Santa Barbara County 1998-99 Grand Jury Report

Family Support Division

Released June 10, 1999

INTRODUCTION

The Grand Jury was contacted by several parents who are paying child support. They reported that their treatment by family support officers at a Family Support Division office was unprofessional. In addition they reported that it was difficult to make appointments, mistakes were frequently made in handling enforcement actions and Spanish-speaking parents were disparaged for their lack of English skills.

Also, the Grand Jury examined the operational effectiveness of the division.

OBJECTIVE

The Grand Jury's objective was to study the operations, policies and procedures of the Family Support Division (FSD), particularly with respect to interpersonal communications and treatment of parents. A second objective was to determine if non-English-speaking clients were being adequately informed when communicating with the FSD. The third objective was to examine the operational effectiveness of the division.

PROCEDURE

The Grand Jury interviewed the complainants, administrative staff members of the Family Support Division, support staff members, family support officers and a representative of the Superior Court, the family law facilitator.

The Grand Jury reviewed documentation available from the Family Support Division web site, pamphlets and other informational materials available to parents, relevant reports and performance statistics available from the State of California.

The investigation focused on communication skills, training and the general work responsibilities of family support officers. The Grand Jury toured the Santa Barbara office and observed their computer system and operations during walk-in hours.

OBSERVATIONS

Organization

In Santa Barbara County, as in all counties in the state, the District Attorney’s office has been charged with collecting and dispensing child support. This federal program is mandated under Title IV-D of the Social Securities Act. The District Attorney maintains three branch locations for this purpose, in Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Lompoc, with a total of 53 family support officers and 112 employees. Expenses for the program are reimbursed with federal funds.

The stated mission of the division is "To establish paternity and to obtain support from the noncustodial parents for the benefit of their minor children."

The Family Support Division directly serves the custodial parent. Contact with the noncustodial parent is a business rather than an advocacy relationship.

Child support, when collected, is paid directly to the custodial parent, or if the parent is receiving welfare, to the Department of Social Services as reimbursement for welfare expenses.

workload and performance

In 1998 the Family Support Division had a case inventory of approximately 19,000 cases and collected approximately $20,000,000. Each family support officer is responsible for approximately 400 cases. Each family support officer handles all aspects of a case from opening to closing a case including:

In 1994, the Family Support Division installed an automated system for case management. Automating most functions of the division has led to greater operational efficiency. These functions include sending letters, creating documents for support orders and enforcement actions and interfacing with various matching databases available through the state and federal government that help track and locate noncustodial parents. In addition, the system automates the function of participating in enforcement programs such as the tax and lottery intercept and license-suspension programs.

The implementation of this system resulted in a 400% increase in the number of absent parents located and support orders obtained. From 1993 to 1994 the number of parents located increased from 974 to 4,380 and support orders obtained increased from 1,064 to 4,283. However, despite this significant growth in location of parents and support orders, there was only a small increase (2.5%) in collections in the same time period. In 1998, Santa Barbara County led all counties in establishing support orders but ranked lower in actual collections—24th out of 35 counties measured. The county ranks even lower in the cost effectiveness of collections (the ratio of dollars spent to dollars collected)—42nd out of 57.

Establishing paternity, locating the absent parent and obtaining the support order, are more easily accomplished using automation. However, enforcing those orders and returning money to families is not accomplished so easily. This may be due to the fact that child support from many parents is simply uncollectible. The Family Support Division is mandated by federal and state legislation to show "due diligence" in attempting to collect from all cases, even those identified as uncollectible. Cases cannot be closed simply because the noncustodial parent cannot pay. If the noncustodial parent cannot be located, the case must stay active for three years and the division must show active attempts to locate during that time. At the end of three years, the case may be closed in accordance with federal guidelines. This requirement creates work for Family Support Division but produces little revenue.

