Recasting the Child Maintenance Landscape: from Options to Obligations

 This week I have been looking at the way in which the Department for Work and Pensions’ supposed recasting of the landscape around Child Maintenance has been rolled out. The proposal, to change the way that the state interacts with separating parents on the issue of supporting children financially, was made by Maria Miller in her incarnation as Minister for Disabled People (the minister with responsibility for child maintenance).

The Coalition government made the following statement in its Consultation on the Green Paper Supporting Separated Families, securing Children’s futures:

Collaborative arrangements should be the main feature of the new landscape and the Gateway conversation will ensure that people are aware of the support available outside of the statutory service.

If parents do pass through the Gateway into the statutory service, direct payment from one parent to the other should be the norm.

Only those cases where parents have not been able to reach a collaborative arrangement and where the non-resident parent has failed to pay direct should be in the collection service.

Sitting, as I did, on the Steering Group of the Voluntary Sector agencies responsible for helping to shape these changes, and as someone who worked intensively with the original Child Support Redesign Team for eight months in 2008, I consider myself well enough placed to review the progress being made in achieving the aims of recasting this landscape.

The proposals for the reshaping of the Child Support Agency were first put forward in the report of Sir David Henshaw in 2006. In this report, Henshaw concluded, amongst other things, that:

The approach of the new system should be to give parents the lead role in making child support arrangements. In so doing, the state needs to remove the barriers that currently prevent parents from sorting out maintenance between themselves. Recent research shows that parents support this approach. (1)

The vehicle for this new way of removing the barriers to sorting out maintenance was to be a new service to support separating parents called Child Maintenance Options. As the DWP report from that time stated:

Operating from July 2008 onwards, Options aims to support and empower more parents to make their own maintenance arrangements if possible. (2)

Fast forward to 2013, where those civil servants who eventually took on the management of the Options service are now also those who are managing the supposed integration of services to support separating families. This is a particular shame, given that there is a very good case for Child Maintenance Options to be renamed Child Maintenance Obligations

The brief for development of the Child Maintenance Options service was quite simple. The service was to be impartial (working for both parents), empathic (starting with where a parent was and what they needed) and empowering (offering accurate information that enabled parents to overcome the barriers to co-operation after separation).

This was based again upon Henshaw’s recommendations: (3)

While there is a range of information available to parents, information provision is a relatively low-level feature in the current child support system. In a system where parental responsibility is the primary consideration, it will be increasingly important that parents receive the right information and advice, and are supported in making arrangements. The expected increase in numbers likely to make private arrangements suggests there will be an increased demand for support services.

Sadly, what is being delivered by Options today is about as far away as it is possible to get from that service which the Centre for Separated Families originally helped design and bring to life.

The work that we did in collaboration with the far-sighted Child Maintenance Redesign Team created an Options service that delivered a broad, open and conversational call experience that was led by the parent rather than the agent. It used micro counselling techniques that allowed and encouraged parents to think about their own personal circumstances, the potential barriers to effective maintenance arrangements and the kind of solutions that might suit their family best.

What Options has become is a depressingly process-driven, linear, scripted enquiry that simply leads parents to an ‘online calculator’ that tells them what they are ‘entitled to’ or what they would have to pay if the Statutory Maintenance Service made a calculation (commonly referred to as the ‘right’ amount). Yes, it may, along the way, offer the odd phone number (often to the same parental rights organisations that make collaboration more difficult) but, in essence, this is exactly the same directive interaction that parents had with the old CSA.

And so, rather than driving collaborative, family-based arrangements, Options effectively says ‘this is what you are entitled to, do you think you can get him to pay? if not, the statutory service will do it for you.’

Is this because it has over the years fallen foul, not only of the bureaucracy of the state, which, lets face it, could ruin the best of intentions? Or is it because it is managed by people who have no idea what the real lives of separated families look or feel like? Either way, what Child Maintenance Options was supposed to be doing, is not what they are doing now.

