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The politics of child maintenance

The authors at Everyday Victim Blaming chose Fathers Day to make a series of political assertions about child maintenance. One of the assertions they chose to make is that not paying child maintenance is child abuse. In the process, of course, they labelled every father who does not pay maintenance as an abuser.

It’s an interesting perspective. It is of course possible that there are mothers who don’t pay child maintenance (I don’t remember a similar post from EVB on Mothering Sunday – roughly 5% of assessed absent parents are women) but that’s not really relevant.

What’s relevant to me is that EVB are putting themselves firmly on the right wing, individualist side of the agenda. Child maintenance is, apparently, an issue for individual parents, and, if their child doesn’t receive the amount of money prescribed by the system, the absent parent is an abuser.

A little history is required, of course. The Child Support Agency, as it then was, was an intensely political initiative designed to take power over child maintenance out of the hands of judges and to put it in the hands of bureaucrats directed by ministers. Depending on which audience they were adressing ministers argued that child maintenance had to be nationalized and made uniform because

  1. Too many feckless working class fathers were serially breeding then abandoning their responsibilities to the state,
  2. Too many middle-class fathers were using property settlements (e.g. the transfer of the house) to avoid future payments of maintenance, leaving their exes dependent on benefits for day to day income,
  3. Male judges in family courts were overly sympathetic to absent fathers, meaning there were low collection rates for maintenance and
  4. There were too few disincentives to divorce, leading to the collapse of the traditional family.

The Child Support Act, and the Child Support Agency were supposed to fix that, via a toxic mix of proscriptive regulations and big IT systems in remote, inaccesible customer service centres.

That last point can’t be over-emphasized. At the very point in their lives where parents with care, more often than not mothers, needed human scale interventions in their lives, the change to the CSA left them battling with complex systems and the call centre mentality of staff who swiftly resorted to a crude triage system that saw the most difficult cases simply abandoned while staff tried to work through the rest. If you’re going to talk about child maintenance and not mention that, throughout history, even in the days when cases were dealt with by local courts, there were some cases that simply did not produce any money for the care of the child (which is the point of the system in any decent world) then you are at risk of being accused of being shallow.

One of the ways in which the new system sought to deal with the feckless fathers meme was by introducing a mandatory minimum contribution, even for those on benefits designed to give them no more than they needed to survive each week. From the lofty towers of academe and policy making such people appear to be rational actors deciding that living off the state is their best option; in reality they’re more often lacking in the life skills required to survive on the breadline, living chaotic lives in which long term planning is having the makings of a meal in the house the night before the next benefit payment arrives, and a good week is one when the heating and lighting stay on all week because you’ve had enough money for the pre-payment meter. The idea that such a parent would acquire a sense of responsibility towards their child or children because their benefits are reduced to reflect their duty towards the child is nonsense; the deduction becomes just another irritant, another reason to feel as if the world is against them. The extent to which the system was skewed to address this group of parents can be gauged by the fact that, in 2011, 45% of absent parents with an assessment for child support were unemployed, as against an unemployment rate of 7%. The argument that the child maintenance system is skewed to make an ideological point about benefit dependency and reliance upon the state is inescapable.

In a rational world someone would gather evidence to reflect whether parents attitudes changed after being forced to pay child maintenance because they have come into contact with the social security system; no-one has because, in family law more than any other area, decision making is immune to rational analysis. A typical area, specific to this group of parents, is that, when the CSA was created, it was possible for the absent parent to be assessed as liable for child support payments, but to have to pay a court fee and instruct a solicitor to go to court to get a parental responsiblity order that would allow them to apply for contact with their child. If you wanted an incentive for parents to engage with the system the waiving of the fees for a parental responsibility order or contact order for parents who voluntarily engaged with the CSA would have been a simple and easy initiative, but the CSA was positioned as a punitive revenue gathering operation, not as an initiative designed to make dysfunctional families work better.

The evidence for that proposition is centred on the way the CSA worked. Like the court system that preceded it, the CSA and its successors made a series of complex assessments about how much money the  child needed, which also related to how much the absent parent could afford to pay. Absent parents were sent a complex form on which they listed income and outgoings, and the CSA after calculating essential costs, used a formula to decide how much had to be paid. The formula has varied ever since, as ministers have grappled with the interaction between complexity and collectability, but the reality is that the CSA was about lifting children out of poverty in some cases, but in other cases about maintaining the lifestyle the child might have enjoyed but for their parents divorce or separation.Those two very different purposes were never clearly understood or defined, and the child support system suffered as aresult.

