The role of domestic violence in parental alienation

Parental alienation is the enactment of power and control over a targeted parent through a child or children by an alienating parent. To that extent, it falls within the widely accepted definitions of domestic violence and abuse (i) which are enshrined in legislation and policy around the world. However, in our experience, whilst domestic violence and abuse may be recognised as an element of the relationship between parents in dispute over children matters, the professionals who advise the courts rarely, if ever, approach the case with an understanding that a child’s rejecting position may be the extension of a pattern of domestic abuse that has been present between the parents whilst the family was together.

Around the world, domestic violence and abuse is almost exclusively set within a feminist framework which argues that it is ‘a consequence of the inequalities between men and women, rooted in patriarchal traditions that encourage men to believe they are entitled to power and control over their partners’ (ii). Indeed, the 1993 United Nations resolution (iii), the first international human rights instrument to exclusively and explicitly address the issue, defined domestic violence and abuse as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women’. This both reflects and reinforces the belief and the standpoint that domestic violence and abuse is perpetrated by men against women. So widely is this narrative believed, so often is it repeated and so powerfully does it match the stereotypes about gender behaviours and relationships that the international research goes almost unnoticed. So, what does the research tell us?

Contrary to the orthodox belief, the international research clearly demonstrates that domestic violence and abuse is not a problem rooted in gender power imbalances. For example, a 2014 report (iv) published in the United Kingdom which examined the male control theory of men’s partner violence, concluded that, ‘contrary to the male control theory, women were found to be more physically aggressive to their partners than men were,’ and that, ‘using Johnson’s typology (v), women were more likely than men to be classed as “intimate terrorists,” which was counter to earlier findings.’ They conclude by suggesting that their findings do not support the male control theory of intimate partner violence (IPV), but that they ‘fit the view that IPV does not have a special etiology, and is better studied within the context of other forms of aggression.’ Similarly, the respected US experts Joan Kelly and Michael Johnson suggest that the data supports claims ‘that women both initiate violence and participate in mutual violence and that, particularly in teenage and young adult samples, women perpetrate violence against their partners more frequently than do the men’ (vi). Significantly, a 2007 study (vii) in the United States found that almost 24% of all relationships had some violence, and half (49.7%) of those were reciprocally violent. It found that in non-reciprocally violent relationships, women were the perpetrators in more than 70% of the cases. However, it found that men were more likely to inflict injury than women were. These, and many, many other studies demonstrate very clearly that, rather than domestic violence and abuse being a gender issue, it is a result of issues such as individual pathology, substance misuse and relationship dysfunction and that women and men both inflict it and are subject to it.

In their important work (referred to above), Joan Kelly and Michael Johnson argue that empirical research has demonstrated that intimate partner violence is not a unitary phenomenon and propose a differentiation approach to family violence and abuse that recognises four types that can be differentiated with respect to partner dynamics, context, and consequences. These, they describe as Coercive Controlling Violence, Violent Resistance, Situational Couple Violence, and Separation-Instigated Violence (we would use the term violence and abuse in all of the categories except Violent Resistance).

Coercive controlling violence and abuse occurs when one parent controls the other through fear, physical harm, mental and emotional harm or psychological threat. In these cases, there is a clear power imbalance in the relationship. Situational couple violence and abuse occurs as fights between couples where both are involved. It may be recurring or ‘one off’ in nature and usually causes shame and embarrassment. Separation instigated violence and abuse (i.e. that which can accompany a divorce or separation) occurs at the end of a relationship and, whilst it may cause distress, it is not experienced as control. It often involves violence on the part of both parents, both physical and verbal fighting and parents, again, will often feel ashamed and uncomfortable. Violent resistance is the use of violence to resist a violent or coercively controlling partner. It may be almost automatic and surfaces almost as soon as the coercively controlling and violent partner begins to use physical violence. Our practice tells us that, in cases where violence and abuse is either the cause, or is a contributing factor, in a child’s rejecting position, it is that which falls into the coercive controlling violence and abuse category that is at play. By extension, it must be recognised that not all types of domestic violence and abuse can be assumed to be the cause of alienation.

In looking at this category more closely and in examining how it is a constituent part of parental alienation, we consider that the exercising of coercive power and control by one parent over another is invariably reflective of a learned family narrative that is passed down through the generations and it is, therefore, within this framework that we examine the potential for domestic violence or abuse to have played a part in causing or contributing to a child’s rejecting position. Gendered models of violence or abuse, such as a patriarchal analysis, leads to omission of critical aspects of understanding. It conceptualises women’s and children’s experience as being the same rather than different and legitimises or dismisses women’s use of violence against men and against their children. Worse than this, it transmits generational trauma and prevents an interruption of the cycle of power and control through the resolving of trauma patterns. Understanding how power and control plays itself out in the family means understanding dysfunction and how the use of violence to uphold power and control, whether that is physical, emotional or psychological, is woven into both the horizontal and vertical relationship patterns.

