State child support agencies can work more closely with military institutions in their states and communities; they also can include a voluntary military self-identification option in all child-support and child-custody-related paperwork.
Military children, like all children, benefit from emotional, social, and financial support from both parents. And while many non-custodial parents have difficulties meeting their child support obligations, military service members and veterans face sometimes face additional obstacles.
Almost one in three veterans age 20 to 24 is jobless, leaving many unable to meet their obligations, which means their children are left in poverty or near poverty. Though national statistics do not yet exist, some snapshots point to alarming trends. In 2010, according to the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) 1,271 Texas veterans owed $17 million (or about $14,000 per veteran) in child support. In the same year, 378 Minneapolis veterans owed $2.7 million (or about $7,700 per veteran).
Most service members and veterans pay their child support. Officials at OCSE and the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs report that veterans who don’t pay child support are likely to be unemployed, homeless, in school, incarcerated, physically disabled, or battling mental health or substance abuse issues. Yet child support obligations do not automatically stop during these periods; instead, interest accrues and remains a legal debt even when children are grown.
One of the most troubling aspects of this issue is that failure to pay child support can result in bad credit ratings and even criminal records. These stigmas can make it all but impossible for former service members to find employment again.
Federal child support officials suggest that states and courts can ease pressures on veterans (and make them more likely to pay child support eventually) by adopting some innovations already in place in many states. These include: establishing payment plans and giving veterans and service members incentives to pay on time, such as reducing their debts for each prompt payment. Courts also may take mitigating circumstances into account when setting penalties for late payments. For example, if a veteran is enrolled in a job-training or responsible parenting program, a court might limit interest or temporarily suspend debt.
What States are Doing
Delaware has adopted a simple but effective solution — appointing a military liaison in the state’s Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE).
In 2001, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, encouraged states to speed up the child support review process for deploying National Guard and federal reservists. ACF noted that because Guard members and Reservists may experience drops in income when they deploy, they may need to adjust child support obligations, which is a process that can become a problem for a Guardsman or Reservist called up suddenly.
OCSE responded to the federal request by arranging for Gwen Anderson, a child support administrator who is also a military spouse, to work with Chief Master Sergeant Dawn Peet, the Delaware National Guard’s State Family Program Director. Anderson notes that establishing a mutually respectful working relationship with the Guard’s state family program director is a critical first step in fostering a strong partnership.
As the relationship between Anderson and CMSgt Peet developed, they identified the Department of Defense’s Family Care Plans as an opportunity for child support and paternity-related information to be shared with deploying service members during an event called the Soldier Readiness Process (SRP). As deploying service members complete their family care plans, Anderson says, it’s a natural time to introduce child support and paternity issues because the plans require service members to outline how they will care for their legal dependents, including children who live them and those who do not, when the members deploy.
The Family Support staff also encourages deploying Guard members with child support and related inquiries to reach out to Anderson. Anderson created a special form that she calls the “pre-deployment child support form” to help Guard members initiate contact; information gleaned from the forms help Anderson provide comprehensive services to the member. Those services may include:
notifying child support clients that a parent’s military status is likely to impact his or her child support case
alerting Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) to begin withholding child support from paychecks; or
contacting an out-of-state child support office of the member’s impending deployment, thus helping to reduce the stress of deployment on the service member and his or her family.
Anderson also regularly participates in two “Yellow Ribbon” events: the pre-deployment briefing and the 30-day reintegration briefing. National Guard Bureaus sponsor such events in every state; coordinators invite service organizations to help families prepare for deployment. In Delaware, Anderson tells families about the challenges that non-custodial parents are likely to face as they transition from “citizen soldiers” to “deploying soldiers.”
She also sets up an outreach table so that interested members can ask questions in an informal environment; if they are subject to child support orders, she encourages them to complete a pre-deployment child support form. And Anderson reminds them that they need established legal connections to their children to make their children eligible for military benefits, such as the health care program called TRICARE.
Anderson cautions the child support community to understand that, at first, service members may view child support staff as adversaries, especially those service members who have had bad histories with child support agencies. But she adds that the organizations can work together to produce positive results when they build mutual trust and a positive working relationship.
