“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
Studies consistently show that people care more about the fairness of the process than the ultimate outcome. That perception is at the heart of procedural justice. By incorporating procedural justice principles into the daily work in child support, parents are more likely to pay voluntarily and regularly because they believe that the process was fair.
There are five elements of procedural justice. First, parents must feel that they have a voice and ability to participate meaningfully in the child support proceedings, whether in the county office or courthouse. Parents desperately want the opportunity to tell their story and feel that the decision-maker has taken that story into account when making their decision. The second related principle is that parents must believe in the neutrality of the process; namely, that the decision-maker is not biased against them.
Respect is the third element of procedural justice. Parents want to be treated with dignity, and it can be as easy as making eye contact and not multitasking when parents are speaking about their case. The element of understanding is next. Parents need to feel that they understand the process and how decisions are made. Child support professionals can help by avoiding acronyms and using easy-to-understand language. Finally, parents want to perceive that the child support professionals and judges hearing their cases are helpful and want to arrive at the correct result in the case.
The way child support professionals listen to parents is important to the elements of procedural justice. Through emphatic listening flows understanding about the challenges that parents are facing, without judging their situation or decisions. On the other hand, procedural justice suffers from biases. Everyone has implicit biases that operate unintentionally, unconsciously, and quickly to influence perception and behavior. Implicit biases about the child support program are all around, such as when parents believe that the program only cares about custodial parents or only about the money. Child support professionals also carry implicit biases into their child support work, but there are strategies to self-correct those biases to ensure the five elements of procedural justice in child support cases and proceedings.
Parents face multiple barriers to paying child support. In order to use empathetic listening, we need to understand those barriers that include: temporary, part-time, and minimum wage employment; criminal history; strained relationships with the other parent; lack of a relationship with the child; avoidance; and multiple family obligations.
The Procedural Justice-Informed Alternatives to Contempt (PJAC) grants are testing whether providing alternatives to contempt that are guided by procedural justice principles will increase cost-effectiveness and reliable child support payments. Both San Bernardino and Riverside Counties are grantees and currently in the testing phase of the initiative. The Center for Support of Families (CSF) provided procedural justice and other training for staff in San Bernardino and Riverside earlier this year. This fall, CSF will be conducting several more days of procedural justice training in different locations in California. We hope to see you there!