Working within an understanding that domestic violence and abuse and, in particular that which takes the form of coercive control, is a generational issue rather than a gender issue, it is important to examine and understand the specific family and the specific family dynamics and to recognise and understand the unspoken messages that play themselves out in the family drama. In exploring whether domestic violence or abuse is either the cause of, or is a contributing factor in, alienation, it is necessary to analyse the family history of both parents, the attachment patterns of children and parents in those family systems, parental behaviours, and power and control patterns. This is known as psycho-genealogy and it is an extremely important tool in understanding your own alienation experience.

A Generational Model of analysis of power and control patterns looks for the presence of unresolved trauma, personality disorder, a lack of empathy, poor interpersonal skills, abandonment issues and an inability to manage rage. Importantly, it recognises that power and control through violence is a learned behaviour transmitted in childhood experiences of being parented and establishes where trans-generational transmission of trauma patterns may be being played out in the parent/parent and parent/child relationships. It also conceptualises male and female responsibilities for violence and abuse as belonging to each, individually and separately from that of their children but identifies where children are being used as conduits for the continued use of pre-existing power and control behaviours. In this way, it protects children by highlighting and preventing risky behaviours in parenting and recognises that children who are subjected to parental alienation are, themselves, victims of abuse. By differentiating between different elements of behavioural violence, it is possible to establish its roots and determine the treatment for it.

[This is an extract from the forthcoming book ‘Understanding parental alienation: learning to cope, helping to heal’ by Karen Woodall and Nick Woodall]

Notes:

i. For example, the UK Government defines domestic violence and abuse as ‘any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality’. https://www.gov.uk/domestic-violence-and-abuse [Accessed 10 March 2015].

ii. Women’s Aid (2006). What is the cause of domestic violence? [online]. London: Women’s Aid. Available from: http://goo.gl/Jd4y2z: [Accessed 11 March 2015].

iii. United Nations General Assembly (1993) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. A/RES/48/104

iv. Bates EA, Graham-Kevan N and Archer J (2014) Testing predictions from the male control theory of men’s partner violence.

v. Johnson, M. P. (2008)A Typology of Domestic Violence: Intimate Terrorism, Violent Resistance, and Situational Couple Violence. New Hampshire: Northeastern University Press.

vi. Kelly, J. B. and Johnson, M. P. (2008), Differentiation among types of intimate partner violence: research update and implications for interventions. Family Court Review, 46: 476–499.

vii.Differences in Frequency of Violence and Reported Injury Between Relationships With Reciprocal and Nonreciprocal Intimate Partner Violence. Daniel J. Whitaker, PhD, Tadesse Haileyesus, MS, Monica Swahn, PhD, and Linda S. Saltzman, PhD. American Journal of Public Health. May 2007. Volume 97, Issue 5.

Why systemic family therapy can’t help in cases of parental alienation

Whilst the family courts and the professionals who advise them often recommend family therapy in high conflict cases where children are rejecting one of their parents, systemic family therapy faces the charge that it is not only an ineffective response to parental alienation but is, in many cases, likely to make things worse.

Of course, therapeutic interventions form a key element in working with families in distress and may offer effective treatment routes in some cases where a child is rejecting one of their parents. Certainly, where the rejecting behaviour in a child is mild to moderate, and in cases where the rejecting behaviour is a result of either a rational response to the rejected parent’s behaviours or is a response to the combined behaviours of both parents that is rooted in the still fluid and unresolved post separation conflict, systemic family therapy may be able to play a part in reordering the family dynamics in such a way that the rejection is addressed. The two significant factors that need to be considered, however, are how we categorise and define parental alienation and how the particular approach taken by systemic family therapists can actually reinforce and consolidate serious or pure cases of alienation.

Critical to this is a recognition that alienation is not a unitary but a spectrum phenomenon; not all high conflict cases result in alienation and not all child rejecting behaviour is caused by parental alienation. As Amy Baker and Richard Sauber (2013) note in their recent book, each case of a child rejecting is ‘possible to be alienation, estrangement or a combination of the two’.