The lack of clarity between the two different outcomes is emphasized by the way the CSA responded to non-payment. Its toolkit was punitive not compensatory, and that’s where another issue arises with the approach taken by the authors at EVB. If the child maintenance system was all about the child, and preventing the child suffering by lack of maintenance payments, then non-payment should have been addressed by the CSA making the payments as if the father had made them. What actually happened was that the parent with care simply didn’t get the money, if the absent parent didn’t pay, and the CSA went into its enforcement mode, sending threatening letters, warning of possible imprisonment, sending collection orders to employers and the like. Arrears would mount, but the key purpose of the system, paying child support was frustrated, leaving parents with care deeper in debt and uncompensated by eventual payment of arrears, if it ever happened.

Sometimes even lateness of payment could be hugely disruptive to family life. If that sounds like a small point, imagine a family where the child support, 50% of household income, is due on 20th December, and the absent father decides not to pay until 3rd January. That’s not late enough, in many cases, to trigger enforcement action, since only defulting on payment altgether typically triggered enforcement, but the reality for that child is a Dickensian Christmas, and not in a good way as daddy becomes Scrooge in order to punish mummy over any number of imagined grievances.

Does that sound like a child-centred system to you? Do the disastrous collection rates cited by EVB sound like a child centred system to you?

A word of caution here. Those collection rates depend on an assumption, that the assessments made by the CSA were both correct, and collectable. The CSA, and it successors, are deeply unaccountable, and deeply flawed. In 2009 only half of non resident parents were paying the full amount they were assessed as being required to pay. (at p. 19, para 54) Aparently, the CSA at the time thought that was “pretty good by international standards” (ibid.) There is a paucity of evidence as to whether the repeated changes to the system are succeeding or failing, but a system where the state sends a parent with care an assessment of how much the absent parent should pay, but admits in private that one in two such parents won’t pay the full amount is not fit for purpose. There has been inadequate data throughout the last twenty years about the accuracy of assessments, but in 2011 it was admitted that 5% of all asessments were wrong. The perception and experience of an unreliable system that can’t guarantee it will get its calculations right, or deliver the money it says should be paid, is not in the best interests of the child. The interaction between disputes about calculations and arrears is messy, and complex, but it means that any figures reported by the child maintenance system have to be handled with care.

I understand the ideological reasons why EVB want to portray absent fathers who don’t pay maintenance as child abusers. I understand why they need to do it on Father’s Day. However, there is no evidence that an ideological attack on absent fathers  produces better outcomes for children. That’s a lesson we should be able to deduce from the failure of the child maintenance system to deliver for so many children in the UK.

Some fathers don’t pay because they simply can’t cope with the demands of a remote, unfriendly system in which they are seen as abusive because they don’t comply. Calling them abusive, or feckless, or deadbeat dads, doesn’t change anything, because they are used to being at the bottom of the heap, and another label doesn’t change their inability to manage their lives the way others expect them to. Call me a lily-livered liberal for thinking that they need positive interventions to help them manage their lives better, but the current system isn’t working, so it’s worth experimenting with alternatives.

Some refuse to pay because they feel as if they have been victimized by the breakup of the relationship or the response of the family courts and the child maintenance system thereafter; treating them as abusers only reinforces their sense of grievance, and convinces them they are right, and the word really is against them. Telling them that their feelings are irrational, and that they should learn to cope with the end of their relationship, is pissing in the wind. Mediation and family support are expensive, but the congruence between child support cases and difficult family court cases needs to be explored, and interventions that bring the two together and make sense of the people involved on behalf of the children, need to be explored. The first time you walk into the home of a parent with care and see colour coded ring binders, blue for the divorce and the property, green for the child support, red for the residency and contact hearings, and black for the accusations and counter accusations of domestic violence and abuse, you realise that there has to be a better way than this.

I understand why EVB posted what they did, and I understand the need they felt to make a political point on Fathers Day.

On Fathers Day I counted my blessings, talked to the people who made me and I hope I have helped make, reflected as I must on my failings, and tried to imagine how the world could be better. All the statistics suggest that ideology and individualism fail our children, that there is an upper limit to compliance with child support and child welfare systems that mean some children will be left behind. No child left behind must be our motto, and that demands interventions that put the child first, and which focus on healthy behaviours, not on a punitive power struggle between a remote state and failing fathers.



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This entry was posted on June 22, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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