The Government’s new Child Maintenance Service (CMS) has come under heavy criticism, after two leading charities warned the new service puts domestic abuse survivors at risk.
The CMS is replacing the Child Support Agency (CSA), requiring parents who were using the CSA, or new applicants, to apply to the CMS if they need help to sort out child maintenance.
But Gingerbread and Women’s Aid say staff have no specialist training on how to work with domestic abuse survivors or how to recognise financial coercion, whilst also voicing concerns that survivors won’t use the new service out of fear of upsetting the other parent.
It is expected that domestic abusive survivors will account for 50% of parents applying to the CMS.
The CMS requires all parents to initially pay child maintenance directly to each other, requiring the parent with care of the children to supply their bank details to the other parent, which the charities say could leave domestic abuse survivors open to further financial and emotional abuse.
[contextly_sidebar id=”EA9EV0ufz5yEvepR2B8TJOSjvCfQQFJh”]The charities have heard from parents who they say are fearful of going ahead with direct payments in case their abuser gets hold of their personal details. While the CMS advises survivors to set up non-geographic bank accounts, the charities say there is little clarity over how this will work or help protect those at risk.
Gingerbread heard from one survivor who said her new name would still be revealed, while another found that her bank were unable to set up a non-geographic account.
Some parents are already dropping out of CMS system because they feel unprotected. The CMS only steps in to collect child maintenance if payments are continually missed, then imposing charges on both parents.
The CMS charges a £20 application fee to open a case. Domestic abuse survivors are exempt, but they first have to openly declare a history of abuse without being asked. The Department for Work and Pensions has admitted that this will mean many survivors will end up paying the charge themselves.
Rachel (not her real name), who escaped an abusive marriage and successfully secured child maintenance through the CSA, said: “I spent many hours on the phone to the CSA back in 2012 setting up an application for child maintenance.
“This agreement will not be transferred to the CMS, it will simply cease and stop – so my ex-husband will be under no obligation to make any payments to me. It is evident that the onus is on the survivor to enter into a private agreement with the abuser and all the risks that it entails.
“I feel unsure about disclosing any information about domestic violence to them because if my ex-husband knew I had referred to the domestic violence he may well become angry and this anger may manifest in another court battle for more custody for my son.
“I don’t feel confident in the new service ensuring my safety at all.”
Gingerbread and Women’s Aid are calling for the Department for Work and Pensions to:
- Roll out specialist training and clear guidance for CMS staff on how to recognise and work with domestic abuse survivors
- Offer survivors the option to fast-track to using the CMS collection service
- Drop the 4% collection charges for single parents in cases of domestic abuse and review the 20 per cent charge for the paying parent.
Gingerbread Chief Executive Fiona Weir said: “Child maintenance matters. It helps single parents to provide the essentials for their children, yet less than half of single parent families get any child maintenance at all. This makes the role of the CMS crucial. But it’s clear that for the many survivors of domestic abuse who will be turning for the service for help, the CMS is not fit for purpose.
“The service as a whole has to get a better understanding of the support that domestic abuse survivors need. As it stands, children aren’t getting the financial support they should and survivors are being put in a vulnerable position.”
Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: “Child maintenance is vital for enabling survivors of domestic abuse to separate from their abuser, and build a safe and independent life for themselves and their children. But, there is a system-wide failure to recognise that, just because a relationship has ended, it does not mean the abuse has.
“Child maintenance is often used by perpetrators as form of post-separation abuse and financial coercion – by deciding how much, and when, to pay. Many survivors struggle to secure successful payment arrangements – and many consider the risk too great to pursue maintenance at all.
“Women’s Aid calls for the Government to ensure women and children have safe child maintenance arrangements in place by fast-tracking domestic violence survivors to the statutory ‘Collect & Pay’ system, dropping charges for survivors to use the system and ensuring all staff receive specialist training on domestic abuse.
“The current system is simply not safe for survivors – change is urgently needed.”