Similarly, Professor Nicholas Bala, Faculty of Law at Queen’s University, Ontario, uses the terms justified rejection, where the child’s resistance or rejection ‘is justified on the basis of abuse, neglect or significantly compromised parenting’, and mixed or hybrid, which involve ‘alienating behaviours and strategies on behalf of the favoured parent’ combined with ‘behaviours and attitudes on the part of the rejected parent’ that contribute to the child’s rejection, to differentiate between those cases where alienation is not the cause of a child’s rejecting behaviour and those that we might term pure alienation (see Fidler, Bala and Saini 2013). Being able to differentiate between these categories (and, indeed, we might also wish to consider sub-sets of these categories, here) is essential in determining what responses will be most effective.

Systemic family therapy is based on a theoretical approach that identifies the family, and other interpersonal relationships, as being a system. Each system has its own shifting but balanced order which, at times of change or stress, can become unbalanced and, therefore, threatened. As a response to this, one or more members of the system will develop symptoms such as behavioural disorders or psychological disturbance. The role of systemic family therapy is to offer interventions to allow the members of the system to adjust to the threats in a way that rebalances it.

In systemic theory, a member of a system (in this case, the family) who displays psychological or behavioural disturbances is considered to be the ‘symptom carrier’ for the entire system. This person is often excluded from the system and is held responsible for all of the difficulties and conflicts within the system. Systemic therapy aims to help members of the system identify and understand the symptoms, gain new perspectives on the existing dynamics, understand the perspectives of others within the system, think about patterns of communication and interaction, and contribute to and participate in the processes required for change.

Critically, systemic family therapy differs from other interventions in that it does not seek to identify one individual within the family as being the cause of the problems but identifies the problem as being a disturbance in the family system. As Rivett and Street (2009) put it, ‘most helping services are designed to “blame” one family member and seek to organise, change or ameliorate that person’s behaviour, beliefs or feelings. For this reason early family therapists warned against family therapy becoming part of mental health services. Contrary to many such approaches to therapy, family therapy always places individual’s beliefs, behaviours and emotions in context. In doing so, it either dilutes blame or seeks to escape blaming interventions’.

In this way, systemic therapy doesn’t seek to address the issues on an individual level but, instead, focuses on understanding problems in a contextual framework. What it fails to do, however, is respond effectively to circumstances where the contextual framework is captured and controlled by the pathological behaviours of one of the parents. And it is in such circumstances where we can identify that pure alienation is present.

In cases of pure alienation, the alienating parent can’t or won’t change their behaviours and no amount of systemic therapy can alter that. Such behaviours often come about because the response of the alienating parent to the separation or their hatred of the other parent has become pathologised. Sometimes the behaviours are a continuation of longstanding patterns of power and control (Woodall, 2014) and sometimes because the alienating parent has a defined personality disorder which prevents them from behaving otherwise.

In such cases, it is simply wrong to subject the targeted parent to the ongoing pathological hostility of the other parent whilst being asked to reflect on their own contribution to the family dynamic. And it is tantamount to complicity in the damage to the child to allow the alienation to continue indefinitely in the hope that the alienating parent will at some stage come to recognise that their behaviour is, ultimately, abusive.

Most importantly, alienated children are not in a position where professionals can engage in open-ended therapeutic interventions in the hope that the disordered system will once again function. What is required is not that each parent is asked to reflect upon the dynamics and accommodate the other parent’s perspective but that the alienating parent is forced under threat of sanction to behave differently and, where that is not possible, the child is removed from the harm being caused to them.

The job of those of us working with families where alienation is present is not to bend the realities of parental alienation to meet the structures and theories of our own practice but to ensure that the interventions we use meet the realities of the situation.

As Richard Gardner (1999) suggested, ‘the “Mr. (Mrs.) good-guy” approach, so important in traditional individual and family therapy, has no place in the treatment of PAS families. Only therapists who are comfortable with stringent and authoritarian treatment procedures should be involved in conducting therapy with PAS families.’

It should go without saying that children who are subjects of pure alienation are children in danger. These are not ‘child contact’ disputes, these are child protection cases. In such circumstances, it is critical that causes are accurately identified and treatment routes do not leave either the targeted parent or, most importantly, the child subjected to the ongoing psychological and emotional harm that is caused by the alienating parent’s behaviour.

References:
Baker, A.J.L. and Sauber, S.R. (2013) Working with Alienated Children and Families: A Clinical Guidebook (eds). Routledge, New York.

Fidler, B.J., Bala, N. and Saini, M.A. (2013) Children Who Resist Postseparation Parental Contact: A Differential Approach for Legal and Mental Health Professionals. OUP, Oxford.

