Australia’s child support system was introduced by the Hawke government in 1988. Since that time, it has undergone various incremental reforms such that the system as it stands in 2021 at times seems to work contrary to the well-being of children and their parents.
Renowned expert on such matters, Professor Patrick Parkinson, from the University of Queensland Law School, says the introduction of the child support system in Australia was not only to ensure adequate provision of support for children, but was also ‘largely driven by the need to ensure … that private transfers of money from fathers to mothers [were made] to reduce the burden of the state in terms of welfare expenditure’. (Parkinson, 2011)
Professor Parkinson has also suggested that without proper checks and balances the system could lead to perverse incentives for parents in receipt of payment to manipulate the system for unfair financial gain through Parental Alienation practices or other means.
As he says:
‘The child support system provides perverse incentives … for primary caregivers to resist children spending more time with the other parent to avoid a reduction in the child support obligation.’
As far as possible, such ‘perverse incentives need to be avoided, and legislative policies in these areas should be in harmony rather than conflict’. (Parkinson, 2011)
The emergence of these practices has been highlighted by legal other academics, including Professor Augusto Zimmerman, as well as other legal and medical scholars and practitioners.
There are also other failings in the system that I have witnessed first-hand as someone who, for twelve years (as a shared care father), has paid more than $200,000 in child support for the ‘essential needs’ of two children as defined by the Child Support Agency.
Furthermore, these payments are apart from the regular and significant other financial payments I have made for shared private schooling costs, educational equipment, and the medical needs that either fell outside the Child Support Agency’s definition of ‘essential needs’, or those for which the other parent was unwilling to share in the costs.
Below is the set of reforms that I propose are required to make Australia’s child support system better able to meet the needs of children and their parents in a more equitable and just manner.
This is based on my professional policy expertise (as someone with senior experience in social policy-making and other roles in the Federal government during a career of nearly two decades) as well as my personal experience with the system.
Independent control of payments made for the benefit of children.
It is well recognised that there are absolutely no controls, checks, or balances in the system to ensure that the child support payments made by paying parents for the benefit of their children are spent on those children.
In my own experience, despite paying thousands of dollars per month in payments, I regularly received calls for assistance from my children for essential items related to clothing, education, and medical and transport needs, which are meant to be covered as ‘essential’ items as defined by the Child Support Agency.
It was very clear to me that much, if not most, of the funds being provided were not being spent to meet the children’s needs.
This is in the context of a two-child family and the receiving/payee parent being a well-paid federal government executive with a six-figure income and very generous superannuation. I had a similar career and level of income before workplace bullying and harassment, and the breakdown of the family unit at the same time, had led to the end of my fairly successful career.
Drawing from those experiences, I propose that an independent body – such as the Public Trustee or something of similar ilk – be established to receive all child support payments (as it currently does for Testamentary Trusts for children of deceased estates in administering payments), upon application by the recipient parents, for essential and specific items of expenditure for children.
This would include items such as educational, medical, accommodation needs, and the like.
Serious penalties for providing false information to the Child Support Agency
At present, any number of false assertions, allegations, and defamatory assaults on a parent’s character seem to be able to be submitted to the Child Support Agency with impunity, even when it is found that those allegations may be false.
This happened on more than one occasion. For example, this happened to me after being successful in an Appeal against an original CSA decision that failed to acknowledge the written affidavit signed by myself and the other parent in relation to a financial agreement we had struck and which the other parent denied having signed. Subsequently, the other parent’s appeal against my appeal was successful in the context of me being unfairly defamed by the other parent in her written rebuttal. Of course, on this occasion, as in other injustices that occurred, I did have two additional rights to appeal that I could exercise. This is first to say, I did not exercise those further avenues of appeal due to the additional stress and effort required, and potentially the financial resources for legal assistance that might be necessary to mount a successful Appeal. I also had a lack of confidence in the effectiveness and expertise of the AAT on such matters as it is well known that both sides of politics have used it as a dumping ground for decades for sometimes failed political candidates and ex-political staffers, some of whom seem to possess no relevant skills to hold a position on the AAT.
On another occasion, I claimed care for a certain night I had care which had occurred for years. I did not seek a retrospective claim to cover the missed payment relief for which I was entitled, but I was denied recognition of that care because the others parent denied it was happening even though I had multiple affidavits from others to support it.
Ultimately, I was not successful in that claim to have my Friday night care recognised until I dragooned my 85-year-old mother away from her 90-year-old husband to spend those nights with me and my young teenagers for three months to verify the situation according to CSA requirements.
These examples, and noting the very generous child support payments that the CSA formula provides, means there is a perverse incentive to submit false statements to increasing the likelihood of achieving the desired level of financial payments by some unscrupulous parents.
