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Putting the Spotlight on Family Law Legal Needs

Joy Moses, Special to The Informer | 9/17/2013, 3:38 p.m.
Joy Moses

Historically, it has been common for couples to develop formal visitation and support arrangements when going through a divorce. Some Americans have even made prenuptial agreements a standard practice, making divorce decisions even before they walk down the aisle. These arrangements clarify expectations and responsibilities, preventing the need for constant negotiation (and perhaps arguments) about when parents will spend time with their children or how much economic support will exchange hands. For black families this is not the standard — less than half (48 percent) of black mothers have a child support order and it is unclear how many have visitation orders in place. The absence of formal arrangements possibly jeopardizes father-child connections and the economic security of mothers.

Technically, for many families, visitation and support arrangements are far from being a requirement. If you were never married, you don’t have to go to court to get a divorce, a process that resolves questions about support, custody, and visitation. For some families, participation in the child support enforcement system is a requirement for the receipt of certain government benefits. The focus there is on support while visitation questions are left unanswered. But the absence of a requirement does not mean that it’s not advisable to go through the process of making formal support and visitation arrangements.

Some parents who are working it out on their own may not think they need this — but then situations arise that make arrangements useful. Maybe it’s the unanticipated conflict that comes from one of the parents having a new boyfriend or girlfriend enter the picture or one of the parents getting a new job, creating questions about whether he/she is doing enough. And then there are those parents who don’t even question the idea of making formal arrangements — they know their relationship with the other parent is in a place where they need third-party help and formal arrangements.

For no group is this conversation more relevant than for low-income black families. Being in each of those categories makes it less likely that children are living with both of their parents. Thirty-eight percent of black children and 50 percent of low-income children live with both parents as compared to 68 percent of the general population.

If circumstances facing modern families make it advisable for them to have arrangements when most do not, that suggests that the nation must do something differently. Typically, this is the role of the courts, but institutions like the American Bar Association and the National Center for State Courts have declared that state courts are “in crisis” with shrinking budgets equating to judicial vacancies, less staffing, and other factors that make it more difficult for them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

The Obama administration has stepped up to say that while the government is handling child support for a significant number of low-income families through the Child Support Enforcement system, it should extend these services to include visitation. The idea is a good starting point, but a cultural sea change within the agencies is necessary for it to truly be effective.

For instance, model approaches to visitation assistance encompass practices like mediation, where a third party works with both parents to reach an agreement that works best for their families. These customer-oriented approaches are currently not a perfect match for a system that has historically received low customer service ratings from its participants while also allowing low-income men to accrue debts that are all but impossible for them to pay off.

These challenges, however, do not mean that the Obama administration is not right in thinking that the Child Support Enforcement agencies can be helpful in creating visitation and support arrangements for more black and low-income families. It just means that more reforms are needed that but customers (fathers, mothers, and children) first.

Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress. Her work focuses on strategies for preventing and ending poverty and her current focus areas include family strengthening policies, safety net programs, race and poverty, and access to justice.

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