“While states like New York emphasize supporting vulnerable women and children as a priority, there has been too little focus on the need to improve the child support system to do so—especially within family courts. Instead, these courts—which handle hundreds of thousands of cases per year—have been historically neglected.”
Trauma, time, and money are just some of the many costs that currently come from pursuing fair child support in states like New York, where an outdated and overburdened system is far from efficient.
The financial conundrum of child support is that it is far from accessible for those who need it most urgently. Can we truly call it support if, for example, New York’s family courts initially closed for child support cases during the pandemic and now, more than two years since, are open but still not fully resourced or functional? Some lawyers and clients report that even in the reopened courts, they must wait a year between court dates and another to receive a child support order at all.
When it takes two or more years for families to receive fair child support awards, our justice system fails the very children and families it exists to serve.
During the pandemic, millions of working parents lost jobs, and mothers exited the workforce in especially significant numbers, for reasons that include a lack of available and affordable childcare. Across the map, moms living in poverty were left to make impossible choices for their families, faced with the kinds of hardship that compound and bring long-lasting ramifications.
While COVID buckled the finances of many American families, financial struggle was not necessarily new for some of the 6.8 million parents who rely on child support in the U.S.
In response to the pandemic’s severe impact on children living in poverty, the Biden administration created the child tax credit program in 2021. A historic step toward protecting poor families, the program is based on significant research that shows boosting the income of families in poverty leads to long-term benefits for their children in the areas of education, health, and future employment. This rationale is not new—in fact, it was the same reason that, in 1975, led to the creation of the Child Support Program, a web of state courts and agencies with federal oversight that determines how income is shared between parents to support their children.
The Child Support Program affects over 15 million children per year. That’s why any conversation about the needs and well-being of children must include accessible child support. Yet child support is rarely acknowledged for its role as a key component of policy measures that aim to reduce childhood poverty.
In the U.S, 80 percent of single parent households are headed by moms. For many, child support can represent more than half of their income. For immigrant parents not entitled to public benefits, child support can be even more critical to their stability.
While states like New York emphasize supporting vulnerable women and children as a priority, there has been too little focus on the need to improve the child support system to do so—especially within family courts. Instead, these courts—which handle hundreds of thousands of cases per year—have been historically neglected, lacking even basic modern requisites like adequate translation services or e-filing technology.
Since 1993, Her Justice attorneys have represented thousands of mothers living in poverty with child support cases. Consistent child support has always been a possible determining factor for their ability to put food on the table and pay rent, or not. Because it is that necessary, moms like our clients must endure complex and lengthy child support processes, which are disproportionately punitive toward single moms and women of color.
Months if not years in a protracted court process—even if the family’s income is straightforward—means delayed child support. One Her Justice client, Anica, spent four years pursuing a support order. In the six years since one was issued, she has only received a few hundred dollars of support for her child.
Often, the arduous process invites additional hardships. Victoria, a Her Justice client, was fired from the job she loved because she was frequently late or absent from work due to successive family court appearances. The requirement to appear in court numerous times left her family at even greater financial risk as she waited for her fair child support order.
A focus by policymakers on the critical nature of child support as part of an overall strategy to reduce childhood poverty could allow for necessary innovation and as a result, help get fair support to children faster. For example, New York legislation authored by Her Justice and sponsored by State Assemblymember Karines Reyes and State Sen. Roxanne Persaud proposes the piloting of a process for parents to reach agreement where support is undisputed with the help of child support agencies, instead of in court. This would greatly expedite the process for many parents while simultaneously freeing up the courts’ time and expertise for cases where its resources are most needed.
As economic crises persist, it has never been more urgent to reform the child support system in New York so that families have better access to the critical income they need to stabilize. More equitable processes have the power to minimize the current penalties this system wields on families living in poverty, especially single mothers, and can help set a standard for access that simultaneously combats childhood poverty.
Rachel L. Braunstein, Esq. is the director of policy at Her Justice, leading advocacy for a more equitable civil justice system New York City. Braunstein graduated with a B.A. in English from Boston College and obtained her J.D. at Brooklyn Law School in 2003.