Which is rather concerning in the general scheme of things, because the civil servants who are running Child Maintenance Options are the very same who are dishing out the funding in the ‘Help and Support for Separated Families Initiative’ announced by Maria Miller in 2012 when she said:

Working with the voluntary and community sector, I am committed to helping ensure better co-ordinated services for separated and separating families so that, where parents decide to separate, they receive the right information and support to help them maintain a collaborative relationship with each other, including agreeing maintenance arrangements, in the best interests of their children.

Given that these civil servants cannot even run the Child Maintenance Options service in ways that ‘give the right information and support to help parents to maintain a collaborative relationship’, I am left wondering just what kind of services we are to expect to emerge from this initiative. Let me explain.

At the Centre for Separated Families we gather information from our clients about their experiences of Child Maintenance Options. We do this because we feel responsible for the service that we helped to design and train and we do it because we want to know whether such public services are doing what they are supposed to do. Remember, this public service is supposed to help parents to understand the choices that they have in making agreements for financial and other support of children after separation. It is supposed to support mothers and fathers and it supposed to offer help to enable parents to overcome barriers to collaboration.

Child Maintenance Options does not, in the words of one of their staff team ‘really get many non resident parents calling in,’. The disaggregated stats (at least they still keep them) of the use of the telephone service works out at around 92% mothers with care and 8% fathers

It seems, however, that more dads are likely to use their instant chat line and this is a target for increased use by ‘non resident parents’ (now called the ‘paying parent’ in Child Maintenance Options speak).

Here, then, is an excerpt of the transcript of the instant chat between one dad and Child Maintenance Options. Anyone who works with dads will recognise the scenario, it is one which is played out in many family homes throughout our land. See how long this Child Maintenance ‘Options’ chat, takes to get to the bit about obligations…

Customer: (that’s our dad): I have just been told that I am to leave my home by my wife, she has told me I have to go because she wants me out. She has also told me she wants £200 per week off me in child support.

Agent: (that’s our impartial, empathic and empowering Options person): I’ll try and help, is it okay if I ask some questions?

Customer: What kind of questions? I just want some help really is this the right place to ask them or should I go somewhere else, can you tell me where to go?

Agent: Have you got anywhere to stay?

Customer: No I haven’t, it’s my home as well and I don’t want to leave

Agent: Have you been able to discuss anything with your wife?

Customer: No, she just handed me a letter yesterday and said that’s it, that’s the Solicitor onto you, you have to leave the house and I want £200 per week child support from you.

Agent: Have you been able to do a calculation for the maintenance?

Customer: What does that mean? I don’t want a calculation for anything, I just want to stay in my home, with my kids.

Agent: Have you taken any legal advice about staying in your home? Here at Child Maintenance Options we are an impartial service here to talk about child maintenance and everything you tell me today is in complete confidence.

Customer: Oh, so its just about child maintenance that you do then?

Agent: That’s what we are here for. We are not experts in other areas. However, I may be able to tell you of organisations that you might find helpful.

Customer: Well can you tell me who I should talk to then because I have no idea what to do?

Agent: Have you thought of contacting someone on the legal side?

Customer: Is that what I should do then?

Agent: It must be a difficult time for you.

Customer: I just need to know what to do.

Agent: Have you got any friends or family that you can speak with?

Customer: No, my mum will be upset if she knows.

Agent: Okay.

Customer: Can you just not tell me what to do, who I should speak to, I thought you were supposed to be able to help, it says that on the website.

Agent: We can give information then you decide what to do.

Customer: Well can you give me some information then because I don’t know what to do and I need to know.

Agent: What is your main concern?

Customer: (are you surprised he is still here? Me too.) I thought I had told you that at the start, my wife has told me I have to leave and give her £200 per week.

Agent: Like I said earlier, you may need some legal advice. I can do a calculation to see how much you would be expected to pay for child maintenance. Would you like me to do a calculation for you?

Customer: How will that help?

