Child support programs seek to improve children’s well-being by emphasizing both parents’ roles in providing for them. Some families receive child support from noncustodial parents regularly. For other families, however, payments may be sporadic, partial, or not received at all. Nationally, among all custodial parents owed child support payments in 2017, 24 percent received only part of the amount they were owed during that year, and 30 percent received no payments at all. Parents who do not make their child support payments can be subject to enforcement measures such as income withholding, interception of tax refunds, or seizure of bank accounts. If these measures are unsuccessful, child support programs can refer nonpaying parents to the legal system for civil contempt of court. Civil contempt proceedings require noncustodial parents to attend court hearings and may lead to arrest or jailing if they fail to appear in court or fail to meet the obligations of their child support orders.
In recent years, some child support policymakers and researchers have questioned the fairness and effectiveness of pursuing civil contempt to secure child support payments, particularly for low-income parents. Civil contempt proceedings are costly and burdensome, and are often counterproductive to the goals of the child support program as they can impede employment, increase child support debt, alienate noncustodial parents from their children, and decrease parents’ future cooperation with the program. Even for noncustodial parents with the means to meet their child support obligations, there is no evidence that contempt leads to future child support compliance through ongoing, regular payments on which families can rely. Often, contempt proceedings result in one-time “purge” payments, in which the noncustodial parent pays a lump sum to avoid continued court action or jail.
The Procedural Justice-Informed Alternatives to Contempt (PJAC) demonstration project is a test of a different approach. It integrates principles of procedural justice into enforcement practices in six child support agencies across the United States as an alternative to standard contempt proceedings. Procedural justice is fairness in processes that resolve disputes and result in decisions. Research has shown that if people perceive a process to be fair, they will be more likely to comply with the outcome of that process, whether or not the outcome was favorable to them. The target population for the PJAC demonstration project is noncustodial parents who are at the point of being referred for contempt because they have not met their child support obligations, yet have been determined to have the ability to pay. PJAC services aim to address noncustodial parents’ reasons for nonpayment, improve the consistency of their payments, and promote their positive engagement with the child support program and the other parent. As part of a study of PJAC’s effectiveness, between 2018 and 2020 over 11,000 parents were assigned at random either to a program group offered PJAC services, or to a control group who instead moved into standard contempt proceedings. The outcomes of these two groups will be compared over time.
This brief explains which noncustodial parents are referred to civil contempt by the six participating child support agencies (“study sites”), based on both federal child support guidelines and other eligibility criteria commonly applied by those agencies. It provides a general description of the standard contempt proceedings for control group members. The brief also describes procedural justice-informed contempt adaptations implemented for program group members who are unwilling to participate in PJAC services and who, as a result, become eligible for contempt.