NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

October 19, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

A Labor member of the Australian Parliament has asked the government to look into the possibility of limiting child support expenditures by custodial parents to items for children. Many non-custodial parents express the concern that they’re funding the custodial parent’s lifestyle that may include illicit drugs, large quantities of alcohol, lavish vacations and the like. They report making their payments but then seeing their children dressed shabbily or there being no food in the custodial parent’s house.

But neither laws nor regulations anywhere require custodial parents to make any form of accounting of the use of the funds they receive.

Here’s one article on the request by Labor MP Michelle Rowland (News.com.au, 10/4/14). And here’s an article relating one father’s tribulations regarding the child support system in the UK (Telegraph, 10/15/14).

“Many parents feel as though their child support is going toward items which provide no direct benefit to their children rather towards expenses which help maintain their former partner’s lifestyle,” Ms Rowland said.

The MP told News Corp Australia that one of her constituents had raised the controversial issue with her, complaining he was at a loss to understand where the child support he paid was going, because his child was dressed shabbily and needed serious dental work.

“Whilst I can understand that this may be challenging from an administrative perspective, many of these parents believe that there should be some accountability whereby parents receiving child support are required to provide evidence of the way in which the funds are being expended,” she said.

“This would help to allay these concerns that their children are being neglected or not properly provided for, despite the child support that they are providing,” Ms Rowland said.

Two important points. First, establishing such a regime would not, if done correctly, “be challenging from an administrative perspective.” It would be a terrible mistake to require government bureaucrats to review all purchases by custodial parents with an eye to whether they were spending child support money wisely. That would be hugely expensive, impossible to do well and mostly pointless.

A sensible system would see non-custodial parents paying into a particular account for the child. The only way to access that account would be by a debit card issued to the custodial parent. The account could not be used for cash transactions. The account would issue statements to both parents, and vendors who received disbursements from the account would create itemized lists of purchases. Those would appear on the statements issued to both parents. That way, those statements wouldn’t consist of simply $200 – Nordstrom’s, but would say, for example, either $200 – Nordstrom’s, women’s shoes, or $200 – Nordstrom’s, boys’ clothing.

If questionable expenditures appeared on the statements, it would be up to the non-custodial parent to raise the issue with a special arbiter in the appropriate bureaucracy. That person could issue a finding that the expenditure was either appropriate or not and that finding could be appealed by either party to the court.

In short, the onus would be on the non-custodial parent to object, so the great majority of expenditures would never be questioned. No bureaucracy would be saddled with examining countless receipts for socks, school supplies and the like. More importantly, custodial parents would be on notice that their use of child support funds could be scrutinized and would therefore be more likely to use the money for its intended purpose.

That’s point number one. Point two is that, by helping to ensure that the child support paid was truly being used to support the child and not the custodial parent’s drinking habit, the non-custodial parent would be more likely to pay what’s owed. That is, such a system of accountability would mean more of what’s owed would be collected.

One of Sanford Braver’s key findings back in the 90s was that non-custodial fathers’ hesitation to pay child support comes from their feeling of disenfranchisement. Take a normal loving father and consign him to the status of visitor in his child’s life and then refuse to enforce his visitation rights. Then enforce his obligation to pay in the most draconian and unforgiving way and you communicate loudly and clearly that the system of custody and support considers him nothing but a source of funds. Then further add that Mom may be using the money for any number of things that have nothing to do with the child, and you have a situation that’s bound to discourage him from paying.

A system in which custodial parents have to be accountable for how they use the money is one that respects the payer. It says to him “We’re serious about your child’s welfare.” It gives him a measure of power in a system in which he currently has little-to-none.

Here’s how one British dad describes it:

That was exactly my position for years when I was paying hundreds of pounds a month to my ex-wife to support our teenage son; and, though she was a chronic alcoholic spending much of the money on drink, I couldn‘t get any support or interest from Britain’s shambolic and woman-centred family law system.

