Susan Brown knows that the Franklin County Child Support Enforcement Agency has a branding problem.

Brown and her 268 workers, who collected $165 million in 2016 for nearly 80,000 customers, can take your driver's license — and your freedom — if you don't pay.

Now, a new program is helping Brown, director of the agency, to put the "human" back in human services. And, she said, it's working.

"We want the process (to be) not so intimidating and overwhelming," Brown said.

An experimental federal program allows Franklin County and seven other child support enforcement agencies in the United States to reshape how parents in the child-support process are treated. The goal is to get more parents to pay child support by striving to be less bureaucratic and authoritative and more customer-oriented.

That requires a change in child support's reputation, Brown admits, and how the agency operates, "especially when you've been a traditional collection agency since 1976 and you've used nothing but punitive measures."

Parents don't know they are involved in the new program because they aren't told they're in it. 

The five-year program is in its first phase that ends April 30.  It relies on simplicity.

To encourage parents to pay or continue to pay support under the new program, the county CSEA sends them thank-you notes, personalized perforated coupons and business-reply envelopes to make paying more convenient. The paperwork has been revamped to be shorter and easier to understand. The biggest change, though, is to have workers connect with parents as people.

Katherine "Katie" Stiles sees it every day.

A project case manager, Stiles deals with parents on both sides of child support. Her key contribution is time: sitting with parents and listening to the real child-support issues and making suggestions about ways to resolve them.

"More innovation means more time with tough clients," Stiles said. "We need to do better at supporting parents so they can better support their children."

The program comes as CSEA caseloads have declined and collections plateaued. In 2009, Franklin County CSEA had 100,000 cases. Today, it has 68,000 involving 80,647 children. The agency operates on a budget of $22.3 million this year.

Because there is little room to increase collections, the goal is to help those who don't pay or who pay sporadically to pay more regularly.

The project is designed to detect when parents become frustrated. Once those bottlenecks are identified, workers attack them to make them easier to navigate, hoping to limit that frustration and increase participation and payments.

"More information means better-informed decisions," Stiles said.

For example, parents can have their support recalculated every three years. Before, that meant filling out a complicated, 10-page financial form that all admit was frustratingly cumbersome. Nearly half of the parents eligible for recalculation didn't bother, Brown said.

A new, shorter, easier-to-read form is now used and explained. "I have noticed that since using the new form, the information the clients have been providing is more complete and accurate," Stiles said.

That change is meaningful to CSEA, which has diverse clients ranging from CEOs of major corporations to homeless parents.

The population with the ability to pay child support already pays, Brown said, and the punitive measures — jail or seizing driver's licenses or passports — don't work well for the approximately one-third of its 68,000 cases where the paying parent is poor. It's tough to pay child support from jail.

Technology also helps resolve problems.

Stiles emails, texts or calls at times that are easier for parents who can't always visit CSEA offices during business hours.

"I think clients come away ... feeling like they are being listened to and provided with information," Stiles said.

That greater voice, it's hoped, will lead to greater support payments.

"At the end of the day," Brown said, "we're really saving kids and we want kids to have the resources to thrive."

 

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kperry@dispatch.com

@kimballperry