San Francisco County DCSS Assists Parents with Debt Relief Pilot Program

By: Kayleen Carter, CA DCSS

The San Francisco County Department of Child Support Services (San Francisco County DCSS), in partnership with the City of San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project and the Income and Benefits Policy Center of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., is piloting a new “debt relief” initiative aimed at helping parents pay off their past due child support balances.

The two-year pilot – running from fiscal year 2018 to fiscal year 2020 – began in March 2018. The target populations for the pilot are parents paying support on current cases in San Francisco County with past due balances under $50,000.

There were 32 parents who matched the criteria chosen to participate in two different cohorts. First, they participated in mandatory financial workshops provided by the Financial Justice Project. Once the workshops were completed, a loan was made in the amount of ten percent of each participant’s arrears balance, and the remaining 90 percent was forgiven. In San Francisco County, up to 90.1 percent of debt can be forgiven with the Compromise of Arrears Program (COAP), but to qualify the parent who owes support must pay the first ten percent up front, which most parents could not meet.

“Many parents responsible for both current support orders and welfare arrears don’t have the resources to pay the ten percent or keep up with arrears payments,” Karen Roye, Director of San Francisco County DCSS explained. “When faced with mounting debt, some parents abandon the program. We want to change that outcome for children.”

The Urban Institute will evaluate the pilot’s success by surveying the participants at three points in time:

• Immediately after the orientation and the financial workshops
• Two months after the loan and past due balance forgiveness
• Eight months after the loan begins.

Six focus groups will also be conducted for project participants to provide their input after the evaluation period.

With the extra assistance, the initial results look promising. The first cohort of parents had a repayment rate of 99.43 percent through September, and the second cohort had a repayment rate of 77.41 percent – lower only because one of the participants lost his job but promptly informed San Francisco County DCSS. Director Roye said that this type of improved communication between paying parents and their caseworkers has been another benefit of the program.

The Walter and Elise Haas Fund provides monies for the loans to the participants, and the Tipping Point Community is underwriting costs for the Urban Institute’s project research on the pilot outcomes. The Walter and Elise Haas Fund is one of several San Francisco Bay Area philanthropic efforts created by the descendants of blue jean magnate Levi Strauss, and Tipping Point Community works to provide relief to the 1.3 million people in the region too poor to meet their basic needs.

Director Roye called this opportunity a “blessing,” and said that the opportunity to do this kind of innovative research is important for California.

“We have great ideas and we can do amazing things when the local child support agencies and other assistive agencies work together,” she said. If successful, this innovative program should lay the groundwork for more opportunities to improve the child support program and create more options for local child support agencies trying to help parents meet their support obligations.”