At the Center for Recovery and Wellness, we strive to provide compassionate and holistic care to each client and their family members, tailored to meet their needs. Many clients of PRIDE Site, our residential treatment program, are noncustodial parents who need help navigating the challenges that come with owing child support, both current child support and arrears, or child support debt. That is why we are proud to be partnered with the Office of Child Support Services (OCSS) in order to better educate clients about their options and get them connected to the right programs and resources. OCSS’s mission is to “put children first by helping parents provide for the economic and social wellbeing, health, and stability of their children.” 

Kim Sumner-Mayer, our Family Services Coordinator, works closely with both OCSS and non-custodial parents in recovery to help address child support challenges. “One thing that I do is I help people figure out how to find out information from OCSS. Jeneen Johnson (CRW’s HRA liaison to OCSS) comes to our facility and tells people, here’s your next step, here’s where you call or where you visit to find out what you owe and to whom,” she said. “It’s mostly about educating them about the programs and services that exist and then helping to link them to those programs.”

By the time clients enter treatment at CRW, their substance use disorder (SUD) has likely affected many central aspects of their lives that impact their ability to pay child support. As Kim explains, “It often complicates relationships with partners, can lead to a person alienating themselves from their children, and by the time the parent ends up coming into treatment with us they owe child support. While in treatment, they’re not working or generating income, and so they the arrears that they owe end up stacking up.”  

Helping noncustodial parents pay their child support is crucial to strengthening their relationships, recovery, and quality of life. Children who receive child support are more likely to have regular contact with their non-custodial parent, have better opportunities and life outcomes, and are less likely to live in poverty. Furthermore, a caregiver who is not receiving child support may be a lot less open to maintaining contact and continuity between that non-custodial parent and that child. Moreover, many non-custodial parents may not realize how harmful being cut off from their child is to the child and themself. “If the parent and the child aren’t having regular contact, we’re missing out on an opportunity for one of the strongest motivators to maintain recovery, which is being the kind of parent you want to be to your children,” Kim said.

Owing child support and being unable to pay can also complicate the client’s recovery if they feel guilt, shame, or resentment towards the custodial parent. It also can become a disincentive to maintaining legitimate employment, possibly encouraging a return to employment that does not support their sober lifestyle. Likewise, DMV suspensions that often accompany arrears also become an obstacle to legitimate employment.

For each client that Kim helps with child support issues, she puts together a child support action plan that is tailored to the clients specific needs. As a first order of business, Kim helps non-custodial parents apply for a downward modification of their current child support order, or the amount they are supposed to pay each month, to prevent more debt from accruing. Out of all the clients of PRIDE Site that Kim has worked with on addressing child support issues, not a single one of them knew that they could even apply for a downward modification. “I would say that at least half of people who’ve spoken to me have described themselves as very nervous about child support or really overwhelmed with the thought of it,” Kim said.

Whenever a custodial parent files for child support, there is a court hearing to determine the amount of child support the non-custodial parent owes based on factors such as current income and number of dependent children. But oftentimes, the non-custodial parent doesn’t show up to their court date or even know that the hearing is happening. Due to their substance use disorder, their address might be unstable, or they might be avoiding the problem and feeling guilty, anxious, or even angry at the custodial parent. When they don’t show up, the court determines the amount based on inaccurate or outdated information about their income. By applying for a downward modification, the non-custodial parent can significantly reduce the amount they are required to pay so that it’s manageable in light of their current circumstances.  

For example, Kim is working with a client who used to have a high-paying job working for over 20 years, which he lost due to his SUD. However, the amount of child support he was ordered to pay was based upon the income from his old job. Since he didn’t understand that he could apply for a downward modification, he ended up accumulating around $50,000 of child support arrears. “His anxiety about that debt directly contributed to relapses in the past,” said Kim. As a first priority, since he now does not have an income, Kim is helping him apply for a downward modification of his current child support order to lower the amount of money he’s expected to pay every month. His driver’s license was also suspended by the DMV because of his arrears which prevents him from holding his previous job, so Kim is helping him apply to have his suspension lifted.

Non-custodial parents can reduce their child support arrears or debt in different ways, depending on whether they owe child support directly to the custodial parent, or to the county or city where the support order originated. If the client owes the arrears to the custodial parent, then they must negotiate with that parent and try to convince the custodial parent to forgive some of the debt. “I can help that non-custodial parent communicate with the custodial parent in ways that are more likely to result in cooperation, collaboration, forgiveness, partnership and accountability,” said Kim. If the support order originated in New York City, Kim can also help connect noncustodial parents to free mediation services that seek to bring custodial and noncustodial parents together to make an agreement. “Even when noncustodial parents have contact with their children, the custodial parent often feels angry about the child support arrears. “And so they’ve got a lot of work to do to repair the relationship so that they might be willing to entertain the idea of forgiving some of the arrears,” said Kim.

If the custodial parent has been receiving public assistance such as food stamps or cash assistance, then the non-custodial parent will owe their child support to the municipality where the child support order originates. If that is New York City, HRA has implemented a number of initiatives to help parents with child support debt. For example, the Parent Success Program provides that if the parent completes a substance use treatment program like at CRW and they can provide OCSS with evidence of that, they will immediately forgive up to $10,000 of child support debt. “New York State understands that child support debt is a big burden that actually works against getting people out of cycles of poverty, relapse, and incarceration. They’ve found that if we can help people reduce their debt, they’re more likely to actually pay what they owe, or pay a reasonable amount,” Kim said.

To learn more about OCSS, please visit their website by clicking here.