7 Questions: Why doesn’t child support add up?

On March 1st, the first of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand’s Good Conversations[i] was held to discuss child support policies with an expert panel. Today’s policy piece provides a summary of the 7 primary questions on child support that were raised and why they are critical policy areas that need urgent addressing. Collectively, single mothers experience poverty at an alarming rate, and Australia’s child support system is partly to blame. This summary has been co-authored by Kathy Landvogt (Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand), Terese Edwards (National Council for Single Mothers and their Children - NCSMC), and Kay Cook (Swinburne University).

Question One: Why are child support debts so widespread and large?

Most recent data shows that there is nearly $1.4 billion[ii] currently outstanding in Child Support payments.  These are payments being avoided by non-resident parents, which creates poverty in families that the government then needs to address through welfare benefits. Like tax avoidance, this robs the public purse but is not pursued with the same vigour.

Answer: Child Support debts are perhaps not pursued with the same vigour as other types of non-compliance as it is the household purse that is hit first and hardest by non-payment. While child support income reduces the Family Tax Benefit (FTB) expenditure, the way FTB is typically calculated (on the basis of expected child support income) allows for government to reduce its expenditure on the basis of child support that has not been paid. Spending money on pursuing payments could thus been seen as not in the government’s interest, as the savings on FTB expenditure have already been received. As such, the issue never gets the political or bureaucratic attention needed in order to remedy it.

There may also be vested interests in not pursuing non-payment of child support as an issue: some of those in a position to effect change are non-resident parents.

Non-compliance in child support payments mean children are the losers.

Non-compliance in child support payments mean children are the losers.

Question Two: Why does responsibility for making the system work reside with the person already under most stress?

The responsibility for managing payments, talking to Centrelink and/or Child Support Agency, dealing with the system and its failures, as well as caring for the child/ren is disproportionately borne by the resident (custodial) parent. This is often under conditions of stress and financial hardship.

Answer: The framing of child support appears to incorporate a punitive element. This could be because of the narrative of women ‘taking’ the children or not staying in a relationship; or a matter of ‘want something done, give it to a busy person.’ Similarly, women’s lack of resources and power relative to men’s means there is less likelihood they will pursue Child Support, and less likelihood they will actually succeed in getting it.

Legal and administrative issues reflect the gender of the law and the gender of institutions, where the applicant (the person who requires something) has the responsibility to take action to get it. Women, as the primary recipients of government benefits, are thus the primary group who must engage with the system. However, the system only collects data on issues that are quantifiable and that have simple, direct relationships, ignoring complexities and women’s experiences of the process. There is little evidence to support women’s claims for Child Support Payments because women are often placed in the position of ‘smoothing over’ both fraught relationships with former partners and the administrative hassles of self-advocacy.   

Question Three: What about child poverty?

Single mothers are more likely to be in financial hardship than single fathers. However, single mothers rarely experience the same rates of public and political sympathy as single fathers.  

Of the aims of Child Support Policy, one should be ensuring that children do not live in poverty. When received, child support payments reduce the incidence of poverty in Australian single parent households by 21 per cent. Additionally, recent research indicates that higher child support rates actually assist single mothers to re-enter the job market. Separation should be able to happen without fear of subjecting children to poverty and homelessness, or even just missing out on normal things other kids have. 

However, according to NCSMC, 36% of Child Support transferred by CSA in 2014 was $0 – $500 per year.  Typically it was a little over $1 per day. This occurs despite the Child Support Scheme being premised upon the belief that biological parents having financial responsibility for their children, as set out in Article 27 of the UN Rights of the Child.[iii]

Why, then, is the Child Support System so adversarial when critically the non-payment should be seen as a State issue?

Answer: Reducing child poverty ought to be a top priority for government. There also needs to be an understanding that taking primary custody of children as a single parent limits the capacity to engage in paid work. This is not single mothers benefiting financially from the separation, but both parents accepting that primary care responsibilities have a financial cost.

Unfortunately, when the status quo tips in favour of the disadvantaged and marginalised, powerful groups often translate this as a trespass on their rights. Child support is viewed as a payment to the ex-partner rather than a payment to support children. Many groups have argued that payments from fathers should be quarantined for direct costs for the care of children, such as school fees, uniforms and other costs.  In practice, this type of quarantining could worsen poverty as residential parents may not be able to meet basic living expenses. This exacerbated by the fact that government payments are not sufficient and child support is needed for basic expenses.

Question Four: Why is family violence policy not appropriately linked with Child Support policy?

If you have children, leaving a violent relationship means becoming a single parent. However, it is challenging to recover from family violence without sufficient financial support.

