Moving toward service
By Katharhynn Heidelberg
(Originally published September 22, 2019, by Montrose Press)
Montrose County Child Support Services parent coach Jon Merritt’s client didn’t have the best start — when Merritt contacted him about a statewide pilot project, the client had been in jail for contempt of court over child support.
But he was interested in enrolling in the Two-Generation Transformation Program — or 2Gen — and he stuck with it.
“Over the course of time, we helped him with some work clothes and information on resources. He didn’t have his driver’s license; he had lost some of his IDs because of his status of being homeless before jail,” Merritt said.
“He pretty much took it from there. He went to work. In about a year, he went from being homeless and working temporarily, paying partial payments, to transitioning from temporary to full-time and being able to pay (child support) in full for many, many months at this point.”
The client also was able to get his own housing and, most of all, involve himself more in the lives of his children.
“That had been his goal from the beginning. All of this effort to get employed has all been about getting to a stable point of him being able to envision and get back to having parenting time with his children,” Merritt said.
The 2Gen Transformation Project was a pilot program involving 11 counties and hundreds of participants, who were split into control and test groups. The evaluation period ended in May and a report is forthcoming later this fall.
“The project is about working with those parents who have willingness to pay child support, but current inability to do so, and to have an awareness of community resources to connect those parents to those supports that are needed,” said Larry Desbien, director of the state Division of Child Support Services.
“We’re helping the paying party, usually the father, with job searches and (asking) what barriers do you have,” said Chris Sorensen, Montrose County Child Support Services program manager.
“We have a full-time parenting coach who actually meets with the clients, pretty much at intake. In a nutshell we — the whole nation — are transitioning to this 2Gen approach; to, ‘How can we help keep you on track?’ … It’s kind of shifted and been kind of fun to watch over the years.”
In July, the state sent a videographer to interview local 2Gen participants. And now, their stories have attracted the attention of the New York Times, which has contacted Sorensen to line up interviews.
“The new project was about reaching out to parents struggling to pay and trying to engage in discussion about their barriers, what their goals are and what might help them achieve those goals,” Merritt said.
“What I have observed in reaching out, is those who engage in multiple coaching contacts or case management sessions, they reach a level of comfort in continuing to have conversations about situations, struggles and barriers, so we can talk about what resources they need and where they can get those resources.”
As part of the pilot project, the county received a small amount of funds (about $250 per participant) to help with basics, such as interview-appropriate clothing, or help with paying the fee to reinstate a driver’s license.
Merritt’s client, the man who came out of jail homeless, received help with work clothes and connection to resources.
“He didn’t have his driver’s license; he had lost some of his ID because of his status of being homeless before jail,” Merritt said.
Overall, support with basics was helpful for participants, Merritt said, but it seemed that the amount of engagement, contacts and discussion, plus the frequency of that, correlated more strongly with compliance with child support orders, as well as with how clients communicate with the county office of child support services.
“We want the program to be a safe place for parents to come when they are struggling,” Keri Batchelder, programs and services section manager for the state Division of Child Support Services, said.
The connection can lead to better relationships, not just more payment of child support.
“Having that positive relationship with a caseworker is paramount in my mind,” she said.
Desbien said research shows when parents are engaged with their children, there are better compliance rates with child support payments, but also better outcomes for the children.
Child Support Services has been shifting its approach overall, Sorensen said.
“There’s a lot of positive things that are happening, but the perception within communities is that we’re the enforcers. We do have to enforce the (child support) orders, but we do try to be a little bit more soft, more service-oriented, to keep them on track,” she said.
“In terms of what we actually do, we get applications from custodial parents for help. We establish paternity if needed … we do all the genetic testing and everything right here in our office. We do administratively issue orders which means not every case has to go to court.”
This method saves the court time and reduces stress parties might experience. Child support agreements are filed with the court and become part of its order, but the agreements themselves are done in the Child Support Services office, except in situations where court action is necessary to establish those agreements — for example, in cases involving domestic violence or dependency and neglect.
People are referred to Child Support Services, which is part of Montrose County Health and Human Services, by Child Protective Services, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and other agencies and programs. Referrals are mandatory when people are receiving public assistance or assistance with child care. Sorensen’s office also keeps track of parents who are owed child support and when they no longer are.
Not everyone complies with the court orders pertaining to their child support, and that triggers enforcement remedies.
Falling into the enforcement pool requires more that just one missed payment, but the consequences can be severe: the non-payer’s driver’s license can be suspended, as can professional licenses, hunting and fishing licenses. Passports can be denied, among other sanctions. State and federal tax refunds can also be taken for non-payment of child support.
“Once they go into that pool of non-payers, pretty negative things start happening to them. Sometimes that gets their attention and sometimes it doesn’t. It kind of matters what’s important to them,” Sorensen said.
“It really is very personal to what matters to them. Unfortunately, those are the ones you hear from — ‘How do you expect me to pay when you took my driver’s license?’ That (type of sanction) doesn’t happen right away. There are many enforcement options that we use.”
Although there are enforcement tools, if someone is not employed or is facing other barriers, no magic switch turns on that produces child support payments, Desbien said.
“What we’re really trying to do is have Child Support Services be someplace parents come to for support and resources, as opposed to run away from,” he said.
“Our program is one of the few that works with the entire family. We felt this was important to do on a statewide basis.”
The state selected Montrose for the 2Gen pilot project because of middle-size and geographic location help provide diverse information. Plus, its existing work with child support clients positions it as a model for similarly sized counties, Batchelder said.
“Montrose seemed like such a perfect fit because Jon Merritt has been such an advocate for connecting parents to resources for many, many years,” Desbien said.
“We were very pleased Montrose was willing to be part of the project and share its expertise. He’s been a real leader for us.”
A child support services office that is ready and willing to engage parents over their struggles can help them overcome their challenges in complying with payment orders, but, ultimately, success is down to individual effort, Merrit said.
He again reflected on the client who’d turned around his situation.
“I’m just really impressed with him and how far he has come and his persistence over the last year and a half or more,” Merritt said.
“It’s made a difference for him.”