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State aims to boost child-support payments

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Executives in New Mexico’s human services agency are planning a “major rewrite” of the state’s child-support laws and regulations – aimed at getting more parents to pay what they owe, lawmakers were told Wednesday.

The Child Support Enforcement Division collected 57% of the child support it handled last year – about 7 percentage points below the national average. The division enforces court-ordered support payments, among other duties.

Parents who owe child support and don’t pay face the possibility of arrest, loss of their driver’s license and other penalties.

But Human Services Secretary David Scrase said his department is working on a variety of nonpunitive strategies to make it easier for parents to pay, such as allowing them to set up online payments. There are also other technological improvements on the way.

“We really want to make sure we get as much money as we possibly can to kids,” Scrase said.

It marks a shift in strategy, officials said, from punitive measures – such as incarceration – that make it difficult or impossible for noncustodial parents to contribute financially to their children.

Much of New Mexico’s child-support system, however, is written into state law or other regulations, limiting the department’s flexibility to make changes. But the agency’s top attorney will soon be working on a “major rewrite of the statute,” Scrase told members of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee.

“We want to modernize child support,” he said.

The state, for example, expects to begin allowing online payments next spring. A variety of other changes have already been made or are on the way, officials said, partly in response to new federal rules.

Broadly speaking, the goal is to move “to a new model that involves working with both parents to identify a case specific strategy to bring in child support payments in a higher percentage of households,” Jodi McGinnis-Porter, a spokeswoman for the state Human Services Department, said in a written statement to the Journal.

New Mexico has long struggled with getting parents who owe child support to pay up. In the 12-month period that ended June 30, for example, the state Child Support Enforcement Division collected about $85 million of the $149 million that was owed, or about 57%.

The target for this year is 62%.

The state also has a high proportion of children with an incarcerated parent. A study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation eight years ago estimated that 52,000 children in New Mexico – 10 percent of all the state’s children – had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood.

Scrase took over the Human Services Department at the beginning of the year as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, took office.

Lujan Grisham’s predecessor, Republican Susana Martinez, often touted police roundups of deadbeat parents as a way to hold them accountable.

Scrase didn’t say the new administration would abandon punishment altogether. But he said a “punitive approach isn’t evidence-based.”

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