In Utah, no little one assist, no looking or fishing

(NewsNation) — Utah is seeing a surge in child support payments over the past year, a change that state officials credit in part to a new state law that withholds hunting and fishing licenses to people who fall significantly behind on payments.

“I came up with the idea for the bill, actually, in talking with some of my constituents who had noncustodial partners that were overdue on child support and going out and spending lots and lots of money hunting and fishing,” said state Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, who authored and passed the bill enacting the new law two years ago. It went into effect in 2021.

The law blocks anyone from obtaining a hunting or fishing license if they are past due more than $2,500 in child support for a year.

“A lot of people talk about sending people to jail or prison instantly when they hear non-collection of child support, non-payment of child support. But in reality, if they’re going to prison or jail, they’re not working, so that’s not helping solve the problem,” said Utah Office of Recovery Services (ORS) director Liesa Stockdale, whose agency manages child support in the state . “And when they get out they have marks on their record, they have legal marks on their record that could prevent them from getting future employment. So that’s not helping. And then there’s a stigma for the children involved that their parent has had to go to jail or prison. And that’s not helping anything.”

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In their conversations, Stockdale encouraged Lisonbee to think about “creative incentives” that are important to the people who owe child support but that wouldn’t impact their ability to support their children.

“I think that hunting and fishing are fairly popular in almost every state,” Lisonbee said.

Some states have embraced the policy, including Pennsylvania. Failure to make child support for three months allows the state to suspend a driver’s or professional license.

In Utah, data provided by Stockdale suggests child support payments have gone up since the law was put into place. On July 1, 2021, they blocked the hunting and fishing licenses of 2,959 individuals.

“Out of those people, when we looked at it again, this year, during the first week of July, 494 of those people had come into compliance with the law at some point during that first year,” she said.

Stockdale acknowledged that the law may not be the only reason the people caught up on child support.

“There’s really no way to 100% say that’s why these people were paying their support, I want to be honest and upfront about that,” she said.

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With that context in mind, Stockdale reports an increase in payments by nearly $2 million a year after the new law took effect, specifically coming from the individuals whose licenses were withheld.

Lisonbee also worked with lawmakers to update the law this year to add flexibility to its enforcement. One change she made was to allow individuals to still obtain licenses if they missed one month’s payment because of a transition to a new job.

Ultimately, Stockdale believes that Utah’s experience provides a lesson about how creative solutions can be used to change people’s behavior.

“It’s a matter of finding that right incentive for your community, even for different parents within your community,” she said. “Two-thousand nine hundred and fifty-nine individuals, that’s only a small portion of our parents who owe child support. And we need to continue to be creative to find those little incentive niches that will speak to different parents and will mean something to them.”

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