At present, there is an exemption for Family Violence survivors seeking child support in situations where there is threat to their safety. This creates a perverse situation in which the only way to keep the victim/survivor safe is to withdraw all claims for child support. This exacerbates financial hardship and limits recovery. Exempting the violent partner from paying is contrary to the rights of the child. The state should pursue these payments on behalf of the resident parent and then provide financial support, through payments made directly to the State rather than the ex-partner. There should not be an individual parent-to-parent responsibility when violence is involved, and refuting child support payments is a perverse mechanism that financially penalises the victim while financially rewarding the perpetrator.

Answer:  Family violence is thought of as something that occurs physically, in homes and out of the public view. Post-separation policies then work to remove this physical threat. Financial abuse and institutional/legal abuse (for example: protracting property settlements, continual child support non-payment) are often not considered, neither by bureaucrats nor at service encounters.  The key protective mechanisms provided by DHS are exemptions.  A survey facilitated by NCSMC confirmed a low rate of awareness from mothers / payees.    

Question Five: What about the reforms to the Child Support System?

The 2006 reforms have had a negative impact upon low-income single mother households – the primary place of residence for children. In 2010 research undertaken by Smyth & Henman stated that there is $70 million dollars less going to the households in which the children of separated parents live, with an average loss of around $20 per week per household. High-income child support payers are likely to have reduced assessments, resulting in “high-income fathers are winners and low-income mothers are losers”. With the welfare to work reforms that accompanied these changes, Single Parent Pension payments have been increasingly tightened. Single parents and their children are facing more extreme poverty, condemning children to a deprived start to life.

Answer: Many non-custodial parents have successfully advocated that they are being unfairly disadvantaged by having to accept financial equity that sees their income redistributed to the primary caregiver and secondary earner upon relationship dissolution. This successful advocacy has resonated, given the unequal position that women, and in particular single mothers, have in our society.

Question Six:Why is it so hard to find out about entitlements, due processes and support?

Access to Centrelink social workers is required in order for single parents to ensure their benefits are not unfairly removed when Child Support payments are erratic. However, the Centrelink website does not list the need to inform them of changes to expected child support as a change in circumstances, despite this having a significant impact on the calculation of Family Tax Benefit payments and income when calculating Department of Housing rental charges.

Answer: There is an associated increase in government costs when more people access their full entitlements. Further, the government actually saves money by not having to pursue child support, as discussed in question one.

Question Seven: If the goal of post-separation policy is women’s financial capability and independence, why does Child Support undermine this?

The lack of control over when money comes in means women lose financial confidence and are unable to plan ahead. It also means that they remain reliant on their ex-partner for a significant amount of their household income.

Answer: The goal of child support policy is primarily the reduction of state expenditure – and not women’s financial capability and independence post-separation – through enforcing non-resident parent financial responsibility. To some extent, the policy is also about allowing children to benefit from both parents’ financial circumstances.

Instituting state-guaranteed payments would go a long way in addressing many of these issues. At the very least, the onus for seeking, collecting and reporting on payments should sit with the state.  Guaranteed payments would ensure that the child support liability is paid on time and in full.  It would sever the use of child support as an avenue to practice post-separation financial abuse and control.  The report from the 2014 inquiry recommended that state-guaranteed payments be implemented as a trial, however, little, if anything, has been done.    

Placing the onus on the state would remove many of the barriers to child support that place women at greater risk, or at least greater dependence on, ‘keeping the peace with’ their ex-partners. This is a conflict of interest that women resolve by compromising their own position.

[i] Good Conversations is organized by Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand’s WRAP Centre. On 1 March 2017, in partnership with Ruby Connection, WestPac and Dr Kay Cook's Australian Research Council Future Fellowship project on women's access to child support, the topic was Child Support Policy and its Impacts on Women’s Economic Security. The Conversation was facilitated by Dr Cook, and included the panelists Terese Edwards (CEO, National Council for Single Mothers and Their Children), Michael Fletcher (Auckland University of Technology), and Emma Smallwood (Family Violence Program Manager, Legal Aid Victoria). 

[ii] House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, Child Support Programme Public Hearing: 28 August 2014, Answer to Questions on Notice in Parliamentary Inquiry into Child Support Program, Submission 99-99.1 Supplementary Submission, Department of Human Services.

[iii] Sub-section 4 of article 27 states: 4. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to secure the recovery of maintenance for the child from the parents or other persons having financial responsibility for the child, both within the State Party and from abroad. In particular, where the person having financial responsibility for the child lives in a State different from that of the child, States Parties shall promote the accession to international agreements or the conclusion of such agreements, as well as the making of other appropriate arrangements.

REF: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CRC.aspx