Gardner, R.A. (1999) Family Therapy of the Moderate Type of Parental Alienation Syndrome. The American Journal of Family Therapy. 27:195-212, 1999

Rivett, M. and Street, E. (2009) Family Therapy: 100 key points & techniques. Routledge, Hove.

Woodall, K (2014) Domestic Violence and Alienation Abuse. PAAO webinar, Toronto.

Confidentiality v Integrity in the mediation process

I picked this story up from Mediate BC in Canada  to whom I am grateful. It raises some interesting questions about the tension between confidentiality and integrity in the mediation process.

Confidentiality is one of the cornerstones of mediation; the principle that what is revealed during the process may not later be used in court and that it is ‘without prejudice’ if there is a failure to reach a mediated settlement. This principle gives many the confidence to attempt to reach a mediated settlement who would otherwise be reluctant to do so. It also encourages parties to be open and candid throughout the process.

Of course, confidentiality is not absolute and is always subject to the law of the land and it is also the case in relation to the well being of other people. The welfare of children who may be at physical or emotional harm is one such example of where confidentiality is limited, but it also extends to other parties including where there may be a risk of self-harm.

However, things become a little more equivocal when it comes to the ‘evidence’ that parties bring to the process. The British Columbia Supreme Court, in Canada, recently considered this issue in Ramsden v. Ramsden 2013.

The court was asked to order production of two documents produced by the husband during a mediation which had not resulted in settlement. The husband objected on the basis that the documents were privileged and not producible since they were created for the mediation process.

The wife argued that the husband breached the mediation agreement (containing confidentiality clauses) and was not able to rely on it since the documents in question were created by the husband knowing they were inaccurate and misleading.

The husband did not deny that the documents were inaccurate, he simply argued that the Court was limited to reviewing the revised versions he produced for this application.

Master Caldwell, overseeing the case made the following ruling:

[17] I am fully in agreement with the position and the authorities that mediation is an important option to the litigation process, that it is to be encouraged and that mediation privilege is important to that process; I am also of the view that there is a significant difference between legitimate mediation and attempted ambush by deception.

[18] There is a reason why parties to a mediation process are required to sign and abide by an agreement to “disclose fully and honestly all the information and documents relevant to the issues being mediated.” The litigation process contains the safeguards of cross-examination and the watchful eye of the court to ferret out truth from fiction. The mediation process relies on honest, full disclosure and the integrity of the system itself, particularly within the context of matrimonial disputes.

[19] Where, as here, there is every appearance of evasiveness at best and deceit at worst the court must rally to support the integrity of the true mediation process in order that the immediate, as well as future, participants in that process may have assurance that it is a process with legitimacy, not simply a shell game where they “pays their money and takes their chances”. This is all the more the case where the parties have no alternative but to attempt mediation before they can have access to the court system.

[20] The order sought, requiring the production of and allowing the use of the Form 8 and the employment letter will, in my respectful view, not discourage parties from entering into mediation; it will rather encourage parties to enter into the mediation process knowing that they will be protected by the court in the event of deceptive disclosure by another of the parties. To protect such documents from disclosure would, on the other hand, lend court approval to practices of deception within the mediation process. Should that occur, mediation would cease to have any meaningful role, particularly in resolving matrimonial disputes.

Some people may argue that the court’s ruling undermines the principle of confidentiality and will make parties less inclined to be candid throughout the mediation process. On the other hand, the ruling is made on the basis that the court believes that revealing deliberately falsified documents increases the legitimacy and integrity of the process because the parties will have a greater confidence that the ‘evidence’ produced may be scrutinised if it is found to be deliberately inaccurate or misleading.

One in six fathers: David Lammy’s inadvertent error

A new statistic has begun to do the rounds within family separation and fatherhood circles and seems to be fast gaining the of credibility and authority that comes with repetition.

It comes from David Lammy’s book Out of the Ashes: Britain after the riots, London: Guardian Books (2011) in which he states that ‘only one in six absent fathers is judged to present a ‘significant problem’ for his children’ (Page 103).

The word ‘only’ suggests that Mr Lammy intends to play down the danger of fathers to their children and it is set within a context that promotes the role of fathers in children’s lives. But one in six? Really? That’s almost 17% of dads!

Unfortunately (or, perhaps that should be, fortunately) Mr Lammy has either misunderstood or inadvertently misrepresented the research.

What he appears to use as his reference is an article written by Rob Williams, the former Director of the Fatherhood Institute, for the Family and Parenting Institute’s report ‘After the riots – Where now for UK parenting?‘ where he says, ‘of the men who lose touch with their children only one in six present significant problems as fathers’.

