Bridging the Justice Gap in Family Law: Repurposing Federal IV-D Funding to Expand Community-Based Legal and Social Services for Parents

Stacy Brustin and Lisa Martin

Volume 67, Issue 5, 1265-98

Parents in family court overwhelmingly proceed pro se; however, in child support courtrooms, government attorneys representing the state child support agency frequently play a pivotal role. These attorneys represent the state’s ostensible interests in ensuring that children are financially supported and in preventing welfare dependence; they do not represent individual parents. The outcomes of child support proceedings have profound, long-term constitutional and financial implications for parents, yet litigants rarely understand their rights or the role of the government.

Originally, the goal of state child support enforcement efforts was to recapture the costs of welfare expenditures. In 1990, two-thirds of cases involved families receiving public assistance. However, this number has declined dramatically and public assistance cases constitute only fourteen percent of the states’ caseloads. Recognizing that cost recapture is no longer a sustainable mission, the federal program administering the funding of state support agencies has attempted to rebrand the mission to one promoting shared parenting. Although well-intentioned, this shift in mission has led to proposals that would further increase government involvement in private family law matters and threaten due process for parents determining whether and how to share parenting responsibilities.

Rather than enlarging the government child support apparatus, it is time to reevaluate the role of the state and devise new mechanisms for ensuring effective family dispute resolution. This Article proposes that state child support agencies focus on areas in which the government has a clear state interest and specialized capability, for example, identification of income and assets; collection and distribution of child support payments; and administrative enforcement. Rather than continuing to fund state cadres of child support enforcement attorneys and expand their involvement in private family law disputes, the Article suggests that Congress and state legislatures redirect funding to community-based legal and social services organizations that can provide expertise, neutrality, and a range of assistance in custody, parental access, and child support matters involving low-income families.

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