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Laura W. Morgan
Family Law Consulting

After ten months of in-depth investigation and research, a well documented report issued by the United States General Accounting Office on March 29, 2002, shows that private child support enforcement agencies are providing valuable assistance to custodial parents. The full report is available here. The following is a summary of the highlights from the GAO report.

• With Government Child Support Collection Efforts Falling Behind, Private Child Support Enforcement Agencies Are Needed.

The GAO reports that the amount of unpaid child support has grown from $45 billion to $89 billion in just the four-year period ending August 2001 (p.2). The GAO cited data from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement revealing that child support collections (as a percentage of total child support owed) decreased from 21% to 17% (p.2).

• Disappointed Parents Request Help From Private Agencies.

The GAO found that 92% of the parents hired a private enforcement agency for two reasons. Parents cited the failure of the state agency to collect child support owed (64%), and frustration with government customer service (28%) (Figure 3, p.13).

• Private Enforcement Agencies Work Tough Cases.

The GAO studied the records of government and private child support enforcement agencies and found that private enforcement agencies are handling some of the most difficult cases, including some that the government is unwilling to work:

- The GAO reported that private enforcement agencies are working twice the percentage (57%) of interstate cases as government enforcement agencies (24%). These are cases that the government considers to be “some of the most difficult to pursue” (p. 16).

- The GAO also found that the average amount of child support dollars owed in each case being handled by private enforcement agencies is nearly seven times greater than the amounts owed in government cases (p. 3).

- All private enforcement agencies surveyed by the GAO accept child support enforcement cases in which the children have reached the age of majority, while only half the government agencies will accept these cases (p. 13).

• Private Agencies Are Diligent in Enforcement Pursuit.

The GAO report found that private enforcement agencies are more tenacious than public agencies when pursuing a person who has not paid support. The GAO notes that government enforcement agencies are far more likely than private agencies to cite that they could not collect child support because they were unable to locate the person owing child support or the assets of the person (p. 16, 17).

The GAO observed that, as part of the enforcement process, private agencies do more than just attempt to contact the delinquent payor. They also enlist the delinquent payors’ family members in efforts to get the delinquent support paid. No government enforcement agency was observed making such an extraordinary effort (p.18.).

• Private Sector Can Do More If Barriers Are Removed.

The GAO reports that thousands of private attorneys and many more collection agencies are available to join in the effort to help collect unpaid child support. (p. 8,9,10). However, barriers and problems created by restrictive state laws, confusing federal procedures and lack of cooperation by government child support agencies are keeping these private entities from participating in greater numbers. The GAO calls on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to clarify ambiguity in the law and procedures (p.28).

• Wage Withholding Needs Uniform Rules, Procedures and Forms for the Private Sector and the Public Sector.

The GAO reported that the federal government considers wage withholding the most effective enforcement procedure available to both the private and public sectors (p.21).

The process of wage withholding differs among the states depending on the law of the state (p.21). The GAO reported that improvements need to be made to the wage withholding process and the form that is currently being used (p.28). Employers, private attorneys and agencies as well as government entities need clear guidance from the federal government (p.28).

• Wage Withholding Cannot be Used Effectively and Efficiently Unless Accurate Payment Histories are Available to the Public and Private Sector.

Payment histories provide verification of the amount of child support owed, and the GAO reported that almost all private firms request this information from government agencies. However, the GAO found that only 11 states always provide this information to the private sector (p 24).

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