Child support is often a highly charged, contested aspect of parenting after a relationship breaks down. It has the potential to counter child poverty but is often less a resource than an intransigent problem in the lives of single mothers, undermining their financial security and sense of well-being.
In Australia child support can be paid through Department of Human Services (Child Support) or organised privately. Most people who pay child support are fathers, and most people who receive child support are mothers.
In my recent research, conducted with Kay Cook and Torna Pitman, single mothers raised three central concerns about Australia’s child support system.
Women also report that former partners underestimate their incomes or fail to lodge tax returns. They are frustrated by slow responses, the need to follow up multiple times, the unrealistic expectation that they gather information on their former partner’s income, and the limited power and will of departmental workers to address payment problems.
I’ve had a number of people, probably maybe four or five different staff, say, ‘You should be just counting yourself lucky if you get anything at all’.
Calculating the costs
When fathers earn low incomes, child support will not meaningfully contribute to the costs of raising a child. This shortfall is sharpened by a standardised formula calculating the costs of children that does not realistically capture living, schooling, extracurricular and health costs.
When parents are faced with unexpected or changed costs of raising children, they can apply to the department to change the assessed amount of child support. However, these processes are onerous to pursue and not widely known.
For many, child support does not significantly contribute to the basics, let alone come close to meeting:
… all those extra costs that are important for children to grow and develop and be part of the community rather than being the poor kid that’s sort of left out.
Women’s interactions with the department are characterised by poor accessibility and communication. It is difficult to contact staff, and case managers are typically unavailable.
Women report “hard and harsh and aggressive” responses from staff; inaccurate or uninformative responses and reports; lost information; information silos separating the department, the Australian Tax Office and Centrelink; and a refusal by workers to take into account women’s experiences of domestic violence and rape. These interactions intensify the insecurity, fear and sometimes despair felt by women. (Post continues after video.)