For many years, custodial parents found it next to impossible to collect child support from a non-custodial parent who chose not to pay. In general, if a child support order was in place and if an attorney could be found to take the matter to court, the most to be expected was a judicial slap on the wrist of the non-paying parent. The results were abysmal. Less than twenty percent of children received any support whatsoever from the non-custodial parent.

Due to the explosive growth in the number of children receiving Aid for Dependent Children, the Senate Finance Committee first considered the extent of the problem in 1973. They learned that the AFDC load had increased from 450,000 families in 1948 to 3 million in 1973. They also learned that 86.6 percent of the absent parents in AFDC families provided no support though custodial parents knew the location of the absent parent in 44 percent of the cases.

The result was an amendment to the Social Security Act, adding part D to Title IV under which the states were required to establish uniform statewide support enforcement programs. While the original intent of this program was to reduce AFDC costs by supporting the states in the aggressive enforcement of child support, provisions were made to help non-AFDC applicants as well. It was felt that child support enforcement could not only remove families from welfare but could keep them off in the first place. Thus the primary task of the IV-D program was two-fold: "cost recovery" and "cost-avoidance"-that is, recovering welfare funds spent in support of dependent children and avoiding further expenditures by helping families stay off welfare.

Though well-intentioned, the program as enacted was not effective. In its first nine years, welfare costs rose and the number of children living in poverty increased. In 1984, Congress started putting some muscle into the program with demands that states pass specific laws in support of the collection efforts. Among the major features were wage withholding, discretionary guidelines for setting child support, and expedited time frames for processing enforcement actions. Collections rose dramatically, more than $1.5 billion between 1984 and 1987. Much of this came from non-AFDC collections and little effect on the growing welfare problem was seen.

Congress addressed the welfare dependency crisis in the Family Support Act of 1988. The major child support enforcement sections of this Act required states to automatically establish wage withholding for all child support awards; implement mandatory child support guidelines; develop a computerized enforcement tracking and monitoring system; and meet established performance standards for paternity establishment.

In Texas, the IV-D program was originally operated by the Texas Department of Human Services along with the AFDC program. The Office of the Attorney General was named the official IV-D agency in 1985. The problem of support enforcement in Texas remained a stubborn one, as a special Texas census by the Department of Human Services in 1989 showed. The study found that of children ages 0-17 with the potential to receive child support payments, 24.3 percent received regular payments, 9.4 percent received occasional payments, and 24 percent received no payments. Even worse, 42 percent of Texas children did not have a child support order established. As can be seen from these statistics, the problems were numerous.

The IV-D masters program was established in Texas in 1988. The masters in this program are chosen by the presiding judges of the judicial regions and are employed by the Office of Court Administration as part of the judiciary and are totally independent of the Attorney General. The purpose of the program is to provide a judicial forum exclusively for the IV-D cases. This is a necessity in light of the number of cases handled on a daily basis. In metropolitan areas a masters court may have dockets of as many as 150 cases or more on a single day. In smaller counties, dockets range from a few cases to as many as 40 to 50 cases daily. District judges for whom the masters sit cannot manage this caseload in addition to their trials and hearings. Before the establishment of the masters program, many cases were put off due to the courts' lack of time. These delays made it impossible for the Attorney General to meet the time table required by the federal government.

The IV-D program has changed the face of our land with respect to child support and its collection. The program extends to every state, every parent and every employer. Through a combination of carrots and sticks (providing and withholding federal funds), the program now provides free resources for custodial parents to establish and enforce child support orders. It has developed new standards for the amount of child support to be ordered and expanded the means by which support may be collected. Though the methods may differ from state to state, all are focused upon placing the responsibility for the support of children directly upon the parents.

