Deadbeat parents owe Aussie kids $1.57b
Could Sweden be the secret to ending our child support farce, writes SHERELE MOODY.
WITH more than 150,000 parents owing Australian kids $1.57 billion in child support, our nation's policy makers must innovate to end this widespread financial abuse.
A whopping $1.5b is owed by deadbeat dads while miserly mothers have failed to pay $56.3 million.
It's as if these parents think the costs of raising children ceases to exist when their relationships ends.
We often see headlines about the Federal Government imposing travel bans on debtors, but the reality is the Department of Human Services struggles to recover the missing money.
Jane is a mum of two adolescents who separated from her kids' father in 2005.
She says her former partner has contributed about $400 to the children's lives over the past 13 years.
To make ends meet Jane relies on cheap food from charities and she dresses herself and the kids in second-hand clothes.
Jane's most recent child support statement shows the kids' dad has accrued a debt of more than $223,000 - about $8500 a year for each child since they parted.
"I never hear from Child Support (about recovering the debt) but I bug them once a year so my file doesn't go stagnant," she says.
"They are basically toothless tigers and entirely ineffective with debt collection."
Dodging child support seems to be almost a national hobby.
There are secret Facebook groups dedicated to helping selfish misers flout their responsibilities while an Aussie website even publishes a list of "legal" options for avoiding or reducing child support obligations.
Shady shenanigans include moving assets and cash into someone else's name, failing to report or disclose earnings, not lodging tax returns, becoming self-employed to pay one's self an extremely small wage and even donating large amounts to charity to reduce one's taxable income.
Sweden, it seems, has the answer to beating dodgy parents at their own game - the government there pays the child support itself then it pulls out all stops to get the offender to repay the debt.
Swedish parents have the freedom to negotiate the amount they believe is necessary to cover the cost of raising their kids.
The final sum rises or falls annually to reflect the national cost of living.
If the parents have equal shared care, neither pays child support.
When a parent refuses to pay, the government gives a monthly stipend of 1572 krona ($250 Australian) to the child's primary carer (Yes - it is just $8 a day but at least it ensures the child will have some food).
That amount is then recovered by authorities - including deducting it from wages - and interest may be charged to prevent the non-paying parent from continuing to flout their obligations.
In Australia, the Department of Human Services calculates an individual's child support contribution using cost of living data, the average cost of raising children (about $22,000 a year), the earnings of each parent and the number of nights per year the child spends with each parent.
Simply put, the higher your income the more you will pay.
For example, an Aussie on $150,000 a year who spends four nights a fortnight with their child may pay $1030 a month.
But someone on $50,000 might pay about $300 monthly.
On the flipside, if the primary carer of the child earns considerably more than the other parent, the paying parent (that is the person who is not the primary carer) will contribute even less.
And if you have the child 50 per cent of the time, you will still pay the other parent if your income is higher.
It is easy to understand the criticisms - and anger - directed towards our child support system.
Fathers' rights groups say it unfairly punishes men because they are more likely to be higher income earners and less likely to be their child's primary carer.
"A lot of people aren't happy with what they have to pay and they are being forced to pay for children ... that another person won't allow them to see," Lone Fathers Association of Australia president Barry Williams told me earlier this year.
"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."
Meanwhile, the National Council of Single Mothers and Their Children CEO Terese Edwards says tens of thousands of women and their children are living well below the poverty line because they are being forced to foot the full cost of raising kids.
"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 time," Ms Edwards said.
Regardless of why mothers and fathers end up living apart, it is vital that both do what is best for their children, including making sure their kids are financially supported.
Sadly, there will always be people who will find ways to shirk their responsibilities and this means there will always be innocent kids missing out on the basics, such as food and clothes.
This is why Australian policy makers must look to revamp the system to ensures children are always supported financially.
The first port of call could be tipping our hat to Sweden.
This is a country where child poverty is falling among single-parent families, based on significant reforms including stop-gap child support payments covered by the public purse and recouped by any means possible.
If deadbeat dads and miserly mums do not step up for Australia's children, our policy makers must. - NewsRegional
News Corp journalist Sherele Moody is the recipient of the 2018 BandT Women in Media Social Change Maker Award and has multiple Clarion and Walkley Our Watch journalism excellence awards for her work reducing violence against women and children. She is also the founder of The RED HEART Campaign and the creator of the Femicide Australia Map.