Judge Phyllis Gonzalez
Office of Court Administration, El Paso, TX
FALL 2021 ISSUE:
Courts can help people in concrete ways by making decisions litigants must adhere to. I have been the presiding judge for Title IV-D Court No. 44, serving El Paso County, Texas since October 2013. Title IV-D Courts are often referred to as “child support” courts, but they hear much more than child support issues. In this article, I will explain the Title IV-D Court’s authority, duties, and how I’ve expanded Court No. 44’s capabilities to help families through our Enhanced Service Docket.
Why is the court called Title IV-D?
In 1975, President Ford signed Part D of Title IV of the Social Security Act,1 giving the government a way to enforce and modify child support obligations against non-custodial parents.2 IV-D of the Social Security Act requires state IV-D programs to help families receiving public assistance and families who apply for services by:
- locating non-custodial parents;
- establishing paternity;
- establishing and enforcing child support orders; and
- collecting child support payments.3
Do all Title IV-D courts work the same way?
Each state sets up its Title IV-D system differently. In Texas, the Office of the Attorney General (AG) is the official Title IV-D agency.4 When the AG files a case that is referred to the Title IV-D court, the AG is telling the court “We have a child who needs our help; please help us ensure this child is provided for.” Cases referred to the Title IV-D court filed by the AG involve child support, visitation, paternity, or conservatorship (custody). Families come to a Title IV-D court through the AG either because they have some sort of assistance (Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, etc.), or because a parent has requested help from the AG’s office. Often, the parents in these cases do not have a lawyer.
There are forty-four Title IV-D courts in Texas. Judges in the Texas Title IV-D courts are appointed by the presiding judge of each administrative judicial region.5 This means Title IV-D judges serve after applying for the job, interviewing, and being selected—rather than being elected by voters.
Title IV-D courts’ job in Texas
A Title IV-D court is a busy court. Title IV-D courts often have two or three times the number of new cases filed within a month than other family courts. My court’s fundamental job is to establish monetary support payments, modify support payments (either raise or lower, depending on the parent’s financial situation), enforce child support obligations, set visitation on both permanent and temporary orders, create a legal paternal relationship, and determine with whom the child will live.
Some cases are marked with a Family Violence Indicator (“FVI”) by the Attorney General’s office. As a judge, I do not know the reasons for the marking until I have a hearing.
Why an Enhanced Service Docket?
A docket is simply a list of cases that will be heard by the Court on a given day. By scheduling these cases on the same day, we can facilitate assistance to these parties by inviting community partners who specialize in their respective field to be present on that day to provide assistance.
Initially, my court closely examined cases with a true underlying cause for concern, as in cases involving domestic violence. The FVI on cases underscored this need. After collaborating with local government departments, I started an Enhanced Service Docket. During the Enhanced Service Docket—consisting solely of cases that have the underlying cause for concern—representatives from various organizations come directly to the courthouse to educate parents on the services they provide. This allows parents to meet privately with the representatives of organizations the same day their case is heard by the Court.
When there may be family violence, we must ensure a safe environment for everyone. However, family violence is not the only concern; families struggle with finding careers, learning how to communicate with the other parent, mental health issues, and a host of other hurdles. Every family has unique needs, which require different supports. The Enhanced Service Docket continues to grow from being offered quarterly to almost monthly and now include more resources than it initially had.
Finding community support can be frustrating and overwhelming. Dedicating time to initial contact with the support and to the intake process is daunting. If a parent who is paid hourly needs to find help, the parent sacrifices income to go through the process. The challenges of finding appropriate support, contacting the organization, and beginning intake are all overcome the day the case is heard, when everyone is present. Also, the AG’s office provides a folder with pamphlets explaining the help available in case a parent realizes he or she can use the help at a later time.
What services are available?
Currently, the following organizations participate in the Enhanced Service Docket:
Workforce Solutions Borderplex: NCP Choices helps with training, interviewing, job placement via a large variety of online and in-person programs.6 NCP Choices also provides supportive services both through its own funding and through referrals to community partners. NCP Choices helps people gain a GED and other training, learn how to interview, and helps with transportation, tools and clothing for interviews and jobs. NCP Choices’ career navigators tailor the support given to the individual.
The Family Court Services Division of the El Paso County Domestic Relations Office coordinates mediation and an agreed parenting plan.7 A social worker assists parents in reaching an agreement regarding parenting time as an enforceable order. They can also generate alternatives for parents who need places for exchanges and supervised visitation if needed. Some parents are required to attend a co-parenting class focusing on effective communication when co-parenting. The Domestic Relations Office also provides Child Access and Possession Enforcement Services if the parents have an enforceable order and a parent is being denied access according to the Access and Possession Schedule to their child.