Agent: You would know how much you would need to pay. (my emphasis)

Customer: I don’t understand what that means, I thought that paying for the kids was something we sorted out ourselves now.

Agent: You can sort it out yourselves. However, if you can’t come to an agreement and you use the Government or legal system there is a calculation to work with…

This conversation is not only bewildering in its ineptitude it is deeply concerning. This is a public service which is supposed to be offering mothers and fathers the kind of support that enables them to overcome barriers to collaboration after separation. Not only did this, painfully conducted, conversation fail to overcome barriers, it failed to identify them and worse than that it laid them in the way of this man getting the help that he needed.

Who needs the Child Support Agency when in three easy steps you can be led by Child Maintenance Options to the child maintenance calculator that will tell you what you ‘should be paying’. Forget private agreements and family based arrangements where the choice is yours and the state doesn’t need to get involved. Ring up Child Maintenance Options instead and find out what you are ‘entitled to’ or what you ‘should be paying’ and, if you can’t do it yourselves, don’t worry, the Government will do it for you!

No wonder that Child Maintenance Options people like to tell us all that ‘everyone likes them’. What’s not to like when 92% of your callers are mothers with care and you spend your time telling them what they are ‘entitled’ to. Regurgitating the Child Support mantra of obligation, it is… recasting the Child Maintenance landscape, it most certainly is not.

And that is the scariest part of this particular coalition debacle because this was supposed to be the route to reformulation of the way in which we support parents to work together after separation.

Since the Coalition was formed, however, and the introduction of a new ‘cross departmental’ approach, what appears to have happened is less about the paradigm shift that is so badly needed in family separation and more about Child Maintenance Options managers believing that they are expert in family lives. Which they are most definitely not, if the above example of the service they deliver is anything to go by.

I heard recently that the money that has been spent on ‘innovative’ services to support separated families has gone mostly to those projects delivering the same kind of safe, unchallenging and unimaginative services that have been funded throughout eternity in this country. Maria Miller’s £14 million having gone mainly to fund mediation in various forms with a few projects delivering a bit of hand holding in the community.

If the training that these services are receiving from Child Maintenance civil servants is anything to go by, the same tired concepts, informed by the usual suspects from Exeter University holds sway once again in the Department for Work and Pensions. An approach so far removed from the work that we, at the Centre for Separated Families did in bringing Options to life with the Child Maintenance Redesign Team, that it is, only five years later, unrecognisable.

David Henshaw’s 2006 review of the Child Support Agency and his proposals for reform were radical and the intention of the Coalition government, in following these through was laudable. That the Child Maintenance Options service has been managed into a state of mimicry of the old Child Support Agency, is something that I care desperately about. Not only because of the long hours and sacrifice that we put into developing it but because it was, once, a service which met the needs of both parents in ways that helped them to overcome barriers.

It was once, respectful towards fathers. It did once care. Now, it simply draws on biased research to evidence the reason why dads don’t use their services and funds the kinds of services that will ‘fix’ the problem of family separation. The problem of course being dad, not mum.

As I am finishing up this blog a case study has just popped into my inbox from Relate who received much of the funding from the ‘innovations’ fund recently. Relate are the people who brought you the failed Family Resolutions Pilot, which cost millions and delivered to 23 couples. They were also a partner in the Kids in the Middle Campaign which wasted almost ten million on separated family ‘pilots’, the report on which now gathers dust on the shelves of the Department for Education.

Relate’s big idea for this funding round is encapsulated in this case study:

A Dad, after living with his partner for 7 years, finally agrees that their relationship has no future and that separation is inevitable. Their children will live with their Mum and her new partner. Although they thought they had sorted things out, the couple are continually battling about money and when and how Dad can see the children.