When my wife and I separated, she immediately went to lawyers and portrayed herself as a helpless little woman in need of protection from a wicked, powerful man. Behind that tearful, vulnerable front, however, she was resolutely determined to use the legal system to punish me and to extract from me every penny she could get. None of my requests for conciliation was allowed. I had always been devoted to our son and actively wanted to support him. I didn’t need judges and the Child Support Agency to tell me my duties towards my child; but the legal system does not recognise a loving father any more than it admits the possibility that a mother might be deceitful and manipulative…

My ex-wife also appropriated our son’s emotional commitment, making him her chief supporter and aide. In that tortuous position, he found it impossible to reconcile the love that had always been strong between us and he cut off all connection between us. From the age of 12 until he was almost 15, I never saw his face or heard his voice.

Apart from being an indescribably painful ordeal, that estrangement also meant that I had no way of knowing whether he was actually receiving any benefit from the money I was paying for his support. I was simply lobbing bundles of cash over the battlements behind which he was cut off from me. I strongly suspected she would be spending the money on drink, but nobody would listen.

When my son eventually ran away from his mother, just after his 15th birthday, all my most terrible fears were confirmed.

I then discovered that his mother had been spending so much on drink that, very often, there had actually been nothing at all in the house for my son to eat. At 6’3”, he weighed little more than 10 stones and was visibly underfed, with a vitamin deficiency showing in white spots on his fingernails. He had no winter coat, one pair of torn pyjamas and one pair of shoes with holes in the soles.

Further details of the miseries and tortures this boy had suffered in that period are too painful to lay out here.

The key point to stress is that, after she had been awarded sole custody and the financial orders were in place, nobody in the legal or social services system exerted any control or scrutiny over this woman’s conduct. They simply trusted in her good faith and intentions and left her to get on with it.

In the U.S. billions of dollars are spent on child support every year, and yet no one anywhere demands any form of accounting. We claim we want to make sure children are adequately taken care of, but when it comes to ensuring that they are, we do nothing, literally nothing. As the Telegraph writer says, “They simply trusted in her good faith and intentions and left her to get on with it.” That may be good enough in many cases, but in many it’s not. And in every case, a system of accountability would do much to relieve the legitimate concerns of all non-custodial parents.

With a suggestion this sensible, there are of course those who disagree. In this case, that falls to Australian academic Bruce Smyth. Of course it does. He, after all, is one of the ones who’s intellectually compromised enough to defend Jennifer McIntosh and her thoroughly discredited desire to keep fathers from having overnight visits with their young children. As I said here, his defense of McIntosh was utterly without merit and disingenuous to boot.

So it’s no surprise that Smyth (a) opposes non-custodial fathers’ being able to know how their money is being spent and (b) that his reasons don’t bear even casual scrutiny.

Social policy expert Bruce Smyth, an Associate Professor at the Australian National University, also warned against the move.

He said attempts to police how child support payments were spent could end up becoming yet another lightning rod for tensions between former partners.

“This approach runs the risk of turning parents into petty accountants,” Professor Smyth said.

“You need to be careful in giving parents more ammunition against each other because conflict gets in the way of parents getting on with the job of being a good parent and raising and enjoying their children.”

It’s the standard dodge. Smyth wants us to believe that the current system causes no problems, to change it would create problems, ergo, that’s to be avoided.

But of course the major premise is false. The system now has very grave shortcomings of the kind the Telegraph writer illustrated and that Sanford Braver wrote about exhaustively in his excellent book Divorced Dads. Smyth opposes this idea because it gives power to non-custodial parents, most of whom are fathers. So what if Dad wants to become a “petty accountant?” If examining his ex’s expenditures satisfies him that his money is going to his child and not down her throat or up her nose, what’s the problem? More importantly, if his access to her records encourages him to pay what he owes, isn’t that worth accomplishing?


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

#childsupport, #accountability, #Australia, #non-custodialparents

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