child is reunified after a foster care removal. This option wouldn’t redirect the child support funds to the parent during a foster care episode, but would provide a financial boost as the child came home. The bill does parenthetically includes that this could include paying for reunification services, so that might be one way that a state would be able to continue using child support to defray costs.
Note: This article was updated on October 28.