The Relate online support is designed to initially describe to this young Dad how it could help him. By registering and creating his own confidential online space he will be able to use Relate’s tools and resources to identify which things are most important to manage

He will be able to identify and document a list of “tasks” to undertake which will form a plan to help him, his ex-partner and children to reach their shared goal of a new or improved set of arrangements. Beyond the “self service” options and planning, Dad will have the opportunity to consult a Relate trained professional via secure, confidential live web chat, email exchange or webcam. The Relate counsellor will help Dad to understand and adopt strategies to overcome any problems he might have with talking to his ex and working with her to agree arrangements that on the children and putting their needs first.

At any stage, the Dad may choose to share information or part of the plan with his ex, or invite her to discuss it together, perhaps supported by a Relate practitioner, so that they can collaborate and find ways to move forward.

Anyone else getting the impression that it’s only dad who is being fixed by this kind of intervention?

Just like mediation, that sticking plaster that the Ministry of Justice is so wild about, the Help and Support for Separating Families initiative has wound up doing what every other service in this country has done for forty years, divided separating parents into good mums and bad dads. And in the process, doing nothing for collaborative parenting whilst proclaiming to be supporting just that.

Child Maintenance Options recasting the child maintenance landscape? I think not. Child Maintenance Obligations beating dad with a slightly different stick? Absolutely. Waste of a few million pounds? Without a doubt. Just like our mystery Options shopper this week, I cannot think of many dads who will subject themselves to this kind of nonsense more than once. It is a pointless, useless and hopeless waste of money, doing nothing to overcome barriers and everything to relocate the blame once again in the behaviour of fathers.

And we wonder why parents cannot work together after separation?

1. Putting Children First – Page 12 of ‘Recovering Child Support, Routes to Responsibility’ – Henshaw 2006

2. (2006) A new system of child maintenance, DWP Cm 6979

3. Recovering Child Support, Routes to Responsibility’ – Henshaw 2006

27 Comments

  1. My WordPress comment button has been disabled for sometime without me realising it. Its now back on again. These are some of the comments however from elsewhere about the Child Maintenance Options service.

    J: Brilliant, Karen.
    I like many other fathers I’m sure have many a distressing story to tell this one sided government agency….
    Real change is required and equal access to child benefit also… the very tool which the CSA use to determine who is the ‘parent with care’, even though it may be shared….
    Tuesday at 22:51 via mobile

    V : I am sure there are many dads who are more than willling to support their children but feel totally ripped off by this vile one sided organisation. It would be more acceptable if there were visible signs that the money paid by the ‘paying parent’ was spent directly on the children rather than propping up the ‘receiving parent’s’ lifestyle.
    Wednesday at 07:16 ·

    K: What one mother got, from her converstion with the Options, was that the statutory calculation is her “basic maintenance entitlement” and the options is how much she and dad can agree that dad should pay on top of this.
    Wednesday at 10:11 ·

    J: I just don’t understand how difficult and reasonable it would be to change to a better, more equality based system.

    The way I see it, there should be an adoption of equality of time with both parents as the default position after separation, which wou…See More
    Wednesday at 14:51

    V: The CSA has a lot to answer for. It is perfectly designed to set one parent against the other. Unless a parent refuses to maintain his/her child, this organisation should play no part in the financial arrangements agreed by parents to support their children post separation.
    Wednesday at 15:43

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      1. I am really sorry Paul, I am not a techie and I was wondering where everyone had gone when I realised that I had turned off the comment box by mistake some time ago! It was only when someone emailed and said why can we no longer post that I realised! Here we are then, back together! K

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  2. This is a very one sided view (surely one chat cannot constitute for the service as a whole). It is not the fault of Child Maintenance Options if their demographic is mainly females with care of their children, as any advertising previously done was aimed at anybody with a parenting role and as their website states; ‘At Child Maintenance Options, we provide impartial information and support to help both parents make informed choices about child maintenance. The fact that we’re impartial means we are here to help both parents and we aren’t biased towards any one way of arranging child maintenance’.

