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Sep 2017 | Tax & Spend

REBUILDING THE FAMILY: WESTCHESTER COUNTY’S R.E.A.L. PARENTING PROGRAM
BRITTANY VAN DEN BRINK, PSD RESEARCH

Westchester County, New York is taking a new, refreshing approach to collecting child support from non-custodial parents – usually fathers – who are behind on child support payments. The R.E.A.L. (Responsible. Employed. Active. Loving.) Parenting pilot program was launched in April 2016 to simultaneously help low-income, unemployed fathers who have difficulty meeting their child support obligations become self-sufficient and actively participate in their children’s lives.

 

"We need to take a different approach because this country has spent trillions of dollars on the so-called war on poverty, with results that have failed. So, we can continue to pour money down a hole without actually fixing the program, even though people’s lives are at stake, or we can take a new, humanistic approach.”

 
Rob Astorino, County Executive

 

I. The R.E.A.L. Parenting Pilot Program

 

The R.E.A.L. Parenting program is a 10-week program that meets twice a week to teach parenting, employment, and life skills. If participants successfully complete the program, the arrears they owe to the county government will be reduced by 25 percent. The program also provides job search assistance, and if gainful employment is maintained for 90 days, another 25 percent reduction is applied. Finally, if participants pay their child support in full for at least a year, outstanding debt is reduced to $500.

This incentive-based approach is key to the program’s success, according to the county’s Commissioner of Social Services Kevin McGuire. “Everyone talks about dead beat dads who don’t pay their child support,” said McGuire. “But my experience is that many of these dads are simply dead broke – they just don’t have a job. They would happily pay if they could, so we wanted to find a way to incentivize that.”

However, the program is a far cry from a giveaway. Program participants must work together with county officials to meet certain milestones. They have to participate and begin paying their child support going forward. If they do so, nearly all their debt will be forgiven if they are in fact fully and actively meeting the program’s requirements.

The arrears range anywhere from $2500 to well over $80,000. Some of the fathers who participated in the program owed so much in arrears that they had little incentive to work because more than 80 percent of their take-home would go to child support. The program therefore represents a light at the end of the tunnel, incentivizing fathers to gain the necessary skills to get back on their feet and reunite with their children.

But the R.E.A.L. Parenting pilot is much more than a debt forgiveness program. It helps fathers become involved in the lives of their children, of which the benefits are many. Not only is the family unit strengthened, but by helping to bring families together, there are less incidents of child maltreatment, children are less likely to get into trouble with the law, they’re more likely to stay in school, and they are less likely to have children out of wedlock.

County Executive Rob Astorino pointed out that the United States has continually tried and failed to address such social issues. According to Astorino, continuing to cut welfare checks is not the solution. Instead, the R.E.A.L. Parenting program addresses the root issues. For one, program participants articulate time and again that they often lost hope because debt continues to pile up and they saw no way out.

“We wanted to address that,” said Astorino. “In these classes, my eyes were opened because fathers are obviously there because they care. They want to get back on their feet and be in their children’s lives.” Accordingly, rather than continuing to hand out welfare checks every other week, the program teaches participants new skills and helps them become productive members of society – reuniting families in the meantime.

 

II. Successes to Date    

     

So far, the pilot program has been hugely successful. Of the 25 volunteer participants, nearly three-quarters will have their debt reduced. While 12 have completed the classroom component but have not yet met the program’s employment and child support requirements, another five are on track to have their debt reduced to $500, as they have met all three milestones.

Deputy Commissioner of Social Services, Joe Kenner, said that each of the program’s participants are on public assistance. Addressing obstacles to employment was the initial hurdle. “Preparing them for the workplace was the first step. The second step is finding them sustainable employment, so they can start providing for themselves, as well as provide child support to the custodial parent and their child(ren).” Once the first two items are adequately addressed, the fathers are on their way to becoming self-sufficient and contributing to society. Therefore, the county is aided by addressing some of the administrative problems it faces with arrearages, while also affecting families in very deep ways.

In fact, many of the men who have successfully completed the classes continue to attend, simply because the program has turned into a kind of peer support group. Some even bring their children and their children’s custodial parent. Essentially, there are a wide range of resources available even after the program is completed. The program is part of a larger initiative that the county has taken in recognizing the role of fathers in the lives of children.

Given the positive outcomes to date, the program could be expanded throughout the state. For other cities and counties outside New York State looking to implement a similar initiative, McGuire suggests “doing your homework,” by ensuring there is sound research to support the proposed initiative. Additionally, he pointed out that the U.S. federal government allows such programs to move forward, but many states do not take advantage of them. Finally, the family court system has been a critical partner for Westchester County when, say, a father needs a petition revised, ultimately helping him reintegrate with his family. Therefore, exploring which resources and partnerships are available is key.

While finances are certainly a concern of the R.E.A.L. Parenting program, it is, more importantly, a way to strengthen families, which Westchester County officials recognize as the building blocks of society. Participant fathers want to get back on their feet and be involved in the lives of their kids. At its core, the program helps participants help themselves, resulting in a self-sufficient citizenry and families who are reunited because struggling fathers are given a second chance. 

 

BRITTANY VAN DEN BRINK is a Research Analyst for Public Sector Digest. She received her honor's bachelor degree from the University of Western Ontario in 2012 and her master's degree in Political Science from the University of Windsor in 2014. Beginning September 2016, Brittany rejoined Western's Political Science department to complete her PhD in local government. She can be reached at bvandenbrink [at] publicsectordigest [dot] com