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How the Pandemic Has Changed Child Support Programs

Last week marked the first time the nationwide child support community has gathered in one location since February 2020. The occasion was NCSEA’s annual Leadership Symposium, and our team relished the chance to catch up in person with so many colleagues, contacts, and longtime friends. As Scott Cade mentioned in his blogpost at the beginning of the month, 2021 marks Conduent’s 30th year in partnership with child support agencies, and many of us have been working in the field that entire time! The connections we’ve made over the years are as strong as ever, and we’ve been in constant contact with clients throughout the pandemic, but being able to connect in person was a welcome change. A fitting way to celebrate the beginning of Child Support Awareness Month. 

Later this week, my colleague Robbie Endris will be sharing some of her key takeaways from the conference in a blogpost. In the meantime, I thought I’d talk about an issue that was on all our minds during the conference, as it has been ever since the pandemic began—will the changes wrought by the pandemic result in more permanent changes in child support programs across the country, and if so, in what way? 

We first convened a small group of state IV-D directors for a virtual conversation on the short-term and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in July of 2020. This conversation addressed questions like: 

  • How has each state dealt with the unprecedented disruption of the past few months? 
  • How has the pandemic changed their near-term and long-term plans? 
  • Could this radical disruption ultimately lead to better service for the children and families who rely on state child support programs? 

We gathered the results in this white paper on The Future of Child Support. As we discussed the many disruptions caused by the pandemic, it was clear that operational shutdowns and the transition to digital options had redefined how child support services were delivered in most states.  

As more time passed, operations settled into a “new normal,” and while the pandemic continued to disrupt nearly every aspect of our lives, child support programs found new ways to meet their charter despite the pandemic’s challenges. And many IV-D directors decided to take the opportunity to look at their programs and find ways to make positive change. 

So as 2021 began, we followed up with the same set of state child support directors to revisit the pandemic’s short-term and long-term impacts. We looked for patterns in their responses and provided our own insights, releasing the results in a second white paper, “Child Support in a Pandemic and Beyond.” 

While this week’s in-person gathering was a welcome change from the virtual events necessitated by circumstances for the past year and a half, the presence of masks and hand sanitizer also reminded everyone that we’re not out of the woods just yet. With concerns about the delta variant on the rise and no vaccination options yet for children below the age of 12—much of the constituency we serve—the pandemic is still forcing operational shifts in child support programs. 

I moderated a plenary session at this week’s conference where representatives from three child support programs – Texas, Wisconsin and Ramsey County, Minnesota - spoke about how the pandemic had changed their operations and how they expected those changes to affect their programs going forward.  While we could have shared thoughts for several hours, some key takeaways from the conversation included: 

  • It may be more difficult navigating our operations out of the pandemic than figuring out how to get to work during the pandemic. 
  • Telework has been a success in most instances and is likely to continue in some form in many jurisdictions. 
  • The option for virtual court and administrative hearings has been very positive in many ways, some of which are: higher show rate; less conflict in the courtroom; ability for parents to not have to miss work and/or worry about child care; easier to participate in their hearings than mandating appearances at the courthouse. 
  • This period provided an opportunity to take a step back as part of the racial reckoning that was also occurring during this time. Analysis of data, approaches to enforcement remedies and communication strategies have been a focal point of many agencies through this time. 
  • The Great Resignation is impacting the collection of child support and the satisfaction of our team members on the ground in our child support offices.  This requires new approaches to hiring, training, self-care, coaching, and more. 

While we’d all prefer to have the pandemic in our rear-view mirror, we were heartened to hear that this challenging time may yet produce opportunities for program improvement. After all, that’s what we and our child support colleagues always keep in mind as our goal: providing an important service to children and families. And that brings us together, no matter where we’re located.