Widespread Pandemic Disruption Spurred Innovation to State Paternity Establishment Practices
State child support agencies reported that significant disruptions due to COVID-19 forced them to alter processes in ways that modernized paternity establishment services. These innovations can continue to benefit the program and parents, if supported. The Office of Child Support Services (OCSS) also assisted States by temporarily lowering performance thresholds for paternity establishment to prevent States from losing Federal funding.
WHY WE DID THIS STUDY
In fiscal year (FY) 2020, 41 percent of children born in the United States were born to unmarried parents. Paternity establishment is the legal determination of fatherhood for children born into these families. It serves as the basis for child support orders and affirms the connection between father and child. State child support agencies facilitate paternity establishment in the hospital at the time of birth, or through other administrative and court processes post-birth. OCSS provides oversight and funding to State child support agencies. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted paternity establishment services nationwide, resulting in lower paternity establishment rates. This study evaluates the effect of the pandemic on State paternity establishment services, State agency practices to maintain services, and efforts by OCSS (then named the Office of Child Support Enforcement) to support State agencies to maintain paternity establishment services during the pandemic.
HOW WE DID THIS STUDY
OIG surveyed 54 child support agencies, from all 50 States, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, between June and September 2022. OIG also reviewed documents and conducted interviews with representatives from nine States and from OCSS headquarters and regional offices.
WHAT WE FOUND
Paternity establishment services were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in every State. Hospital visitation restrictions made it difficult for fathers to establish paternity at the time of birth. Closures and limited hours for courts and genetic testing sites disrupted post-birth paternity establishment services.
State child support agencies took numerous actions to maintain paternity establishment services during the pandemic, which agency officials reported resulted in improved customer service. They transitioned to telework, offered additional assistance to hospital staff, and increased the use of remote court hearings. They also increased their outreach to parents via telephone, email, and text. OCSS temporarily reduced paternity establishment performance requirements, which protected State agencies from financial penalties they might otherwise have incurred. State agencies called the OCSS action beneficial, but some said they would have also benefited from additional help in maintaining services, such as policy guidance and sharing of State agencies' best practices.
WHAT WE RECOMMEND
The lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic can be applied to improve paternity establishment services and protect future operations. OIG recommends that OCSS (1) create forums for identifying and sharing State agency best practices in providing paternity establishment services; and (2) bolster State agency resilience during emergencies. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) concurred with both recommendations. ACF also stated that OCSS is planning a notice of proposed rulemaking to allow modification of State agency performance standards during national emergencies.
This report may be subject to section 5274 of the National Defense Authorization Act Fiscal Year 2023, 117 Pub. L. 263.