January 21, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The U.K.’s Department of Welfare and Pensions has announced that it will simply write off some £2.5 billion in child support debt (Independent, 1/14/18). The Department that oversees the Child Maintenance Service that’s charged with administering child support collections and disbursements acknowledged that the debts are uncollectible and that it would cost more to attempt to collect them than any amounts received. The announcement refers to some 475,000 cases.
Part of the problem stems from the days of the erstwhile Child Services Agency that was legendary for its incompetence. The CSA was so bad in fact that the government simply shut it down altogether and established the CMS. But many of the current problems with collections are holdovers from old CSA days.
The CSA left debts totaling £3.7bn when it folded. Most of that figure is owed directly to families by absent parents, while some £1.2bn is owed to the public purse.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is expected to cancel the bulk of the debt under the proposals revealed in a report.
Debts, some of which date back more than 20 years, could be automatically written off if parents don’t reply to official letters within 60 days.
Back in the 80s, the theory was that having a governmental agency handle the receipts and disbursements resulting from child support orders would make the whole process quicker and easier to track. Prior to that time, family courts routinely had to deal with an endless line of mothers who claimed they hadn’t received what they were owed and fathers who said they had. Turning the matter over to a separate agency was thought to make tracking payments a more certain process.
It’s probably done that, at least to an extent, but as ever, there have been unintended consequences. Time and again, those agencies prove themselves to be slow, inefficient and, on occasion, criminal. Stories of employee theft of child support funds aren’t exactly rare and parents routinely complain that they haven’t received what they’re owed even though it’s been paid. Then there are agencies that charge a fee for cutting the bi-weekly check to the recipient. And of course there are the shoddy record-keeping, antiquated computer systems and on and on.
In short, while the old system was cumbersome and faulty, the current one is problematic as well.
But that’s just the collection and disbursement part of the problem. The main problem is that legislatures demand that courts charge non-custodial parents too much, often more than they can pay. In Canada, the formula for calculating child support essentially guarantees that non-custodial parents will be ordered to pay too much for their budget and more than is necessary to support a child.
In the U.S. we’ve long known that, particularly in the case of poor fathers, the chance of falling behind on one’s support payments verges on 100%. That’s because orders are set too high and, again particularly for the poor, modifications all but impossible to get. And for about two decades, state legislatures charged interest on child support indebtedness at rates as high as 12% per annum. Ten percent was the most common figure, far more than the junkiest of junk bonds. Couple all that with a court system that often allocates less than five minutes to hold a hearing into whether a parent is able to pay or is simply not paying for some other reason and we have a scandalously bad approach to supporting the children of divorce.
Does it surprise anyone that the U.K. government is simply throwing up its hands and announcing that an astonishing amount of child support will never be paid? It shouldn’t. From start to finish, the system is designed for exactly that outcome.
Child support formulas should be radically altered to reflect the real costs of raising children rather than the notion that fathers should continue to support mothers, in the guise of supporting children, long after divorce. But more importantly, legislatures should adopt shared parenting laws that, by evenly allocating parenting time would automatically tend to even out the costs associated with child care.
“The mother, and it usually is a mother, has had to bring up these children without money which the Government has said they should have, and money the Government promised they would go and get for them – and then didn’t.”
Those promises should never have been made. Shared parenting would obviate the need for most of the child support apparatus. The government does a poor job of what should be simple – collecting and paying out child support. But for the most part, child support should be unnecessary. Among its manifold benefits, shared parenting would greatly cut down on the need for taxpayers to fund unwieldy, inefficient and mostly unnecessary child support agencies.
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.