Hundreds of Rivers parents add to $1.5b child support debt
WITH almost 1000 Northern Rivers parents struggling to meet their financial obligations for their kids, experts are pressuring the Turnbull Government to overhaul the much-maligned child support system.
Exclusive data obtained by NewsRegional shows 4409 Northern Rivers residents should be paying child support but 22 per cent - 989 - are behind in their payments.
Most of the debtors are men, with 831 Northern Rivers fathers owing money.
There are 131 mothers with a child support debt and 27 residents of "unknown gender” who also owe money.
The Department of Human Services could not tell NewsRegional how much money is owed locally, but it confirmed that nationwide, fathers owed their children almost $1.5 billion and mothers owed $56.3 million.
One of the key criticisms of the system revolves around how child support is calculated, with fathers often saying they are paying too much and mothers claiming they are not receiving enough.
There are also concerns about the child support system's link with the Australian Tax Office because it means payers can avoid their obligations by reducing their taxable income, by failing to declare all of their income or by delaying or not lodging their tax returns.
Paying back overpayments of child support can hit single parents hard, cutting their Centrelink payments, rent assistance and family tax benefits.
Lobbyists are also concerned that some parents are being "forced” to pay for children they never see and there have been questions raised about the length of time taken to re-assess claims.
Lone Fathers Association of Australia president Barry Williams said his organisation would step up pressure on the Federal Government to shake up the system because it was "pushing dads to suicide”.
"A lot of people aren't happy with what they have to pay and they are being forced to pay for children under the law that another person won't allow them to see,” Mr Williams said.
"One of the big problems is when a father finds out the mother is working and receiving a cash payment and he tells the department, the staff there don't want to know about it.
"They won't change his child support obligations, they won't check out the other person.”
Child Support Australia Time for Reform spokesman Keith Owen said his organisation had collected the signatures of more than 10,000 Australians who wanted action on the issue.
The petition calls for a new watchdog to oversee the agency; a stronger complaints handling mechanism; and prosecution of people who are "fraudulently” claiming more child support than they deserve by under-declaring their incomes.
"A common experience is most people do not get told what their rights are,” Mr Owen said.
The long-time father's rights campaigner will deliver the petition to politicians in Canberra early this year.
"There is a lack of accountability - when payers and payees try to make complaints about the way they are treated, they are laughed at and hung up upon,” Mr Owen said.
National Council of Single Mothers and Their Children CEO Terese Edwards said child support debt and inconsistent payments were financial abuse because they "created financial uncertainty, distress and poverty” for mothers and their children.
"Imagine the families who contend with child support debt in turn telling their landlord, the supermarket or any other institution that they'll get around to making a payment at some point in time,” Ms Edwards said.
"It is these families who are squeezed, often with little or no resources to mitigate the financial impact.”
Child support expert Kay Cook said the Federal Government needed to work out how to stop people avoiding their responsibilities.
"Compliance is a major issue - if people are self-employed or not in the waged labour system they can opt out basically,” the Swinburne University of Technology associate professor said.
"Nothing can really be done about this.
"And if payers are putting in their tax returns very late, this impacts the other parent's family tax benefits - it can result in over-payments that the payee has to pay back.
"The child support system is out of step with modern society because gender roles are changing and the nature of work is also changing.
"Who's caring, who's earning, who's in employment and the nature of employment are a lot different now.
"The child support system requires people to have stable incomes and that isn't really the case any more.”
Recently appointed Social Services Minister Dan Tehan did not respond to NewsRegional's request for comment.
Instead a DHS spokesperson said the Federal Government was rolling out about 18 of the 25 mostly administrative recommendations flagged following the 2014 Parliamentary Inquiry into the Child Support Program.
Mum gets $3 a day in child support
SINGLE mother Anne receives just $3 a day - $21 a week - from her former partner to "help raise” their 12-year-old son.
For the first two years of the child's life, the father did not pay child support, so Anne decided to ask the Department of Human Services to collect some money from the boy's father.
For the next 10 years she received $1 a day but that amount increased to $3 recently.
Anne says she spends more than $200 a week raising the child and the amount she received from his father barely made a difference to her budget.
She supplements her meagre Centrelink and family tax benefit payments with any casual work she can find, earning little more than $400 a week.
"Sometimes I don't notice it going into my bank account,” Anne said.
"I rely a lot on my family - without them I would not be able to raise my son and or give him a good education.”
