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Column: Child Support And Life Sentences

Keith Rankin's Thursday Column

Non-Custodial Parenthood should not be a Life Sentence.

8 July 1999

Keith is an Auckland-based political economist and social commentator. He teaches political economy, economics, public policy and statistics at Unitec Institute of Technology and Massey University (Albany campus).

Last Thursday I heard one of Kim Hill's interviewees, an Englishman, comment on a British Parliamentary White Paper on Child Support. The paper proposes sanctions such as the removal of drivers' licences from persons who fail to pay this particular liability. On the same day, Chris Rosie, in his "Looking Abroad" column in the NZ Herald, outlines new Child Support enforcement proposals in the USA. Proposals to deal with "delinquent parents" are "the very thick edge of the Big Brother wedge". Child Support laggards stand to lose driving, fishing and professional registration licences. The debtors' prison cannot be far away.

Child Support, essentially a benefit recovery mechanism that has nothing to do with helping mothers pay their sons' soccer fees, pretends to conform with the "no fault" principle. Yet the rhetoric surrounding such schemes is riddled with inference of fault: delinquent, deadbeat, and $10 per week dads.

1990s' Child Support law is predicated on the supposition that parents separate for just one reason; fathers in fulltime employment desert their wives and children so that they can live the life of Riley, while leaving the remnants of their families to lives of penury. Child Support schemes assume the same Victorian social values as do neo-Thatcherite views on philanthropy, charity and the community wage workhouse.

On Sunday, I saw a "20/20" item from America, in which a 19 year-old youth (we'll call him John) from Iowa was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for forcing his way into his girlfriend's home and punching the man she was with. Certainly this assault was an offence that required a conviction. But not a life sentence. John's past was impeccable. He was generally accepted as neither more nor less violent than anyone else in his home town. His misfortune was to commit a single crime of passion just after the introduction of inflexible "home invasion" laws that prescribed minimum sentences.

We sympathise with John. Good citizens believe that punishments should reflect both the scale of the crime and the person's general character. Yet in family law, many Johns, basically fathers of good if not perfect character, go through a nominally neutral but highly flawed legal process that can lead to a life sentence.

Nearly 5,400 protection orders were granted in the year to March (NZ Herald, June 19), on the basis of allegations of physical, verbal or psychological abuse by one partner on the other partner. These are not allegations of child abuse. Nor should they be taken as claims that the alleging parent has never been abusive to partner or child.

We have "no-fault" divorce. Yet we determine matters of custody and access to children on a principle of fault; namely that orders must be made primarily with the safety of the child in mind. Suggestions of unsafety serve as proxy allocations of guilt. Parents assumed to be unsafe lose their children.

Formula-based Child Support schemes - penal taxation on non-custodial parents - just increase the inability of "unsafe" parents to be parents.

The system comes down hard on the Johns of this world, by not distinguishing them from the unredeemed Jake Hekes or from the minority of fathers who really do abandon their children to live the life of Riley in another country or by disguising their true incomes.

The system can be fixed, by reconnecting what should be connected - the caregiving and providing roles of parenthood - and by depoliticising the use of protection orders.

Protection orders could be granted, for a small fee, without any allegations or affidavits. As such, they should provide the same sanctions on the applicant as they do on the respondent. As it is, applicants are free to abuse respondents, indeed to provoke incidents that might give them leverage in any subsequent custody/access hearing.

Caregiving and Child Support arrangements should be settled by the parents as part of a mediated "post-marital contract". The philosophy would be "no fault, all responsibility". Each parent would own their contributions to the separation, including instances of violence, and then move on to taking responsibility by making the interests of their children paramount. Such contracts would outline ways of dealing with changed circumstances of either parent.

A change of language is required. Parents, both guardians, would be called primary or secondary caregivers. The terms "custody", "access", and "liable parent" have no place in modern family law. Each parent is a guardian, a caregiver, and a provider to their children.

The Child Support Agency (CSA) would continue to have a role, as an intermediary, and, through its status within the Inland Revenue Department, as an enforcement agency. Typically, there would be a financial flow from secondary to primary caregivers; a flow that could be managed by the CSA.

Child Support settlements would be adjusted to the context of both parents' caregiving commitments. Thus, a father caring for the children two days a week needs part of his childcare budget to support his own parenting, and to help pay the extra rent on a home that would be a suitable place for children to live. Further, if the primary caregiver moves to another city, then the increased transport costs incurred should be deducted from any child support payments.

All Child Support payments should be deducted from secondary caregivers' gross incomes. And Child Support payments should be passed onto primary caregivers, including beneficiaries, as pre-tax private income. Indirect benefit recovery would take place, therefore, as part of the normal process of benefit means-testing. There should be no direct benefit recovery. Child Support should be child support.

The CSA should pay primary caregivers on the due date, even when secondary care-givers are late. From the point of view of the primary caregiver, Child Support needs to be a reliable regular payment. Late payments to the CSA should be subject to interest, just like late taxes.

We can do better than create a society in which outcast "delinquent fathers" are serving life-sentences of separation, penal taxation and social opprobrium. Children need their fathers, whatever their fathers' faults. Secondary caregivers, most of whom are good citizens, need to be brought inside the tent, to be valued as parents and not as remote wallets.

New Zealand can lead in enlightened social policy, as in the 1890s. We can do without British and American neoconservatism.

------------------------------------------------------------------------ My Fiscal and Welfare Barriers to Effective Fatherhood was published in Perspectives on Fathering, ed. Stuart Birks and Paul Callister, paper #4, Centre for Public Policy Evaluation (CPPE), School of Business, Massey University; April 1999.


© 1999 Keith Rankin

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