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Keith Rankin: Child Custody and Child Support

Keith Rankin's Thursday Column
Child Custody and Child Support
30 March 2000

Three weeks ago I wrote about Muriel Newman's Shared Parenting Bill (, suggesting that it represents a positive step in the depoliticisation of child custody disputes. I noted that there would remain incentives for about-to-separate parents to incite some form of domestic violence as a way of improving their bargaining position in the Family Court. I also stated that Newman's Bill is really about negotiated custody, and does not actually promote 50:50 shared custody as the best option for separated families.

A number of issues remain.

There is a simple way to deal with the situation where one or more instances of domestic violence have occurred. That is to consider the possibility of either parent dying; of being run over by the proverbial bus. Under what criteria would it be appropriate for the Family Court to deny the surviving parent custody of the children? Diagnosis of 'Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy' would probably be one such situation. A conviction for child abuse would be another. Recidivist domestic violence might be another, even if children had not been victims.

I think that the fallback custody option should be 50:50 shared custody unless one parent could not be granted custody even if they were the only surviving parent. Using this criterion, there is plenty of scope to debate the propriety of violent adults raising children, and the extent to which children might or might not be better off with their own violent parents than with foster parents. Most importantly, such an approach separates the debate on domestic violence and children from the politics of parental separation.

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A second important issue is the way negotiated custody settlements might be compromised by the 1991 Child Support Act.

Since 1992, parents with "access" - meaning custody for less than 3 days per week - must pay the same child support formula assessment as "deadbeat" parents who irresponsibly abandon their partners and children.

Parents who wish to negotiate an arrangement that gives them 2 days per week with their children face similar housing and transport costs as parents who care for their children for 5 days each week. Yet an unpartnered "liable parent" grossing around $33,000 and caring for two children 2 days per week must pay around $5,000 per annum child support in addition to rent, food, power, telephone, income tax, student loan repayments and private debt servicing. If the custodial parent has repartnered or is financially independent s/he receives the $5,000. Otherwise the child support money ends up in the consolidated fund as DPB "benefit recovery".

If the arrangement is renegotiated from 2 to 3 days per week, the child support liability halves. In addition, now being a custodial parent as well as a liable parent, the 3-day parent may be entitled to receive child support payments.

On account of the definition of shared-parenting in the Child Support Act, if the Shared Parenting Bill is passed, then a large proportion of negotiated settlements will be for 50:50 or 4:3 shared custody. But the reason will be so that both parents avoid punitive child support payments, and not because they genuinely believe that 50:50 or 4:3 custody would represent either the best interests of the children or the optimal convenience for the parents.

For the intent of the Shared Parent Bill to be realised - which is for parents to negotiate win-win rather than win-lose outcomes - the Child Support Act must be modified so as to be more supportive of parents with "access".

The third issue I wish to raise concerns Inland Revenue's advertising campaign to get liable parents to pay their assessed child support. Most of us will remember the advertisement featuring the boy who could not play soccer for his school because his mother couldn't afford it. We are supposed to believe that the father's child support money would have made the difference.

Such advertising is at best mischievous. In this case, where the custodial parent is a mother on the DPB, the father's child support money goes to the IRD, not to the mother or to the child. The intent of the advertisement is to boost the government's consolidated fund, not to help children in single-parent families.

Even in these terms, the advertisement was an abject failure. Child Poverty Action have issued a press release (backgrounder 17, soon to appear on the CPA Aotearoa website which cites statistics extracted from the IRD using the Muldoon Government's Official Information Act plus help from the Ombudsman. The IRD expects to spend $3 million over 5 years, with a projected total return of $40,000. In effect, the child support money, collected and retained by the IRD's Child Support Agencies, is being used to create propaganda designed to deceive the public into believing that the major cause of child poverty in Aotearoa is the non-payment of child support.

When parents separate, child custody and child support considerations are intertwined. They are not mutually exclusive spheres of responsibility. Domestic violence, on the other hand, while not irrelevant to childcare, should have no special relationship with the politics of parental separation. At present the whole suite of child-family issues are festering in the "too hard" basket. The Shared Parenting Bill will fail in part because it requires realistic solutions to both the corrosive politics of domestic violence and the "fiscal responsibility" politics of child support.

© 2000 Keith Rankin

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