It seems that this statement is derived from a single source; a book by Geoffrey L. Greif, Out of Touch: when parents and children lose contact after divorce, Grief, G.L New York: Oxford University Press (1997). Unfortunately, I do not own this book and so I’m unable to take a view as to the validity of his research methods. However, it should be noted that this was a small study and the group that Grief was looking at was those fathers who have absolutely no relationship whatsoever with their children.

The critical issue, here though, is that Mr Lammy has substituted the phrase ‘men who lose touch with their children’ with ‘absent fathers’.

What we know is that the term ‘absent father’ is shorthand (typically pejorative) used by politicians, commentators, lone parent campaigners, social policy researchers and others to encompass any father who is separated and does not have the main day-to-day care of his children. In other words, 90% of separated dads.

I think that it is also important for us to consider the context within which this issue has to be addressed at all and that is, I would argue, that there is a strand of feminism that has sought to remove fatherhood and masculinity from family life has consistently portrayed men as inherently dangerous to mothers and children.

This attitude has become so embedded in social policy and service delivery that almost all discussion around fathers and fatherhood is conducted from a deficit perspective – in other words, fathers have to prove that they are fit to have relationships with their children in a way that is never required of mothers.

It seems fairly self evident that there are some fathers who pose a ‘significant problem’. But how do we define ‘significant problem’ and are those problems any more prevalent in fathers than in mothers?

How many fathers completely lose a relationship with their children? The statistics vary massively depending on whether we’re castigating fathers for abandoning their offspring, in which case it’s around 42%, or whether we’re proving that there isn’t a gender bias in the family courts, in which case it’s around 1%.

What we can say with absolute certainty is that the ‘one in six’ figure is hugely misleading and just plain wrong. Those repeating David Lammy’s assertion are proposing that around17% of separated fathers pose a ‘significant problem’ to their children. And that is, clearly, a farcical suggestion.

Child Maintenance: history, behaviours and child poverty

This is the text of a short report I wrote, recently, for a policy forum.

Child maintenance in recent history

Prior to the introduction of the Child Support Act (1991), maintenance orders could be made with consent and privately between couples, without recourse to a court. Alternatively orders could be obtained through magistrates’ and county courts. The Department for Social Security (DSS) could also pursue a ‘liable relative’ for maintenance.

The Finer Report, published in 1974, argued that it had ‘established beyond a doubt that most one-parent families could not subsist on the proceeds of the maintenance orders, or on any amount to which it would be possible to increase them while permitting the liable relative himself to subsist without assistance’.1

It has been argued that ‘the Committee recognised and supported the obligation on men to maintain their families but insisted that the difficulties of lone mothers would be better met if the state rather than fathers were expected to maintain them and their children’.2 In effect, the responsibility for the maintenance of children in divorced or separated families was transferred into the hands of the state

By the end of the 1980s, ‘lone parenthood’ accounted for one of the fastest growing areas of public expenditure. In 1980, there were 330,000 lone parents in receipt of Income Support (IS) and by 1989, the number totalled 770,000. Public expenditure was inevitably significant, given the heavy reliance of most lone parents on benefit. In 1989, 70 per cent of lone parents were in receipt of IS, and the cost of benefit had risen from £1.3 billion in 1981-2 to £4.3 billion in 1990-1.3

The 1990 White Paper, Children Come First, concluded that ‘the present system of maintenance is unnecessarily fragmented, uncertain in its results, slow and ineffective. It is based largely on discretion. The system is operated through the … courts … and the … Department of Social Security. The cumulative effect is uncertainty and inconsistent decisions about how much maintenance should be paid’.

Child Support Act 1991

As a response to the increasing financial burden that family separation was placing on the state through the payment of benefits to ‘lone parents’, the government introduced the Child Support Act 1991. One of the explicit aims of the new system of child maintenance was to shift more of the cost of children from the general taxpayer to the families of children whose parents lived apart.4

The basic principle of the Act was ‘the duty to maintain’ which, in the words of the Act meant that ‘an absent parent shall be taken to have met his responsibility to maintain any qualifying child of his by making periodical payments of maintenance with respect to the child of such amount, and at such intervals, as may be determined in accordance with the provisions of this Act.’5

In theory, this duty could be met through a private arrangement. However, where a parent was in receipt of ‘income support, family credit or any other benefit of a prescribed kind’, the Secretary of State was authorised ‘to take action under this Act to recover child support maintenance from the absent parent’6. In effect, this meant that parents in receipt of those qualifying benefits were compelled to use the statutory scheme (Child Support Agency) regardless of whether a private arrangement was possible or not.

