Hundreds of Warwick parents add to $1.5b child support debt
WITH more than 350 Southern Downs parents struggling to meet their financial obligations for their kids, experts are pressuring the Turnbull Government to overhaul the much-maligned child support system.
Exclusive data obtained by NewsRegional shows 1354 Southern Downs residents should be paying child support but 26 per cent - 359 - are behind in their payments.
Most of the debtors are men, with 304 Downs fathers owing money.
There are 44 mothers with a child support debt and 11 residents of "unknown gender” who also owe money.
The Department of Human Services could not tell NewsRegional how much money is owed locally, but it confirmed that nationwide, fathers owed their children almost $1.5 billion and mothers owed $56.3 million.
About $39.9m of the total 1.57b national debt is carried by people of unknown gender.
One of the key criticisms of the system revolves around how child support is calculated, with fathers often saying they are paying too much and mothers claiming they are not receiving enough.
There are also concerns about the child support system's link with the Australian Tax Office because it means payers can avoid their obligations by reducing their taxable income, by failing to declare all of their income or by delaying or not lodging their tax returns.
Paying back overpayments of child support can hit single parents hard, cutting their Centrelink payments, rent assistance and family tax benefits.
Lobbyists are also concerned that some parents are being "forced” to pay for children they never see and there have been questions raised about the length of time taken to re-assess claims.
Lone Fathers Association of Australia president Barry Williams said his organisation would step up pressure on the Federal Government to shake up the system because it was "pushing dads to suicide”.
"A lot of people aren't happy with what they have to pay and they are being forced to pay for children under the law that another person won't allow them to see,” Mr Williams said.
"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.”
Child Support Australia Time for Reform spokesman Keith Owen said his organisation had collected the signatures of more than 10,000 Australians who wanted action on the issue.
The petition calls for a new watchdog to oversee the agency; a stronger complaints handling mechanism; and prosecution of people who are "fraudulently” claiming more child support than they deserve by under-declaring their incomes.
"A common experience is most people do not get told what their rights are,” Mr Owen said.
The long-time father's rights campaigner will deliver the petition to politicians in Canberra early this year.
"There is a lack of accountability - when payers and payees try to make complaints about the way they are treated, they are laughed at and hung up upon,” Mr Owen said.
National Council of Single Mothers and Their Children CEO Terese Edwards said child support debt and inconsistent payments were financial abuse because they "created financial uncertainty, distress and poverty” for mothers and their children.
"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 point in time,” Ms Edwards said.
"It is these families who are squeezed, often with little or no resources to mitigate the financial impact.”
Child support expert Kay Cook said the Federal Government needed to work out how to stop people avoiding their responsibilities.
"Compliance is a major issue - if people are self-employed or not in the waged labour system they can opt out basically,” the Swinburne University of Technology associate professor said.
"Nothing can really be done about this.
"And if payers are putting in their tax returns very late, this impacts the other parent's family tax benefits - it can result in over-payments that the payee has to pay back.
"The child support system is out of step with modern society because gender roles are changing and the nature of work is also changing.
"Who's caring, who's earning, who's in employment and the nature of employment are a lot different now.
"The child support system requires people to have stable incomes and that isn't really the case any more.”
Recently appointed Social Services Minister Dan Tehan did not respond to NewsRegional's request for comment.
Instead a DHS spokesperson said the Federal Government was rolling out about 18 of the 25 mostly administrative recommendations flagged following the 2014 Parliamentary Inquiry into the Child Support Program.