The Hawaii Child Support Enforcement Agency is responsible for assisting in more than 79,000 child support cases, assisting thousands of custodial parents and their children each year collect much needed financial support from non-custodial fathers and mothers. But CSEA is underfunded, understaffed, and under performing.

Since 2003 the agency has ranked last in collecting arrearages, or child support debts. Presently, families in Hawaii and the state are owed more than $427 million in arrears. CSEA staff currently have the eighth highest caseload in the country, with full-time staff handling 439 cases per employee.

Poor performance has resulted in low performance-based federal incentive funds being awarded. Hawaii currently ranks 46th in incentive funding. Funds are awarded based on performance and population size, but despite Hawaii’s smaller population, it still received relatively low incentive payments.

The state's record
When families don’t receive child support, children are plunged further into poverty, which has numerous ill effects on their health, academic achievement and behavior. Pixabay

Another troubling statistic is the percentage of undistributed collections. Hawaii has the highest percentage of the 50 states, with 8.15 percent of collections undistributed, nearly four times the national average of 2.11 percent.

These failings are especially troubling when one considers the impact child support can have on families. In 2007, child support amounted to 63 percent of the income received by deeply poor families — those living at 50 percent or less of the poverty guidelines. In 2014, Hawaii had more than 68,000 people living at 50 percent or less of the poverty guidelines.

In summary, the CSEA’s deficiencies are causing deeply poor families to miss out on a potential critical source of income that could provide economic stability to their children.

Children who are raised in poverty face an uphill battle from the beginning. According to research collected by the University of Hawaii Family Center for a report on the benefits of a state earned income tax credit, children raised in families at or below the poverty level are more likely “to be born with low birth weight, experience poor health, have limited access to high-quality child care and education, have lower academic achievement scores, and experience behavioral problems, grade failure, and drop-out.”

CSEA is in dire need of reform and better guidance from the governor’s office and the Department of the Attorney General, the department overseeing the agency’s performance.

These problems are systemic and cyclical. But receipt of child support can prevent some of these harms. Child support not only fosters better relationships between parents and children, it can have a significant impact on academic performance, resulting in more years in school. Furthermore, child support, more so than other kind of income, has a greater positive impact on educational attainment.

Failure to collect also has dramatic effects on state coffers. Families who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families while under child support orders sign over their rights to collect support to the state. Thus the state has an opportunity to recoup some of the costs of running cash assistance welfare programs. When it fails to collect on these accounts, the loss comes straight out the state’s general revenue funds.

The agency is in dire need of reform and better guidance from the governor’s office and the Department of the Attorney General, the department overseeing the agency’s performance. One such reform could be reinstituting a pass-through policy. Pass through requires states to pass on a certain amount of child support dollars when the family is receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. This money is then disregarded when accounting the family’s income levels.

Pass-through policies are currently provided by 26 states. Pass-through policies provide grater economic stability to low-income families and encourage better levels of compliance among noncustodial parents. Parents who are assured that their money will go directly to their child are significantly more likely to make timely payments when they are economically able.

A pass-through policy would improve relationships between parents and foster more involvement in the lives of their children while encouraging payment through CSEA instead of under the table.

Improved staffing, better funding, and system redesign would all likely result in higher collection rates, as well opening opportunities for more funding and, in turn, better services for the people of Hawaii.

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