The Center Against Sexual and Family Violence provides immediate help (hotline, emergency shelter, safety plans, hospital accompaniment for sexual assault survivors); ongoing support (support group, advocacy and therapy, transitional housing and support, legal advocacy and support, self-sufficiency and development); as well as prevention and education (how to ease the divorce/separation process for children, parenting, intervention and prevention of violent behavior, community outreach and education).8
The Child Crisis Center of El Paso provides emergency/crisis shelter for children, immediate crisis intervention, longer-term education, as well as programs to proactively curb child abuse and neglect and programs for military families and veterans.9
Guardians of the Children - Sun City Chapter is a Biker Organization in El Paso dedicated to protecting victims of child abuse. Guardians of the Children partners with Children Advocacy Agencies, Victim Assistance Groups, and others to raise awareness of child abuse. Members of the Guardians of the Children are physically present to lend support and protect children.10
Emergence Health Network brings a variety of recovery-based services for mental health, intellectual/developmental disability, and related conditions.11 Emergence Health Network works to help individuals with severe and persistent mental illness, intellectual/developmental disabilities and/or substance use disorders, and their families find resources and treatments to help with their disorders/disabilities and become as independent as possible.
Texas Legal Services Center is a nonprofit organization that provides legal advice, advocacy, representation, and education.12 Texas Legal Services Center’s core functions include guiding parents through their legal rights; teaching grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older siblings who are raising their relatives’ children how to navigate healthcare, human services and school systems; and empowering self-represented litigants by offering advice, court-approved legal forms, and instructions on how to use legal form to achieve the desired goal.
Are services only available to people on the Enhanced Service Docket?
Services are available to all parties involved in cases associated with the Title IV-D Court No. 44. For example, in my court, two programs are free of charge for people through grants. These programs are available for a fee to people not in my court. The Domestic Relations Office’s access and facilitation is available to all, but when it’s an AG case, a grant provides the service at no cost. NCP Choices also has a grant that funds AG case referrals.
The relationships formed with third party providers enable the court to call in help for any case, even if they aren’t on the Enhanced Service Docket.
How does the court ensure resources are effective?
Often, working with our partners is voluntary for parents. However, when the court renders orders, the request for parents to work with specific organizations or programs is mandatory.
Temporary orders set up requirements for a limited time. Temporary orders are appropriate if parties have concerns or challenges that they are facing regarding visitation, conservatorship, or support. The parties can start working together and reach agreements. Using resources, the parties learn to communicate and place their child’s needs before their own. At the end of that time, parties are brought back to court.
For example, when the court is determining if Access and Possession (i.e., visitation) is appropriate, there may need to be initial supervised visitation while a parent works to establish a relationship with the child. Temporary orders allow that parent to begin their relationship with their child and to start to learn how to co-parent. After around three months, when parents return to my court, I ask both parents, “What worked? What didn’t work? If you had concerns or challenges at the initial hearing, do you still feel the same way?” Hearing from both parents enables me to see the full picture.
Temporary orders become a vehicle to allow families to ease into a final order. Final orders are permanent unless the issue is brought back to court.
How did COVID-19 affect the Enhanced Service Docket?
Pre-COVID-19, representatives from our partnering organizations were in my courtroom during the Enhanced Service Docket. Our community partners presented their services to everyone and remained available throughout the docket for face-to-face discussions and intake paperwork. When my court began working remotely, all community partners began to attend court via Zoom and present their services and resources on our new platform. When we are fully in-person at the courthouse, representatives will again be physically present. A hybrid courtroom setting will also accommodate Zoom attendance.
The future of Court No. 44’s Enhanced Service Docket
I am always looking to invite more community organizations to my court. Having relationships with local, statewide, and national organizations enables the court to assist families when a parent has relocated.
El Paso has a large military base. Members of the military may be deployed or have other hurdles in creating and maintaining relationships with their child. I would like to expand upon those military cases and have partnerships with organizations that work closely with military families or have connections to resources for military families.
We also have cases where a parent is incarcerated but still wants to be involved in his or her child’s life. The courts and community need to get creative and think outside the box on some of these issues. I have started to collaborate with local departments to include more family law solutions to the Re-Entry Program.
The Enhanced Service Docket is a vehicle to strengthen families. When parents can put aside their differences for their child, everyone wins. Having strong parent-child relationships not only benefits the family but also the entire community
1 Social Security Amendments, P.L. No. 93-64, Title IV-D (1974).
2 Social Security Amendments, P.L. No. 93-64, Title IV-D § 454B (1974).
3 42 U.S.C.A. § 654 (West, Westlaw through Pub. L. No. 117-53).
4 Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 231.001.
5 Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 201.010.
6 About Us, Workforce Solutions Borderplex, https://www.borderplexjobs.com/about-us (last visited Nov. 22, 2021).
7 Domestic Relations Office, EPCounty.com, https://www.epcounty.com/dro/aboutus.htm (last visited Nov. 22, 2021).
8 Crisis Intervention and Advocacy, Center Against Sexual & Family Violence, https://casfv.org/ (last visited Nov. 22, 2021).
9 Child Crisis Center of El Paso, https://childcrisiscenterofelpaso.org/ (last visited Nov. 22, 2021).
10 Guardians of the Children Sun City Chapter, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/gocsuncitychapter/ (last visited Nov. 22, 2021).
11 Emergence Health Network, https://emergencehealthnetwork.org/ (last visited Nov. 22, 2021).
12 Free Legal Aid, Texas Legal Services Center, https://www.tlsc.org/ (last visited Nov. 22, 2021)