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The United States is a diverse nation, comprised of many unique individuals who are each a product of their own experiences and environment and shaped by their culture. When operating a social program that serves the public, such as with child support services, differences in cultural backgrounds can lead to miscommunications that may impede program success. To be successful in providing services to a diverse public, child support organizations must be able to bridge cultural divides by leveraging Culturally Competent Outreach methods.

The Impact of Culture on Participation in Government Programs
Culture encompasses many factors such as religion, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, gender, age, education, economic status, immigration status, and geographic location. Culture includes learned behaviors and beliefs that shape an individual’s worldview. A person can be part of several cultures, which can lead to competing philosophies and expectations. This can create friction between individuals and the society encompassing them. This conflict may impede someone’s willingness to comply with government programs, such as child support enforcement.

For example, in certain Hispanic cultures, family problems are expected to stay within the home. The involvement of official authorities, such as government agencies, may be interpreted as having a lack of confidence in and showing disrespect toward the parents. In cultures that have a philosophy of shared familial honor and shame, as do many Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, seeking help from official authorities for something as personal as child support may offend the noncustodial parent to the point of non-cooperation. These are just a few types of cultural ideals that may prevent custodial parents from seeking child support services.

Understanding and Reaching Program Participants
There is always a dominant culture under which all other cultures are subsumed, and which becomes the “correct” and “more desirable” way to interact. This can create a power struggle within other cultural groups, as well as biases in viewpoints and behavior that may go unnoticed by a member of the dominant culture, yet considered disrespectful by other members.

For example, one strong cultural trait in the United States is that if you cannot resolve a problem, it is due to your own lack of effort and inability to succeed. In the child support “enforcement” space, this is often translated into strategies that punish those who are unable to comply with child support requirements, under the assumption that the non-compliance is completely willful. If noncustodial parents cannot meet their payment obligations, they are labeled as “deadbeats” and their punishments may range from garnishment of wages to incarceration.

Culturally Competent Outreach considers the cultural context when understanding where the parent is coming from, what factors surround them and affect their cooperation. Perhaps the parent lacks the necessary job skills for the local market and requires extra support.  Perhaps the parent would rather have automatic payments taken from an account rather than face the shame of wage garnishment. Rather than focus on criminal penalties for noncustodial parents, the child support organization may choose to instead focus on early intervention and job market training.
Informing and Engaging Employers

Culturally Competent Outreach is an effective way to inform diverse groups about social programs and services. In child support programs, this includes the notifications required of employers by child support agencies. Employer reporting, such as the notification of new hires, is often where child support enforcement begins and is essential in getting children the financial support to which they are legally entitled. There are many cultural outlooks that may impede cooperation with employer reporting requirements.

For example, employers who hire large numbers of migrant workers may not report new hires to child support agencies for fear the information may be shared with other federal agencies, creating the possibility of losing their labor force if customs paperwork violations are found. In another example, Native American tribes and their enterprises constitute sovereign nations, and most tribal employers are not required to report new hires to state or federal directories. However, it is highly desirable that they share this information due to a large number of hired employees, as is the case in the resort and gambling industry. Understanding the cultures in which Native American employers operate can help to create a symbiotic relationship with child support agencies that is beneficial for all. Some tribal employers, due to their cultural history and past relationships with the government, may not be willing to create such a relationship.

If employers consistently miss completing new hire reports, they are labeled “non-compliant” and can face financial penalties. That’s where Culturally Competent Outreach comes in. Perhaps the employer has limited access to mail or the Internet and requires another method to report. Perhaps the employer speaks limited English and needs assistance to understand the reporting requirements. Rather than issue fines to business owners for not reporting new hires, child support organizations may instead choose to create a bilingual outreach and customer service campaign.
Getting Started with Culturally Competent Outreach

To become well-versed in the culture of its target audience, a child support organization should begin by learning about the culture’s past, which is key to understanding its current dynamic. However, it is important to remember that the historic portrait of a culture is just that – a picture of the past. The past may dictate how cultures respond to current issues, but it doesn’t necessarily give us an accurate picture of a culture’s contemporary existence or its current perspective. Thus, to really know a culture, organizations should also learn how it exists in the present moment – the philosophies, traditions, and customs; contemporary ideas on the past; the culture’s place in modern society, and the current issues facing the community. This knowledge is crucial to developing cooperative relationships with target audiences.

Another way to get to know a culture is to become part of it. For child support organizations, this could mean participating in community events, meeting community leaders, asking people what they need and want from social programs. This allows them to have a clearer understanding of what goals and strategies will best serve their target audience. With this in-depth cultural knowledge, their Culturally Competent Outreach strategies incorporate the target community’s perspective.

In the end, many come to see that though there may be differences among diverse communities and their cultures, we all want to see the next generation succeed – and this is the ultimate shared goal of child support programs.

This blog entry was also featured in the February 2016 issue of NCSEA Child Support CommuniQue, a guide to the latest developments and best practices in child support produced by the National Child Support Enforcement Association (NCSEA).