In addition, income related benefits were reduced, pound for pound, against maintenance collected. This meant that, in many households, the level of income remained the same and child maintenance payments were, effectively, made to the Treasury rather than to the other parent.

The Act was reformed several times, most notably in 2003.

The Henshaw Report

In February 2006, Sir David Henshaw was asked to consider proposals for the fundamental redesign of the child maintenance system. His report ‘Recovering child support: routes to responsibility’ was published in July 2006 and set out recommendations to improve both child maintenance policy and its delivery.

His key recommendations were that:

‘The state should only get involved when parents cannot come to agreement themselves, or when one party tries to evade their responsibilities. Removing the barriers that currently prevent some parents from making their own arrangements would allow the state to focus on the more difficult cases and where effective enforcement is needed.’

and

‘Parents who are able to should be encouraged and supported to make their own arrangements. Such arrangements tend to result in higher satisfaction and compliance and allow individual circumstances to be reflected. We should end the policy of forcing all parents with care claiming certain benefits to use the Child Support Agency.’

As a result, the most significant change that stemmed from Henshaw, other than transferring responsibility for managing the child maintenance system to a new body – the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission – was the repeal of section 6 of the Child Support Act 19917, under which ‘the claim of benefit by or in respect of a parent with care, or the payment of benefit to or in respect of such a person, triggers an application by her or him for child support maintenance’. This meant that all parents, whether they were in receipt of qualifying benefits or not, were free to make their own private arrangements for child maintenance

The government also introduced changes to the ‘benefits disregard’ (also known as the Child Maintenance Premium) which was the amount of child maintenance received by ‘Parents With Care’ that they were entitled to keep without a corresponding fall in their benefit entitlements. These changes were, initially, staged but from April 2010, a full maintenance disregard was introduced, which means that, for parents with the main day-to-day care of the child(ren), any maintenance received is no longer taken in account when calculating their benefit entitlement.8

Current initiatives

Building on Henshaw, the Coalition included a number of child maintenance provisions within the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and published two consultation papers, ‘Strengthening families, promoting parental responsibility: the future of child maintenance’ in 2011 and ‘Supporting separated families; securing children’s futures’ in 2012.

The government identified that too many parents still see the statutory scheme (CSA) as the default option for arranging child maintenance and wishes to support parents to reach their own family based arrangements wherever possible. This collaborative approach sets child maintenance in context of broader Government family policy of promoting involvement of both parents.

The government is also concerned about the cost to the taxpayer of operating the statutory scheme with a typical case in the CSA costing the taxpayer around £25,000 rising to around £40,000 if enforcement action is needed9 and costing 40 pence for every £1 that is transferred between parents.10

A new statutory scheme will be introduced for parents who are not able to reach an arrangement. The role of the new statutory scheme will be solely to provide effective maintenance arrangements rather than having a dual role that includes benefit recovery.

In order to support potential applicants to consider alternatives before proceeding with their application, the government is introducing a ‘Gateway conversation’ although it will ultimately be up to the applicant whether they wish to proceed. In oder to encourage parents to consider whether they really need to use the statutory service, there will be a one-off, upfront fee of £20 to make an application to the new statutory Child Maintenance Service11. This will not apply if the applicant has declared they are a victim of domestic violence or if they are aged 18 or under.

The new service will use HM Revenue & Customs information on taxable income, alongside other data, to calculate the amount of maintenance payable and the calculation will be updated each year for the life of the case at no charge. In the majority of cases, payment will be made directly at no cost to either parent but where payment is not made directly, the statutory service will collect and a charge will be levied on both parents. There will be a gradual ending of liability on all existing CSA cases over a three year period.

A particular drive behind the reforms is to recast the child maintenance landscape so that it is centred on supporting families. The voluntary and community sector is considered to be key to this and the government has made £20 million available to support it. This is set within a wider context, especially in the Ministry of Justice where there will be significant changes following the Family Justice Review and the reform of legal aid in private family law cases.

