RESULTS IN BRIEF
The Child Support Enforcement Program (CSEP) in California is disjointed, complicated, and lacking in leadership. Although no single entity is wholly responsible for the program's failures, state, county, and federal CSEP administrators have all contributed to its often inadequate performance.
As the designated statewide supervisor of California's CSEP, the Department of Social Services (DSS) is responsible for providing leadership, assistance, and direction to the county district attorneys who administer the program locally. Yet, DSS has consistently failed in this role. Not only does the program currently limp along under a failed statewide automated system, but many counties that are struggling to collect child support have not received needed technical assistance. Rather than monitoring and providing guidance to these counties, DSS has instead focused its attention on administrative processes, reviewing the counties only to ensure that they are complying with certain federal regulations. Moreover, in its role of statewide supervisor, DSS has seen itself simply as a conduit of federal data and a reporter of information that it does not analyze or validate. As a result of this laissez-faire attitude, the State's CSEP lacks any sense of overarching vision.
In addition, by not providing more leadership and guidance, DSS has allowed county district attorneys broad discretion in operating their child support programs. As a result, although some counties have implemented innovative processes and have dedicated considerable resources to their programs, others have become backlogged and have failed to deliver even basic services to local families. Furthermore, in the absence of active supervision, different counties have developed different child support philosophies; some district attorneys view noncustodial parents that do not pay child support as criminals while others enlist a more social approach. Simply based on where they live in California, one noncustodial parent may be prosecuted, while another is educated about his or her responsibilities and assisted in fulfilling them. This disparate delivery of services is unfair to the families who rely on the CSEP.
To exacerbate these problems further, the federal government has contributed to the program's dysfunction by offering incentives that may motivate misguided efforts. For example, the current federal incentive structure does not consider certain demographic factors that can affect a state's CSEP performance. Therefore, states like California may be penalized because of factors like high unemployment. Additionally, even though the focus of the national program has changed in recent years, the incentive structure only partially reflects these changes and may send the wrong message to the states.
Because critics of California's CSEP often fail to take into account demographics that influence its performance, we considered such factors in our analysis of the State's performance. Yet, even when one accounts for California's demographic disadvantage in comparison to many other states, it is still clear that the State's CSEP is not only ineffective but, in fact, is floundering. With recent welfare reform causing more and more families to rely on child support, California's failure to improve its CSEP is directly affecting the lives of children in the State. .
Finally, superficial comparisons of California's performance against other states should not be performed without considering that child support programs differ among the states. These comparisons often do not consider that California's program is designed to exclude child support cases in which the parents do not dispute the amount of child support, unlike some states. Further, the comparisons often do not account for data submitted by states to the federal government that is neither timely nor reliable. Demographics also play a key role in analyzing the performance of the State's child support program, particularly the proportion of Aid to Families With Dependent Children recipients in the caseload. Adjusting for these factors and compared with states that are true peers, we found that California's performance has improved over the past four years. .
Similar concerns arise when making comparisons among counties in the State. Again, when considering demographics and data reliability problems, we found that over the past four years the counties we visited had generally improved their performance, but most still lag behind the national average.
Wherever the governor and Legislature ultimately place the responsibility for California's CSEP, they should appoint to leadership positions only qualified individuals capable of providing the authority, motivation, direction, and effective oversight needed to significantly improve the program.
To improve the effectiveness of the CSEP, DSS needs to show stronger leadership by developing a strategic plan that has meaningful goals and performance measures, fully implementing its new programs and initiative, reviewing county operations to provide technical assistance to poor performers, ensuring that it collects and reports accurate data, and communicating program policy to counties in a clear and timely fashion.
To ensure that California residents participating in the CSEP are treated equally and receive the same level of service from county to county, DSS should exercise its authority over county-run programs to achieve uniform delivery of child support services at the local level.
In addition, DSS should study the best practices of county-run child support programs, including those identified from the eight counties we visited, and then consider the merit of implementing these practices statewide.
Finally, the California Legislature should monitor the federal government's efforts to improve its incentive structure to ensure that such modifications match the current direction of the federal child support enforcement program, take into account demographic factors in determining a state's performance, and memorialize Congress if changes are needed.
The Department of Social Services generally concurred with our conclusions and recommendations and, in particular, echoed our sentiment for the need of stronger state leadership. Kern and San Mateo counties also generally concurred with our conclusions and offered clarifying information. Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Yuba counties took exception to our conclusion that they displayed an enforcement philosophy and provided examples of activities they believe assist clients. Finally, three counties-Glenn, Placer, and San Diego-chose not to respond to our audit.