Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, speaks about a policy change by the Mississippi Department of Human Services, that removed a child support requirement for the Child Care Payment Program, at a news conference Monday, May 15, 2023, in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mississippi no longer requires mothers to sue their child’s father for support in order to qualify for child care assistance, Mississippi Department of Human Services announced Monday.

The requirement served as one of the biggest barriers to parents attempting to secure the child care voucher, which helps working parents place their kids at one of hundreds of participating providers.

“Accessibility of quality child care strengthens families, enriches learning, and undergirds our workforce. This policy change is a step towards allowing parents to fully participate in the workforce and is an investment in families, communities, and the economy,” MDHS Director Bob Anderson said in a statement.

A group of governor-appointed early childhood administrators recommended that Gov. Tate Reeves change the rule over a year ago. Mississippi was one of only 13 states that imposed the requirement, which forced custodial parents to participate in the state’s troubled Child Support Enforcement program.

Because the welfare department is an agency under the governor’s office, Reeves had the power to make the change without action by the Legislature.

“This policy deterred many single moms from applying for many valid reasons, ranging from informal payment agreements being jeopardized by court interference to avoiding abusive interactions,” said Carol Burnett, director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative. “The removal of this policy is a huge benefit for single moms, for their children, for providers and employers, and for all of us.”

Burnett’s organization had been advocating for this change for nearly 20 years.

“Child care is more than a critical support service for an individual family, it is a lifeline for the entire state’s economy,” said Matt Williams, Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative’s policy director. “Mississippi has one of the highest rates of single parent households and the highest rate of women breadwinners in the nation. The importance of access to affordable child care cannot be overstated.”

The child support cooperation requirement is still in place for parents seeking food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. When child support is collected from a parent whose child is or was ever on TANF, the state takes the child support payments to pay itself back for any cash assistance it provided to the custodial parent.

In 2021, MDHS created a “pass through” so that custodial parents could keep the first $100 in child support paid each month before the state recouped the rest.

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.