As well as referring to Henshaw’s conclusion that private arrangements ‘tend to result in higher satisfaction and compliance’12 the government published a number of reports to support its child maintenance reforms. Statistics from the Department for Work and Pension show that almost 90% of paying parents complied with their own arrangements, compared with just under two thirds of those who had payments assessed and enforced by the CSA.13 Figures also revealed that more than two thirds of parents with a family-based arrangement said they were happy with their situation with only a third of CSA clients saying that they felt the same.14 Of those with a private arrangement, 95% say that it is paid, with nine in ten of those saying it is paid regularly.15

Not simply a matter of assessing and transferring

The majority of parents believe that they have an ongoing financial responsibility for their children after divorce or separation. A survey for the government’s Child Maintenance Options service suggested that 94% of separated mothers and fathers believed that parents should continue to share financial responsibility for their children, even if they live apart from them.16

In 2011, the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission commissioned research into parental behaviour in child maintenance decisions.17 Evidence from interviews suggested six core behaviours, found across both receiving parents and paying parents. Some were common to both parents, whilst others were only exhibited only by one or other parent. Within these six behaviours, four were considered to be negative:

  • Abdicating: parents believe child maintenance is someone else’s responsibility;
  • Controlling: paying parents make most of the child maintenance decisions without necessarily gaining consent from the receiving parent;
  • Accepting: receiving parents are unhappy with child maintenance arrangements but accept them in order not to worsen co-parent relationships;
  • Challenging: parents are not happy with existing arrangements and challenge the other parent to change these.

(Note: experience at the Centre for Separated Families suggests that paying parents are just as likely to be unhappy with child maintenance arrangements but accept them in order not to worsen co-parent relationships.)

and two were considered to be positive:

  • Providing: paying parents are keen to contribute towards child maintenance;
  • Receiving: receiving parents are happy with the child maintenance arrangements.

The research also suggested that there are five common drivers of child maintenance behaviour, these are:

  • the quality of the relationship between parents as well as the paying parent’s involvement in their child’s life;
  • the emotional response of parents to the separation;
  • the attitudes, beliefs and values of parents;
  • the affordability of maintenance payments and the prioritising of expenditure;
  • parental intentions.

Whilst the link between what is commonly referred to as ‘contact’ and child maintenance was removed with the introduction of the Child Maintenance Act 1991, it is still very present in the minds of parents. Dr Christine Skinner of the University of York Social Policy Research Unit highlights the importance of reciprocity for parents who are making or enacting maintenance arrangements.18

Dr Skinner also highlights research by Finch and Mason19 which suggests that whilst people may hold a sense of obligation or duty to pay, commitments to pay are not based on fixed rules or position in the family but are created within a negotiation process.

The discourse around increasing the numbers of children who benefit from an effective arrangement is almost exclusively focussed on non payment and ‘Parents With Care fighting to secure maintenance’.20 However, the picture is more complex, with Department for Work and Pensions’ statistics suggesting that in only 17% of cases does a parent refuse to make maintenance payments21 and that in almost twice as many cases, 33%, the reason that there is no maintenance arrangement in place is because the ‘Parent With Care did not want any contact with the Non Resident Parent’.22

The Lone Parent Model

It could be argued that, particularly since the publication of Finer Report on One Parent Families in 1974, public policy around family separation has been centred on child poverty almost to the exclusion of all other issues. This can, perhaps, be attributed to both the drive by campaign groups to have all family formations recognised as being equal,23 in which examining the emotional and psychological impact on children or the social impact of divorce and separation was seen as stigmatising ‘lone parenthood’, and the strong tradition within British charity work of focussing on the alleviation of child poverty. Not surprisingly, the debate around child maintenance has, until recently, fallen within these parameters.

The overarching legislative and policy framework used in the UK is often referred to as the Lone Parent Model. This can be attributed, largely, to the Finer Report and sharply divides parents into the roles of ‘Primary Carer’ (who is assumed to be responsible for parenting a child) and ‘Non Resident Parent’ (who is assumed to be responsible for making financial provision for a child). Whilst these roles are not proscribed by gender, their implementation within a gendered environment means that both legislation and policy may be described as quasi-gendered

In the Lone Parent Model, all of the support – financial, practical and emotional – is provided to the ‘Primary Carer’ who will receive, in terms of financial and social provision, Child Benefit, tax credits and social housing points and may make a claim for Statutory Child Maintenance against the other parent. The ‘Non Resident Parent’ will receive no Child Benefit, no tax credits, will be subject to the under-occupation of social housing regulations24 and may be required to pay Statutory Child Maintenance to the other parent.

This inequality in financial and social provision exists irrespective of the amount of parenting time that each parent provides or the relative income of each parent. For example, both parents may be providing exactly the same amount of day-to-day care for their children but only the ‘Primary Carer’ will be supported in doing that. This remains the case even if the ‘Primary Carer’ is a top rate tax payer and the ‘Non Resident Parent’ is in low paid, part-time work. Even where parents have a Shared Parenting Order, made under the Children Act 1989, the inequality in provision remains.