As administered by the Attorney General, the IV-D program is operated both judicially and administratively in every county of the state. For the fiscal year ending in August 1995, collections in the state of Texas totaled $105,436,001 in AFDC cases and $381,446,012 in non-AFDC cases. In the same year, 32,489 paternity cases were completed, establishing child support orders for 39,799 children. All applications for AFDC are automatically referred to the Attorney General for necessary establishment and enforcement while any person having custody of a child is entitled to the services of this program at no charge.

This program has provided effective tools for the enforcement of support. Some are simple, such as the requirement that the social security number for all parties in any suit affecting the parent-child relationship be included in all orders. This requirement aids in locating parents, locating employers, withholding from unemployment and workers compensation payments, and in utilizing the IRS offset against tax refunds.

Frequently the initial problem in the establishment and collection of child support is an inability to locate the absent parent. In conjunction with the federal government and with other states, the Texas Attorney General operates the Parent Locator Service. It provides a computer search of employment data, tax filings, license applications, of various kinds, auto registrations, workers compensation claims and criminal records among other data bases. Ultimately, as the program expands, a nation-wide search will be possible. At the present time, searches must be made on a state by state basis.

The most productive aid in support collection is the employer's withholding order. The Texas Family Code, Sec. 154.007, requires that all child support orders include withholding provisions except for good cause shown. The statute also requires that a child support order without a withholding provision must be construed as having one. When a withholding order is in place with an employer, orders to subsequent employers may be issued by attorneys so authorized. (Texas Family Code, Sec. 158.319).

Probably the next most effective methods of enforcement are those carried out judicially, not so much for amounts collected in court but for the knowledge of what court action can do. The power of the court, upon a finding of contempt, to incarcerate a person for as much as 180 days and thereafter until the support arrearage is paid, offers the ultimate punishment for a non-paying parent. In addition, the court can grant a judgment for support arrearage which can then be enforced by garnishment, turnover orders, sequestration and execution against property, as well as through the filing of child support liens.

Administratively, child support obligations may be enforced through the IRS program permitting offset against tax refunds. And now, the newest administrative enforcement tool is license suspensions. Chapter 232 of the Texas Family Code provides for the suspension of licenses if an obligor has an arrearage greater than or equal to the total support due for 90 days under a support order and has been given an opportunity to make payments toward the arrearage and has failed to do so. Some 54 licensing authorities are subject to this statute affecting any license, certificate, registration, permit or other authorization to practice or engage in a particular business, occupation or profession; operate a motor vehicle; or to engage in any other regulated activity, such as hunting, fishing or other recreational activity.

Another development is the addition of interest to arrearage judgments. All judgments are entitled to bear interest but support arrearage judgments in the past have not included interest due to the difficulty of calculation. With computer help now available to IV-D programs, interest is being included in all support judgments.

The Attorney General is also given authority to establish and enforce child support orders administratively under Sec. 231.401 of the Texas Family Code. This program was effective September 1, 1995 so it is too soon to evaluate it. The program is intended to reduce the judicial caseload and to speed the payment of support. Under this program, the parties are given an opportunity to meet with a child support review officer to resolve all support matters.

It is important to remember that the changes brought about by the IV-D program are not limited to welfare cases or to cases handled by the Attorney General. These changes are now embedded in the Texas Family Code and affect the courts and the private practice of law as well.

What comes next? A preview may be found in Section 231.0011 of the Family Code. Work is now being done to establish a unified child support registry for the state where the existence of a support order and its payment record can easily be located for any child in the state. Stemming from that, we can expect a future program which will automatically monitor child support orders for delinquency and will initiate billing and other collection techniques. It may be that this monitored registry will be operated by the individual counties rather than by the staff of the Attorney General.

While much has changed and is changing in the collection of child support, one thing remains true. It is still impossible to collect from a person who does not work and has no resources. In the words of the old saw, "You can't get blood from a turnip."


Barbara Fritz received her law degree from the University of Houston in 1977. She is Board Certified in Family Law by TBLS and has served as the Family Law/IV-D Master of the Fourth Administrative Judicial Region since 1987.
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