I would propose that the legislation be changed to require that there be serious penalties for persons being found to have made such false claims to the Child Support Agency and that those penalties be heavily promoted in child support documentation to make all parents aware of the consequences of such behaviour.
The penalties as a minimum could mean the suspension of all child support payments for three months in the first instance, with a ramping up of penalties for any subsequent transgressions.
This would make any parents with self-serving motives, and not acting in good faith, think twice before engaging in such behaviour.
An independent inquiry into the Child Support System
This would include the interaction of the child support system with the Family Law system, its impacts on the incidence of domestic violence and rates of suicide, and a review of the skills and training of CSA staff. There have been many inquiries into the Family Law system and associated issues, including peripheral limited investigations into the Child Support system, but no stand-alone inquiry into its administration has ever occurred since its introduction in 1985. In my mind, there is no doubt that there is a definite link between payee parents’ frustration with the sometimes unjust operation of the Child Support system and incidences of family and domestic violence. It is not something that I fell into the trap of perpetrating, and such behaviour are unjustifiable, but if we are serious about addressing the scourge of family and domestic violence then the operations of the Child Support Agency needs serious investigation.
I am loath to suggest a Royal Commission as these seem to be called for on almost every major emerging issue these days, so I believe they are losing their potency and accordingly their ability to enact real and sustained systematic change.
That said, the independence from government of any person appointed to investigate the system is paramount (as seems to have been achieved for the recently announced Commissioner for the Royal Commission into Veterans’ Suicide), as it is necessary that such an inquiry have serious investigative powers and have consequences for perjury for any false statements made to such an inquiry in written or verbal form.
According to a Federal Parliamentary Submission in 2015 by the Australian Family Association, after analysing the suicide rate amongst non-residential fathers:
‘The death rate amongst child support payer fathers is almost double the rate of Australian males who do not have administrative child support assessments.’ (AFA Submission, 2015)
In terms of the attitude and skills of CSA staff I interacted with over twelve years, it was a mixed experience.
Many staff were reasonable although the level of knowledge and expertise was highly variable.
On one occasion a CSA staff tried to bully me into hearing an update of a subsequent decision after being told I was unsuccessful in an important Appeal. After intimating that I would prefer that extra level of information in writing, as I was somewhat stressed and overwhelmed about the unsuccessful Appeal outcome, I was then harangued about being told on the phone.
Largely, I think this was because the CSA staff member did not want to spend the time to put it into writing; however, I did not relent, and it was finally agreed that the additional advice would be sent in writing.
I also noted with interest that a job advertisement for a Senior Case Officer (such roles are responsible for oversight Appeals that may overturn an initial low-level decision) in The Australian that noted that ‘experience or knowledge of CSA matters is not essential’.
The job of a CSA case office is not an easy one, but it is an important role that, if administered poorly, can lead to detrimental financial and mental outcomes for parents and their children.
Establishment of an Independent Regulator or Ombudsman to oversee the operations of the Child Support Agency
There are many regulatory bodies to oversee the operations of large administrative and other organisations within the Australian economy and society. For example, the Banking Ombudsman and, previously, similar organisations for Employment Services.
Such an organisation would regularly review the efficiency and the effectiveness of the operations of the CSA, ensure it is operating properly to achieve its intended policy outcomes as (defined by government) and check that it is meeting its legislative requirements.
Although my twelve years of interactions with CSA staff were largely reasonable, there were occasions where it was clear that there was a low level of understanding of its policies and guidelines within the organisation – even at senior levels.
Further, at times, it seems that there was sometimes a lack of transparency and willingness to be held accountable for advice previously given that was subsequently contradicted. I know from my dealings with other paying parents these were not isolated instances.
It is also worth noting is that the CSA facilitates the payment of $1.75 billion dollars of payments per year to parents (supposedly for the benefit of Australian children).
So, surely, it is appropriate for such a large player – in economic as well as social policy terms – to have some reasonable ongoing oversight and to which suggestions for improvement (or complaints seeking redress) could be made more easily by participants in the system. (Child Supports payments March 2021, data.gov.au)
The opportunity for such redress or input into the operations of the CSA is currently provided by the cumbersome, time-consuming, and at times very costly, quasi-legal and legal bodies of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and ultimately the Federal Court – both of which are largely beyond the capacity of most paying parents.
As part of this oversight body, there could also be established a mechanism for formal quasi-legal mediation over disputed matters to seek a fair resolution and a presentation of the facts of the matter on hand for consideration to subvert the need in most instances to pursue matters through the AAT or Federal Court.
For example, I have recently undergone such a mediation process, under the auspices of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, regarding an issue of dispute between myself and a Banking institution, and I found it to be an efficient, fair, and cost-effective way to reach a reasonable resolution.
