Fall 2016, Issue 4


[Part 1 of a 2-part series]

[The Bench] Editor’s Note:
Due to its importance to all trials courts, the authors chose to write a two-part series. Part I provides background information surrounding the creation of a statewide child support program that is supported by federal grant funding, and discusses recent budget woes. Part two will explore in more detail the unique aspects of the program and its evolution, as well as potential program impacts when revising funding allocations to each of the counties’ grants.

The Judicial Council is presently considering a revision to the amount of AB1058 monies sent to each county’s trial courts, commencing fiscal year 2017-2018. The financial impact on each court, especially for counties that may lose monies, may not only cause a negative and profound immediate effect upon the ability of California’s families to have reasonable access to the courts to establish and receive much needed child support, but may very well be detrimental to the program overall. Why is that? It’s complicated, but is in large part tied to the structure of the grant program—and how it has evolved over the past almost two decades. But first, a primer:

What’s “AB1058” about anyway?

Historical Background

In 1997, the Federal government created through Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, a child support program to be co-administered in each state. In California, statutory implementation of this program was set forth in Assembly Bill AB1058. Hence, the program is interchangeably referred to as the Title IV-D program or the AB1058 program. It was designed to improve the process of establishment and enforcement of child support quickly and efficiently for families in California. Administrative implementation of the program occurs through the state Department of Child Support Services (DCSS), with each county or region having a Local Child Support Agency (LCSA) that reports to DCSS. LCSAs can initiate court cases to establish paternity, support, modify support and conduct a wide range of enforcement activity. They can also—unlike any other government entity—literally “step into” existing family law court cases and litigate the same issues, including enforcement activity.

The program is primarily federally funded (two-thirds federal grant, one-third state general fund, aka “base funding”). Trial courts can also request to participate in “Federal Drawdown Funds,” which if granted, brings two federal dollars to the court for every dollar the trial court itself puts in from its own trial court budget. Each state must meet federally imposed performance-based standards. Failure to maintain these minimum performance standards jeopardizes the continued receipt of federal funding for the program.

Funding for each county was originally allocated based upon a 1997 Family and Juvenile Law Advisory Committee report presented to the Judicial Council that looked at active caseload, minimum staffing levels, county-provided information and estimates on hearing workload, county requested needs, and other factors.

The program was set up such that each year thereafter, trial courts submitted annual funding requests. A mid-year reallocation process was set up for counties that did not spend all of their funding, with any monies not spent by the end of each fiscal year being swept back to the state’s general fund.

In addition, from the very beginning it was deemed important for smaller counties to have a minimum flooring of funding notwithstanding active case numbers given the need to attract and retain experienced Commissioners,1 and the importance of maintaining a basic infrastructure to implement and run a child support court. Some smaller counties have turned to sharing Commissioners, but the disproportionate salary expenses and the hard costs of infrastructure in running an AB1058 program in each county, remain problematic to smaller courts.

Budget woes

So why is this an issue now? Unfortunately, federal funding has been flat-lined at $55 million since 2008 due to federal budget woes. Labor costs, supplies, etc. have obviously continued to rise. The mid-year allocation process helps, but even though it was recently changed to occur sooner, it remains a cumbersome process and some funding always goes unused.2 This has been a barrier to DCSS successfully getting additional overall funding that all agree is so greatly needed. “Federal drawdown” options also help somewhat, but the lack of any federal grant funding increase, along with the state judicial branch’s budget woes, have left trial courts struggling in all counties to continue to provide adequate child support court services.

As a result, this program and its funding methodologies have come under scrutiny, and counties find themselves pitted against each other to grapple for funds at the expense of their sister counties. Grant funding changes for many, especially smaller counties, can easily jeopardize their ability to successfully implement the AB1058 program itself, as well as continue providing access to justice for child support litigants. Changing the current grant funding—which has evolved over the years – also creates a real risk that a greater number of counties and courts (and therefore California as a whole) will be unable to comply with the minimum federal performance standards required for continued federal funding.

In 2015, the Judicial Council created an AB1058 Funding Allocation Joint Subcommittee (“2015 Joint Subcommittee”) to study the program’s funding allocation methodology. It was comprised of members from three different Advisory Committees: Family & Juvenile Law, Trial Court Budget and Workload Assessment.3Due to the unique complexities of administering the AB1058 program, it became evident that simply determining the total number of California child support case filings in a fiscal year, and dividing the $55 million in funds pro rata among the counties based upon their percentage of these case filings, was too simplistic a methodology for reallocation of funds. The 2015 Joint Subcommittee, realizing the need to better understand the program’s complexities, as well as the need to work with DCSS as it was conducting its own LCSA program funding methodology assessment, reported back to Judicial Council early this year seeking additional time to receive further information.

In February, 2016, the Judicial Council voted to appoint a 2016 Joint Subcommittee to develop a workload-based funding methodology to begin implementation no later than FY 2018-2019. The 2016 Joint Subcommittee was also tasked to coordinate with DCSS on their current review of funding allocations for local child support agencies, and to continue its work to determine accurate and complete workload numbers to include in a funding methodology for both child support commissioners and family law facilitators. Toward this goal, the Judicial Council directed that a subject-matter expert group be established, comprised of both commissioners and facilitators to provide input and expertise to the joint subcommittee. A report back to Judicial Council for their findings and recommendations has been set for this December.

What is REALLY at stake here? Stay tuned for Part 2 in the next issue of [The Specialist].

* This article was first published in the June 2016 edition of The Bench, the official journal of the California Judges Association.

1 Judges by law are not allowed to hear cases where DCSS is involved except under exceptional circumstances. Fam. C §§4251(a), 4252(b)(7); CRC, Rule 5.305.

2 Approximately one million dollars each year is left on the table and swept.

3 Individual judges and CEOs comprised the majority of over 15 initial members, with only one AB1058 Commissioner and one family law facilitator, along with the state DCSS Director.