She said the father's failure to lodge tax returns meant child support had to rely on out of date income assessments to calculate how much the father needed to pay for his child.
Anne said her former partner had a cash in hand job but she did not have enough evidence to convince child support of this.
"He's a mechanic - I think he earns around $60,000 a year from that,” she said.
"And he is also on the dole.
"Child support says I need to prove it, I need to fill out all of these forms that take hours and hours.
"I've done this, I've given them photos of him in his work uniform, I've given them the number and address for his work, I've given them everything but they say that they can't do anything because he's earning cash in hand.”
Anne said she used to get frustrated but now she was just focused on raising her son.
"It made me mad for my child - if I had that extra $100 a week it would have been easier for me to raise him,” she said.
"The government needs to crack down on people who are rorting the system like this - especially people who are popping out children and not paying for them.
"The government needs to put more money into catching these deadbeat dads.”
The father does not see his son and does not send birthday or Christmas presents.
Paying the price for an absent child
DISFRANCHISED dad Peter is the perfect example of what's "wrong” with Australia's child support system.
The 47-year-old is one of almost 1.4 million Australians caught up in the child support system that many critics say is causing extreme emotional stress for fathers across the country.
Peter carries a child support debt and despite meeting his obligations, he is angry and sad that he "never” gets to see his little girl.
He said he pays his $48 fortnightly payment to his former partner on time every time even though he has not seen his daughter since 2013.
Peter told NewsRegional the child's mother refuses to let him see her despite there being no court orders in place.
He said he believed this was because the mother does not like his new partner and their family.
When times were better and he was earning more money, Peter would give his former partner $200 a fortnight under a private verbal agreement.
This deal ceased at the start of 2016 when Peter was injured at work, meaning he received about $1300 a fortnight on WorkCover.
His former partner asked the Department of Human Services to put the family onto the child support system, with Peter being told he would have to pay $140 a fortnight.
By the end of the year, Peter's income dropped to $580 a fortnight when he changed from Workcover to a disability allowance.
However, his child support obligation was not re-assessed on this reduced pay and he struggled to make ends meet.
"They sent me a letter and I raised a dispute over the money I was paying,” Peter said.
"They said that they could only change the amount from the day that I rang even though my payments went from $1300 a fortnight to $580 in November of 2016 - they had somehow not recorded that.”
He hoped his 2017 tax refund would help him get ahead, but he did not see one cent of it. Instead the entire $5100 went directly to his child support debt of $6300.
He still owes $1200, with a small portion of his $48 child support payment being used to reduce that amount.
Peter said the system was frustrating but he was not going to shirk his obligation to his daughter.
"I'm disappointed that she's not allowed to ring me,” he said.
"I'm also disappointed that we can't spend time with her, but I know that no matter what I need to help my daughter.”
Just 1362 complaints to Ombudsman last year
WHILE the child support system is copping a fair bit of criticism, fewer than 1400 Australians lodged a complaint with the Commonwealth Ombudsman last financial year.
This is despite there being 1,396,869 clients in the child support system.
And that means fewer than one in a thousand was prepared to go through the correct process to resolve an issue with the system.
In 2016-17, the Commonwealth Ombudsman received 1362 complaints about child support and most of those related to "collection and enforcement” of outstanding debts.
About 460 complaints were linked to "departure prohibition orders, refund interception and disbursement of money collected”; 167 were about failure to collect from paying parents; and 52 complaints related to "calculation or offset” issues.
Just 125 complaints related to customer service and there were only 27 complaints about delays in the change of assessment processes.
"Of the 1362 complaints, we investigated 138 matters,” an Ombudsman spokesperson said.
"We do not usually investigate where the complainant has not complained to DHS's internal feedback and complaints service in the first instance.” - NewsRegional
BY THE NUMBERS
NUMBER OF NORTHERN RIVERS RESIDENTS PAYING CHILD SUPPORT
WOMEN PAYING - 76
WOMEN PAYING AND RECEIVING - 1079
MEN PAYING AND RECEIVING - 1050
MEN PAYING - 2105
UNKNOWN GENDER PAYING - 74
UNKNOWN GENDER PAYING AND RECEIVING - 25
TOTAL - 4409
NUMBER OF NORTHERN RIVERS RESIDENTS WITH CHILD SUPPORT DEBTS
WOMEN - 131
MEN - 831
UNKNOWN GENDER - 27
TOTAL - 989
Source: Federal Department of Human Services