The effect that the Lone Parent Model has on UK statutory child maintenance is that only one parent may receive it and only the paying parent has their income assessed when the statutory calculation is made. Many paying parents experience the statutory maintenance scheme as punitive and are often report feeling treated as though they were responsible for the relationship having broken down and have no interest or ongoing role in the welfare of their children.

By contrast, in Australia, for example, both parents’ incomes are considered equally, and the percentage of care each parent provides is taken into account when a statutory maintenance calculation is being made25 In Norway, the maintenance cost of a child is shared proportionately between the parents according to their incomes.26

Child maintenance in the alleviation of child poverty

Despite the discourse around child maintenance being largely focussed on child poverty it may, in fact, be effective only at the margins. Prior to the full benefits disregard (see para. 14), research suggested that ‘a child with a lone parent without employment income is very unlikely to be lifted out of poverty by child maintenance; child maintenance contributes to only 7.4 per cent of the reduction in child poverty’.27

The contribution made by the benefits disregard should not be overlooked. Nevertheless, in many cases, child maintenance, whether arranged privately or through the statutory scheme, simply sees scarce resources being transferred from one household to another. It should be noted that the statutory minimum payment levied on paying parents whose weekly income is between £5 and £100 is £5 per week, regardless of how many children are involved, and that this sum is unlikely to make a significant impact in lifting children out of poverty.

In addition, the Lone Parent Model of support and the relatively minor adjustment in the statutory assessment for those paying parents who provide a proportion of the day-to-day care for their children, means that children are often likely to experience poverty when they are in the care of the paying parent. This has the attendant negative effect of making it more difficult for paying parents (mostly fathers) to maintain a meaningful relationship with their children.

It is also worth noting that, although paying parents on income related benefits must pay a minimum of £5 per week (this is set to double to £10 per week28), no recognition of this is made in the benefits received. In essence, the parenting responsibility is built into the statutory child maintenance system but not into the benefits system. This anomaly not only disregards the parenting commitment of the paying parent but increases the risk of children experiencing poverty when they are in their care and increases the likelihood that that commitment will become unsustainable.

Whilst many lone parent organisations continue to focus on poverty alleviation through child maintenance29, it seems clear that, whilst child maintenance can increase the financial resources in one household, it is often at the expense of financial resources in another and that this may simply relocate the potential for child poverty.

1 Finer Report on One Parent Families 1974

2 Is it futile to try to get non-resident fathers to maintain their children? Tanya Evans see http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-48.html#finer

3 The Child Support Agency and the Old Poor Law, Thomas Nutt see http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-47.html

4 Child Support Research Paper 94/20 in respect of Draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Regulations 1994.

5 s.1 Child Support Act 1991

6 s.6 Child Support Act 1991

7 s.15 Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008

8 Raising expectations and increasing support; reforming welfare for the future, White Paper 2008.

9 Family Law Week, January 2012

10 Strengthening families, promoting parental responsibility: the future of child maintenance DWP, 2011

11 This provision was made under s.6 of Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008

12 Recovering child support: routes to responsibility. Henshaw, 2006.

13 DWP Research report No. 4 – Survey of Child Maintenance Options outcomes 2009/10.

14 Ibid.

15 Relationship separation and child support study, DWP Research Report No 503. Wikeley, Ireland et al 2008.

16 Janet Wojtkow, Director, Child Maintenance Options 2010 see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8504152.stm

17 Promotion of Child Maintenance: Research on Instigating Behaviour Change, Sharon Andrews, David Armstrong, Lorna McLernon, Sharon Megaw and Christine Skinner; CMEC 2011.

18 Understanding willingness to pay Child Maintenance, Christine Skinner, The University of York Social Policy Research Unit, 2008

19 Finch and Mason 1993

20 See, for example, Welfare Reform Bill Lords Amendments Feb 2012

21 Relationship separation and child support study, DWP Research Report No 503. Wikeley, Ireland et al 2008.

22 Family Resources Survey. National Centre for Social Research on behalf of the DWP, 2008.

23 See, for example, Gingerbread’s Single parents, equal families campaign, 2009

24 See The Welfare Reform Act 2012

26 Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) see http://www.norway.no/oss/#a962

27 Child support policy: an international perspective, Christine Skinner, Jonathan Bradshaw and Jacqueline Davidson. DWP Research Report No 405 2007.2.2 Page 24.

28 Child maintenance payments made by benefit claimants to double, DWP press release July 2012

29Missing a trick? The role of child maintenance in tackling child poverty in single parent households, Gingerbread 2011