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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008

Child Support Is Central to a Stable Family Life

But the feds put the squeeze on local agencies

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The $700 billion Wall Street bailout program missed an opportunity to help millions of struggling families make ends meet when it failed to include additional funds for child support enforcement.

The federal government provides funds to local child support agencies that connect parents to their kids, either through establishing paternity or establishing and enforcing child support and medical orders.

Milwaukee County’s child support department monitors about 141,000 cases annually, and about 500 to 600 children have their paternity established each month in court.

“That’s a lot of family relationships that are being built, a lot of fathers who are establishing rights to their children and a lot of children who can have rights to two parents,” said Lisa Marks, director of the Milwaukee County Department of Child Support Enforcement.

But a deficit reduction bill passed by Congress in 2006 slashed federal child support enforcement funds, leading to a $25 million cut in funds for Wisconsin’s programs. The loss in Milwaukee County was $8 million annually. “It’s a very significant cut in funding,” said Connie Chesnik, legal counsel for the state’s child support program.

The state was able to pitch in $5.5 million of matching funds in its last biennial budget—but that doesn’t cover what was lost at the federal level.

Two bills were introduced in Congress last year—one by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama—which would have restored federal funds for child support agencies. But those proposals are still pending, and congressional leaders declined to add funds to the massive bailout bill passed earlier this month.

Investing in child support services brings huge rewards for families, according to research conducted by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), which found that each dollar spent by the federal government results in the collection of $6.50 in private child support funds. About 17 million children nationwide receive child support, an estimated $24 billion a year. These child support payments allowed more than 300,000 families to move off of public assistance in 2004, CLASP found.

Squeezing Local Families

Marks said that while Gov. Jim Doyle, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors have attempted to find funds for the program, the source of the funding cuts is the federal government. She said that the state’s congressional delegation has advocated for the program, but “they’re only one state.”

Marks said that the state and county budgets are both strained right now, giving state and local leaders less leeway in funding the program.

“The local jurisdictions need some assistance,” Marks said. “They’ve been as helpful as they can be, given the constraints that communities are in.”

In Walker’s proposed 2009 budget, that would mean a loss of seven positions, to 125 full-time employees. In 2007, the department employed 190 positions. The county board will analyze Walker’s budget and provide its own input later this year.

Marks said that given the fragile state of the economy, families are relying on child support to cover family expenses, but those paying child support are having a harder time providing it. “As we’re moving through these difficult times, there are continuing challenges because the parents receiving child support are seeing their needs increase, while the paying parents’ ability to provide for those needs are decreasing,” Marks said.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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