The UK Government’s Green paper on changes to the Child Support Agency “Strengthening families, promoting parental responsibility” published in January 2011 (http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/strengthening-families.pdf) raised the idea of linking receipt of child support to cooperation over contact by the parent with the primary care of the child.
We should greet this prospect with almost as much alarm as we do the idea that significant fees can and should be raised for the CSA’s service.
The culture of our society is surely starting to shift towards children being given the opportunity of a meaningful relationship with each parent through having a home base with each of them, where this is safe. Initiatives such as Resolution’s Parenting after Parting (see www.resolution.org.uk/parentevents ) will help and support this change as will the Court based scheme Parenting Information Programme ( see http://parentinginformationprogramme.com/ ).
It will be interesting to see whether the occasions of inappropriate hostility to contact will start to fade as these programmes increasingly affect the way parents approach issues about parenting time.
In any event with new powers granted to the court (such as contact activity directions) to pave a way forward, it is questionable whether the proposed CSA initiative isn’t, at the very least, premature, particularly where the new powers have yet to bed down and we have yet to see the results of the research as to their efficacy.
But above this, children need financial support - the core flaw in the CSA proposal is that it risks multiple attacks upon children. Clearly the children who are experiencing difficulties in seeing the non resident parent are likely to be suffering greatly from their parents’ separation. Surely we must not add financial deprivation to their already large bundle of burdens.
It is a given that parenting time must be safe. There will be some, though relatively few, parents who justifiably think that time with the other parent is contrary to the child’s interests. The changes in access to justice in England and Wales will make it difficult for these parents to resolve parenting issues with the support of the court system. The risk is that linking child support and parenting time will press parents into putting themselves or their child into an more unsafe space. Further, the reduction in access to justice may make it harder for parents to secure the help that they need to work out good solutions to some of these relationship difficulties. It is wholly premature to consider additional enforcement mechanisms when we do not know whether the problem solving mechanisms will be available to help families address these challenges once changes to the court system have taken place.
Older children have firm views about what their relationship with their parents should be like. They are – rightly – not involved in the adult questions of maintenance. However, linking child support and parenting time would potentially place them in a position of conflict with one or both of their parents.
Child support in England and Wales looks at relationships in a crude way – focusing only on overnight arrangements to determine the level of support. This risks forcing everyone to adopt crude structures for maintaining relationships because of the potential financial impacts of doing otherwise.
The Green Paper is silent on whether there will be a child support office to adjudicate on breaches of parenting time arrangements. These issues are hard enough for skilled and experienced Judges where the parents have legal representation. The idea that good solutions will emerge from a linked system and indeed that it will be anything other than an enormous operation, generating significant complaints and appeals is surely unrealistic. How, and how many, children will lose out as their parents become immersed in the demands of such a system can only be speculated upon with apprehension.
The policy makers in this vital area too often try to use child support to manage the entire area of family relationships. This should not be attempted. Child support rules should be used to manage child support issues and no more.
There is already a noisy connection between parenting time and payment of child support, through first identifying the paying parent as the one who has fewer overnights with the child than the other parent in a 365 day span. Further, there are yearly thresholds of 52, 104, 156 and 175 nights parenting time, which see maintenance reduce proportionately. Parents are caught on the horns of a very real dilemma – agreeing to a parenting regime which works for their child but accepting the burden of decreased child support and potential financial hardship as a result.
This dilemma is bad enough but the Green Paper’s proposal risks making matters worse and doing the very opposite of what it says is its motivation i.e. strengthening families. It is much more likely to add to the burdens of what are already likely to be heavily-burdened childhoods.
For more information contact email@example.com