Child Support Services helps bridge economic gap for children of single-parent homes 

click to enlarge Oklahoma Child Support Services Director, Gary Dart, near the entrance of their offices with fun, hallway art.  mh
  • Oklahoma Child Support Services Director, Gary Dart, near the entrance of their offices with fun, hallway art. mh

With as many as 207,000 cases pending at any one time, Oklahoma’s division of Child Support Services (CSS) ensures that children living with a single parent or sometimes no parent at all have some type of financial support.

That can be especially important in Oklahoma, which has the third lowest percentage of children living in a two-parent home, according to the latest census data.

“We have 41 officers around the state to cover all 77 counties,” said Gary Dart, director of CSS. “If there is a question about paternity, we have tools available and we have contracts with DNA testing facilities. But once you’re past that stage [of confirming paternity], it’s just a matter of getting with the parents and looking at what their income level is. We will ask the court to frame an order based on that information.”

Seventy percent of the state’s CSS payments are made as deductions directly from paychecks, the agency reports.

“We then continue to work with the parents to make sure the support is reliable every time,” Dart said.

Oklahoma’s CSS program has existed for 40 years since it was established July 1, 1975, just eight days after it was signed into law by Governor David Boren. More than 1,440 child support cases were filed in the first year, and $211,300 was collected.

Today, more than $1 million a day is collected by Oklahoma’s CSS, Dart said.

Most child support cases start with a court order.

“We have to have an order so we know what we are enforcing,” said Jeff Wagner, a CSS spokesperson. “Even if it’s an agreed matter, we take it to a judge so there can be some finality to it and a document in place.”

Sometimes CSS has to work with agencies in other states in order to collect child support payments.

“Ten to 15 percent of our cases involve other states one way or another,” Dart said. “Either we have a case and the opposing party is in another state, or vice versa. That’s not an uncommon situation. You used to have situations where persons would run from state to state … it was just a convoluted mess. But now, we have a national system, and it is a much more orderly system.”

While CSS advocates for payment for the custodial parent — the parent with legal custody of the child — the agency will also work with noncustodial parents who might have a hard time making a child support payment. For example, an incarcerated father might not be able to keep up with payments while behind bars.

“We have specialized case workers who will work with both parents to work out a solution because sometimes that felon might just not be able to pay the balance when they get out,” Dart said.

Sometimes that work involves connecting the noncustodial parent with other agencies and organizations that can offer support and assistance.

“Maybe the problem is the [noncustodial parent] needs some help with literacy, and we will try to plug them in with a reading program,” Dart said. “The basic thing is getting a person employed so that person can take that money off the top and support their [child]. “We are trying to help them succeed, not out to punish one side or the other.”

One-parent home

Oklahoma is located in a geographic belt with low percentages of children living with both parents, according to American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census.

“Single-parent families ... are most common in a Southern arc beginning in Nevada and extending through New Mexico, Oklahoma and the Deep South before coming up through Appalachia into West Virginia,” wrote New York Times reporter David Leonhardt in a June article about the one-parent household trend in the south.

Oklahoma isn’t just one of several states with low percentages of two-parent households; it’s third lowest with only 39 percent of children living in a home with both of their biological parents.

Utah has the highest rate of two-parent households at 57 percent.

“There is quite a bit of research that shows if you can get that [child] support to be reliable … the children really do benefit from that,” Dart said.

Several studies, including one by W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor at the University of Virginia, which was referenced in Leonhardt’s article, show a correlation between living with both biological parents and economic opportunity.

Those studies might indicate that it is no coincidence that Oklahoma has a 24 percent child poverty rate, which is higher than the national average, according to data from the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP). The NCCP also reports that 63 percent of poor children in Oklahoma do not live in a two-parent household, compared to just 25 percent of non-poor Oklahoma children who live in a single-parent household.

With the economic odds seemingly stacked against children in one-parent homes, Child Support Services becomes vital as an advocate and enforcer of payments made by the noncustodial parent.

“It’s considerably higher than it used to be,” Dart said about single-parent households. “That’s part of the society we live in. But the best we can do is say, ‘If it’s not going to be that storybook situation for a family, what can we do to make sure the child is going to get the benefit of having parental involvement?’”

Print headline: Great divide, Child Support Services helps bridge the economic gap for children of single-parent homes.

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