Review child support payments formulas
These formulas were significantly changed because of the reforms in 1997 which have led to a marked increase in the quantum of payments being made by payee parents.
These payments have grown exponentially since their beginnings in 1987 to now be more than $1.75 billion in 2021. (Child Support Payments March 2021, data.gov.au) But, as mentioned above, through various means the system can be manipulated by parents of ill will who face no penalty for abuse of the system while at the same time being aware that succeeding in such claims would be very financially lucrative.
The question also must be put as to whether the formulas currently used are leading to outcomes that are excessively generous and are well outside the reasonable community standards and expectations of most of the Australian population.
The fact that as a 54-year-old my ‘living allowance’ designated by the CSA of $25,000 per year did not even meet my mortgage payments as a shared care parent living in a modest home I finally secured after ten years of insecure tenancy in rental accommodation (having moved more than ten times during that period while trying to provide secure and stable accommodation for my children as part of shared care) leads one to deduce that there is something seriously amiss in the system.
This situation is even more jarring when one considers that, for example, my 17-year-old son was deemed by the CSA to cost $28,000 for ‘essential needs’, which meant of course that if somehow full-time care could be orchestrated by the other parent the monthly payments doubled from $800 a month for him to $1,750 a month (which is in fact what eventually happened). This is a highly enticing proposition for someone of a self-serving nature.
These are just two examples of some of the perversions in the current child support formulas used to calculate payments.
Review recognition of care and surety of long-term care plans
Similarly, there needs to be a review of the type of care that receives formal recognition by the CSA as ‘care’ which are then used in payment calculations.
There are many instances of parents providing after-school care, significant transportation and care and attendance at school, sporting, and other community and social events that receive no formal recognition in terms of the many hours involved because they are not overnight care.
For much of the mostly shared care of patenting in my case, I provided hours of such care often daily in the form of after-school care, homework and assignment assistance, meal preparation, medical appointments, transportation, and other social and community-related opportunities for my children – none of which was recognised as formal care hours by the CSA.
Similarly, I believe there is a need to reform the full legal recognition of long-established parenting plans signed by both parties and lodged formally with the CSA.
I would suggest that after such arrangements are in place for six months and working effectively then they assume the status of a formal Family Court Parenting Order, and that such arrangements can only be amended with agreement of both parties or through seeking a Court determination (if the matter is in dispute).
I am aware of many examples of such CSA lodged Parenting Plans in place, but either parent being subject to such arrangements being dishonoured at a whim or as an act of spite or to gain additional child support payments and the only way it can be addressed it to incur significant legal costs by going to the Family Court and running a full Custody trial which can take years to conclude.
Streamlined child support applications for victims of domestic violence
Finally, in the context of the greater awareness in recent times of the scourge that is domestic violence, I support moves to streamline child support application and payment processes for parents of either gender, that have been the subject of violent and sustained domestic violence.
The previous Coalition government recognised the vulnerable financial position of spouses subject to family violence by last year introducing an immediate $5,000 payment to assist them in escaping such situations. In principle, I support such measures as a way of reducing the burden on such highly stressed and vulnerable parents and children.
Accordingly, I suggest the government look at ways to streamline the child support application processes and perhaps provide some sort of automatic right to child support payments without the extensive standard application processes for such parents fleeing dangerous domestic situations. That is assuming the usual burden of proof had previously been met in a Court of Law for such allegations.
If there were no additional proven domestic violence incursions by the other parent for a period of say six to twelve months, then normal child support application processes and associated paperwork requirements would then be re-established for both parents going forward.
Postscript: In subsequent discussions with a Professor of Public Policy, who was instrumental in crafting the original Child Support policy in 1985, there was an admission that it was disappointing that the national child support policy had been so poorly implemented. It was also noted that it raised such high levels of additional income for quite a lot of recipient parents, sometimes excessively so, that one would have a difficult time getting any government to reform it. And finally, that noting it totally devolved previous government income support costs now to Child Support payee parents, even if a policy or fairness case could be made for reform one would somehow have to find significant savings to cover the administrative and political cost of reform.
Also, the national Labor government has just announced it will abolish the Administrative Appeals Tribunal because of its perceived lack of expertise and effectiveness due to it being stacked with Coalition government political appointment. This is a perception I also share, as noted above, however, I would also note that both sides of politics were guilty of doing so.
This article was first published at dads4kids.org.au
- Parkinson, P. Family Law and the Indissolubility of Parenthood, Cambridge University Press), p.219
- Zimmerman, A. Child Support and Parental Alienation, Quadrant Online, 15 August 2019.
- Parkinson, above n.1, p.236
- The Australian Family Association Submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Child Support Program, 31 Jan 2015, p.6