To help Guardsman and Reservists navigate complicated child support terrain as they are being mobilized, Anderson offers four simple recommendations for state child support agencies:
Designate a military liaison within your state/local child support agency
Reach out to the National Guard State Family Program Director
Ask to participate in Yellow Ribbon briefings as a community provider
Reach out to your state’s Inter-Service Family Assistance Committee (ISFAC – (See our “ISFAC” issue section for more))
Texas launched its HEROES pilot project in 2008, thanks in part to funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. Texas' Office of the Attorney General administers the program through its Child Support Division - Family Initiatives Section.
Before 2008, Texas was already running several innovative child support projects, but had not yet focused on the state's sizeable military population - an ideal target population, according to Noelita Lugo of the Texas Attorney General's Office. She explains that a large proportion of service members and veterans are 20-30 years old, and many are struggling with paternity establishment, child support and parenting time issues because of out-of-wedlock births, increased divorce rates for military couples, interstate and international child support orders and custody disputes, or unemployment in the case of veterans.
Three attorneys (HEROES Assistant Attorneys General) assigned to the project provide specialized assistance to service members, veterans and their families by providing enhanced child support case work; review and assistance with custody/possession orders; referral services and running town hall-style seminars at Army Family Community Centers, Family Readiness Centers, or other morale, welfare and recreation centers on the state's three largest military installations: Joint Base San Antonio (Ft. Sam Houston, Lackland AFB, and Randolph AFB), Ft. Bliss in El Paso, and Ft. Hood in Killeen.
These seminars, known as Parenting Order Legal Clinics (POLC), are run monthly and cover topics such as parenting, access, child support, and paternity. Panels including assistant attorneys general (child support attorneys), a county court representative, and a shared-parenting coordinator take questions from military members. One of the HEROES attorneys staffs one-on-one appointments with service members at Ft. Hood on a weekly basis as well.
Additionally, HEROES staff participates in briefings for the National Guard at Yellow Ribbon events. Assistant attorneys general give short presentations to help military parents understand child support, paternity, and visitation/custody processes.
As part of the HEROES program, attorneys also:
train child support caseworkers to work effectively with military-connected parents - custodial and non-custodial - on child support issues;
translate military paperwork into plain English;
help caseworkers recognize and understand the symptoms of mental health disorders and how they can affect communication with service members;
train military lawyers (JAG) and legal assistance staff on child support and child custody issues;
help caseworkers understand the importance of collaborating with mental health professionals, veterans' organizations, and Veterans' Justice Outreach programs (See "Veterans' Courts" section for more information on Veterans' Justice Outreach).
As of mid-2011, the HEROES program had served approximately 600 military families with individual assistance and presented paternity, child support, and parenting time information to more than 4,000 service members. The program also has engaged the Bush School of Public Policy at Texas A&M University to: 1) evaluate the program's impact on military parents and their ability to successfully resolve paternity, child support, and parenting time issues, and 2) to identify how civilian and military lawyers can better collaborate.
Army information on soldier child support policy
Frequently Asked Questions on military child support
What the Federal Government is Doing
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the American Bar Association (ABA) have jointly developed a pilot project to operate in nine sites and work with homeless veterans and their families to address areas of concern including unresolved child support issues. As many as 107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and an additional 1.5 million are at risk for homelessness, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
The three organizations are working together to assist these homeless and at-risk veterans to try and prevent the “related family issues that may arise” for veterans living on the street or in shelters. Pilot sites were chosen based on existing resources, local interest, and current state child support laws. The sites are: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
Generally, local child support enforcement offices serve as conveners, partnering with state or local bar associations or veterans’ groups. Leaders convene regular meetings and help the projects develop so that homeless veterans can find ways to negotiate and pay fair child support.
Initially, clients are eligible if they are: currently enrolled in VA specialized homeless services, are referred by VA residential homeless programs, are referred by the Veterans Justice Outreach Program.
Project activities include: assessment; referral; no-cost legal guidance on child support cases; and coordination with service providers to address issue areas such as domestic violence, custodial parent safety, and coordination with local homeless coordination.
The project’s goals include: compliance with child support orders; modification of child support orders; and established or modified visitation agreements.
HHS’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) created the “Promoting Child Well-Being & Family Self-Sufficiency Fact Sheet Series,” which discusses “how and why the child support program provides innovative services to families.” It also makes sure parents have the tools and resources they need to raise their children and have a positive influence on their lives.
Jennifer Burnszynski, Director, Division of State, Tribal and Local Assistance
Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services