Every winter, the best minds and the most fervent advocates for children and families come together in our capital city to start the new year by learning from each other, debating differences, and joining together in support of common goals. The annual Policy Forum of the National Child Support Enforcement Association (NCSEA) is the premier policy event of the year, according to NCSEA President Joe Mamlin. This year’s forum was no exception.
Our theme of “Embracing Change for Children” reminded child support practitioners and stakeholders that change is inevitable. The opening session dealt with changes in federal policy. Change has already arrived in the new Final Rule on “Flexibility, Efficiency, and Modernization in Child Support Programs” which was published in December, and other changes are expected under the new administration. A new Commissioner will be appointed by fall and the ratification of the Hague Treaty has changed the outlook for our cooperation with international child support programs. Change is reality at the federal agency level.
Other types of change captured our attention. A session called “Implicit Bias: How Our Internal Cognitive Process Can Affect Judgment and Decision Making” stood out as particularly meaningful. The first speaker opened the session by showing an award-winning black and white film, “The Lunch Date.” Justice Richard Robinson handled the topic of racism thoughtfully and well. He used this video and some “brain games” to show the audience how we develop mental biases without being fully aware of our own prejudices even when factual evidence contradicts our biases. This was a wake-up call. We could hear soft murmuring around the room. Sometimes when we have changed, we need to change again.
Another panel on Thursday afternoon of the conference, attended by more than 400 child support professionals, examined how family service programs may change under the Trump Administration and new Congress. One of the points of healthy debate was whether mandatory participation in the nation’s child support program should be broadened. As caseloads continue to drop, the key question is why families that appear to need child support services are not seeking them on their own. Should participation in the program be required for persons seeking SNAP (food assistance) benefits? Or would that deter families from seeking food assistance benefits instead? The need for access to work programs and work supports also arose – if employment programs currently available through the federal government don’t meet the need, what changes are required to make sure the families in our jurisdictions get help?
Other sessions on changing family structures, the national opioid epidemic, organizational culture, procedural justice, and technology focused on more change. On Saturday morning, when many people sleep in or slip out, an unusually large crowd gathered to examine and discuss the potential for changes in child support payment distribution to a true “Family First” model. Change is coming at every level.
True to the theme of the conference, the common denominator of all these topics was “change.” However, the last part of the theme was not lost – “for children.” Overriding all other considerations, members of the group reminded us frequently that this program helps children and families. It’s not about politics or personal opinions. It’s about people. Change may come, but people – those children and families served by the child support program – must come first.
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