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May 07, 2024

Shifting Federal Guidance on Mandatory Child Support Orders


In most states, parents are referred to the local child support enforcement office and are requested to pay for the cost of their child's stay in care. Federal guidance on this issue shifted last year and states are now encouraged to develop "across the board" policies and to assign child support "only in very rare circumstances." Some states are beginning to address this issue, but due to the obscure nature of the policy, most are not.

Why Mandatory Child Support Orders Hurt Families and Delay Reunification

The practice of requiring parents to pay child support when their children are in Title IV-E foster care is harmful to children and families. To limit this harm, The Administration for Children and Families (AFC) Children’s Bureau (CB), together with the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), announced new guidelines for Title IV-E child welfare agencies regarding the collection of child support for children receiving title IV-E foster care maintenance payments (FCMPs). Their new guidelines encourage child welfare agencies to establish policies limiting support order referrals to only rare cases where the order does not delay reunification.

Past Federal Guidance

Under the Social Security Act section 471(a)(17), Title IV-E agencies are required to take “all steps” “where appropriate” to collect child support for children receiving Title IV-E FCMPs. Currently, child welfare agencies across the country follow previous guidelines directing Title IV-E agencies to determine “where appropriate” on a case-by-case basis. Many state Title IV-E agencies refer all parents with children receiving FCMPs for child support orders. Child welfare agencies often issue support orders for both parents. The child support agency often redirects any child support orders already established within a family to the state.

The Harmful Impact on Families          

Children receiving Title IV-E FCMPs are removed from homes receiving, or qualified to receive, Aid to Families for Dependent Children (AFDC), meaning their families live in poverty. Up to 32% of families have yearly incomes less than $10,000. Establishing child support orders against families while their children are in foster care limits a parent’s ability to become financially stable. It often compounds already overwhelming financial difficulties and delays reunification by an average of 6 months. Because the foster care system disproportionately impacts people of color, policies establishing child support orders for children in IV-E foster care create even more significant disparity among these already marginalized communities.

Collecting child support payments is inefficient and costly. On average, agencies collect between $0.39 and $0.41 per dollar spent on collection efforts. Payments are often collected from paycheck or tax return garnishments. Families desperately need these funds to help mitigate their financial hardships, while states lose money in the collection efforts.  

New Federal Guidance and Recommended Practices

 Securing support orders for parents of children in IV-E foster care is rarely in the best interest of the child. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Child Welfare Policy Manual (CWPM) now advises all child welfare agencies to implement policies that narrowly define “where appropriate” requirements. Agencies should adjust the recommendation practices to default to not recommending securing child support orders.

State agencies need to establish standards by which to evaluate new cases. For example, states may deny assignment of child support orders for families with income below poverty levels, continue payments to the custodial parent for any child support orders already in place, avoid assignment unless it will not delay reunification efforts, and implement regular reviews to re-assess the appropriateness of support orders for all cases.

To be effective, agencies must have clear guidelines implementing non-referral for child support orders. New state guidelines may include:

  • Reprograming computer systems,
  • Providing additional training for all personnel involved in the referral process,
  • Following up with reviews to ensure cases are only referred in rare very cases when a referral will not negatively impact reunification.

Once agencies have a plan in place, they may be able to claim IV-E administrative funds to help implement changes within their organizations.


Many states have changed, or are working to change, legislative policies regarding collecting child support from families whose children are receiving IV-E FCMPs.

Resource List by State- Families Not Fees

States Should Use New Guidance to Stop Charging Parents for Foster Care, Prioritize Family Reunification

ACF Joint Letter on Updated Guidelines

Child Welfare Policy Manual





New Jersey

New York