Due-diligence efforts can be handled by automation. Also, if a noncustodial parent accepts their child support obligation and pays regularly, either voluntarily or through a wage garnishment, the case requires little work from the family support officer.

Client Interaction

The complainants the Grand Jury interviewed reported being verbally abused by family support officers at the Santa Barbara office. Other complaints charged against the division included accounting mistakes, failure to be informed of rights, withholding necessary information, excessive waiting for interviews with family support officers and failure to respond to telephone and written communications. Due to confidentiality, the Grand Jury investigated these claims by looking at the division training methods for family support officers and supervision provided for those officers with emphasis placed on client communication.

The Grand Jury found that most of a family support officer’s time is spent working a caseload through the computer system and little time is spent face to face or in telephone contact with clients. Most of a family support officer’s work is tracking the noncustodial parent and generating legal documents and correspondence.

Communication with parents is handled by telephone and correspondence or in person by appointment or during regular walk-in hours. Although Family Support Division services are available to both parents, custodial parents use the services more often and are more likely to develop a collaborative relationship with their family support officer. Noncustodial parents frequently felt that their relationships were adversarial.

Collection activity for child support requires family support officers to communicate with noncustodial parents. It is the responsibility of the family support officer to convince the parent to make regular monthly payments. To do this, family support officers must possess skills for effective communications. The skills required for effective collection are the ability to listen, to problem solve, to negotiate and to follow through with the noncustodial parent. Disrespect by staff is neither appropriate nor effective. In fact, the more adversarial the relationship, the less effective the collection.

A log of written complaints is maintained, and all complaints are responded to in writing. Individual complaints are also discussed with the family support officer involved. The division does not keep a log of telephone or verbal complaints.

Training

Two trainer positions have been established. Their duties include training of newly hired family support officers. Since one position is currently vacant, the training responsibilities fall to the remaining trainer. A complete set of training manuals and a step-by-step training plan are being developed. Initial training of a family support officer takes approximately two months. It emphasizes the technical aspects of the job. Only limited time is devoted to interpersonal communication and problem-solving skills. Currently, there is no definitive plan for in-service training.

Information, Documentation and Resources

The Grand Jury found many of the forms parents are required to fill out to be quite difficult for a lay person. Some forms are required by the state to be in English only. The Family Support Division attempts to make some information available in Spanish, but the Grand Jury felt that this effort could be expanded. In addition the state handbook given to all parents needs to have supplemental, local information included that makes reference to the Office of the Family Law Facilitator.

Some clients may understand the spoken word better than the written word. There is no audio-visual medium for explaining the child support process to parents.

The family law facilitator works for the Superior Court as a resource for parents who need additional information about the legal process. Parents have free access to the services of the family law facilitator for answers to technical questions, including assistance with filling out forms. The Grand Jury found that noncustodial parents use the services of the facilitator more frequently than custodial parents do. Interviewees indicated that the family law facilitator and the Family Support Division have a good working relationship, and the FSD frequently refers noncustodial parents to the family law facilitator. Information about the Office of the Family Law Facilitator is readily available in Family Support Division offices. The family law facilitator has given classes about the judicial process to the family support officers at the division.

FINDINGS AND
RECOMMENDATIONS

Finding #1:

Essential communication and problem-solving skills are not emphasized in the training for family support officers.

Recommendation #1:

The Family Support Division should expand training for family support officers in the area of communication and problem solving.

Finding #2:

The written materials parents receive are often difficult for them to understand.

Recommendation #2:

  1. The FSD should prepare a supplement to the state handbook with local information and provide a comprehensive written explanation of all legal forms in English and Spanish.
  2. The FSD should develop videos explaining the rights and obligations of clients and make them available to clients waiting in Family Support Division offices.

Finding #3:

Santa Barbara County Family Support Division ranks lower than other counties in cost effectiveness and collections.

Recommendation #3:

The District Attorney should improve the cost effectiveness of the Family Support Division.

AFFECTED AGENCIES

district attorney