November 18, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
The Office of Child Support Enforcement has come up with another process for getting child support obligors to pay what they owe. It’s formally called Procedural Justice-informed Alternatives to Contempt (PJAC). In fact, it’s mediation and, like mediation, it has its benefits, but also suffers from its drawbacks. PJAC is a relatively new program, but, if this report is any indication, it won’t do much to make the child support system what it should be – for the support of the child and fair to both parents.
The linked-to report describes PJAC as a system in which custodial parents and non-custodial parents who don’t pay are contacted by a PJAC-trained individual with an eye toward facilitating an agreement with which each agrees and that increases the likelihood of payment. The report accurately points out that,
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.
But the process referred to isn’t the original process that established child custody, parenting time and child support, it’s the PJAC process that seeks an amicable agreement between the two parents to either enforce or modify the original order.
And therein lies the problem that’s true of all forms of mediation – the parent whose position has the power of the court behind it is not strongly encouraged to negotiate and compromise. Why would they? If Mom knows that the court is going to issue an order sending Dad to jail or suspending his license to drive or an occupational license, what impetus does she have to make a deal?
The report informs us that, in 94% of the cases in which PJAC was used, some sort of a deal was struck between the parents modifying the original court order. But it also admits that
When assigned a new case, the PJAC case manager thoroughly reviews the history of each parent’s case (or cases) before making contact with the parents to assess their willingness to participate in a case conference.
In other words, the project being reported on consists solely of parents who were willing to participate in the program. It’s therefore unsurprising that a high level of agreement was obtained, given that only parents who thought they could come to an agreement were part of the project. Tellingly, only 47% of the parents initially referred to the program ended up participating.
Then there’s this:
The PJAC demonstration project aims to address parents’ reasons for nonpayment, improve the consistency of their payments, and promote their positive engagement with the child support program and the other parent.
During a case conference, a PJAC case manager facilitates a back-and-forth exchange between parents to identify reasons for nonpayment, come to a preliminary agreement about how to address these reasons for nonpayment, and develop a plan to achieve payment compliance.
Yes, let no one be confused about the purpose of the exercise – getting the non-custodial parent to pay, or, in the parlance of the report “achieve payment compliance.” And in that regard, we all know who has the whip hand – the custodial parent who’s backed up by the court and its power of contempt and the entire apparatus of the state child support enforcement authority that’s funded in large part by federal money. The non-custodial parent? He’s supported, if at all, by a badly-paid and overworked lawyer who knows from the outset that his client isn’t holding any cards. This, as I understand it, is called “fairness.”
Into the bargain, the message conveyed to the NC parent is, once again, that his main (only?) value to the system is the money he/she pays. Is it any wonder those parents refuse to pay?
Now, it must be admitted that the linked-to report does mention the possibility that the reason the NC parent isn’t paying is that his/her parenting time is being denied by the custodial parent. And occasionally, the PJAC caseworker encourages the custodial parent to agree to stop impeding the NC parent’s access to the child. No word on whether those agreements actually have the desired result.
Way back in 1998, Sanford Braver and others did research revealing the Number One reason why non-custodial fathers don’t pay what they owe to be the denial of access by the custodial mother. Any program that fails to correct that will never do much toward fixing the child support system.
But far more importantly, courts that recognize the value of fathers to children and that demonstrate the fact by ordering equal parenting as their default parenting arrangement will do more than anything to ensure that kids are adequately cared for when their parents split up. Not only will the amount of child support ordered come down dramatically, but whoever’s charged with paying it will be more willing to do so because he/she perceives the system that produced the order as fair.
It’s the sine qua non of the entire child custody/child support system. Period.