    Your statistics are questionable (and irrelevant to your overall argument) as they seem to only show the percentage gender split of parents with care contacting Child Maintenance Options with no reference at all to the percentage of non-resident parents contacting the service. It also assumes that parents with care are female and non-resident parents are male when more and more this is not necessarily the case.

    The primary reason for non-resident parents not contacting a service such as Child Maintenance Options is the archaic opinions that the world is against them and biased, if more non-resident parents (both male and female) actually contacted the service they would see that it is not as one sided and biased as this article insinuates.

    I think the whole article casts aspersions on the staff that work hard and are un-biased in their approach to the service. Before slating Child Maintenance Options as a whole consider the figures for success that they have achieved.

    Yes arguably this is not the same service that was developed five years ago; however, five years ago Child Maintenance Options was a pilot and has developed continuously. Yes there are improvements that can be made and that is the same with any organisation but you cannot discount or negate to mention the thousands of people helped by Child Maintenance Options over the years.

    ‘It is a pointless, useless and hopeless waste of money, doing nothing to overcome barriers and everything to relocate the blame once again in the behaviour of fathers.’

    The aim of Child Maintenance Options is to promote collaboration and making arrangements between parents – the majority of their website is geared in this direction. One bad experience in one chat cannot be enough to form such a biased judgement and assumption.

    You mentioned being involved at the beginning so why were you unable to have any input before the service became ‘unrecognisable’?

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    1. What is the point of a stupid ‘online calculator’ which, as far as I can see just tells you what the CSA would charge. Surely the point of doing it for yourself is that it what you want to do rather than following the unfair CSA formula. I phoned Options and it was pointless, the person was nice enough but they obviously didn’t have a clue about what it’s like to have your kids taken from you so you can see them just once every two weeks and then be charged for the privilege. I don’t doubt that the staff work hard or that they are in-biased but they obviously are just doing the work of the csa

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  3. B, I can only think you work for CM Options in some capacity, so full of the very attitudes I am critiquing is your reply.

    your comment that NRP’s do not ring up Options because of the archaic belief that they will receive biased services comes straight out of the mouths of the civil servants, academics, charity bosses and others who lay the blame for fathers lack of support at the feet at fathers themselves.

    CM Options was supposed to deliver to mothers and fathers in ways that enabled them to overcome barriers, I know that because we designed the training for the call centre staff delivering the service, both as a pilot and beyond in 2008.

    CM Options, did, once, have the capacity to deliver to both mothers and fathers in ways that met their different needs, last time I listened to a call used to train the staff in Rotherham, it was a depressing, process driven, linear delivery leading to a maintenance calculator to drive outcomes. NOT what it was originally designed to be and NOT what David Henshaw recommended in 2006.

    The stats that you say are irrelevant to my view are, in actual fact the core of the way that the service should understand its service users. The fact that you state these are irrelevant is indicative of the way in which the service has been managed into a mimicry of all other services.

    Who are these thousands of people you have helped at CM Options, how have you helped these thousands of people? When I last visited, all I could hear were barriers placed in the way of callers need for assistance, by staff who were forced into using call standards imposed upon them by managers, again NOT what we originally designed.

    Why did we not get chance to stop what has happened to CM Options? Best ask the management team who, it would appear to me, consider themselves to be more expert in serivces to families than those of us who have worked for decades directly with them.

    When we worked with the Child Support Redesign Team in 2008 we created a team of people who were signed up to delivering a high quality service to mothers and fathers. The notion that the reason that fathers do not call is because of fathers perception of bias would have been laughed out of the training room. Fathers face barriers because of ridiculous, offensive attitudes such as is displayed in your comment. I am afraid that if my article appears biased and one sided, it is because, as an experienced gender mainstreaming expert, I find CMOptions to be just that, biased and one sided in its delivery. I have nothing but respect for the call centre staff who deliver, they were wonderful in their work with us, I cannot say the same for the management.

    NO, I am sorry, C M Options is the CSA remodelled for 2013 and beyond. If I were a separated parent, I simply would not waste my time and that is a sad thing to say given all the work we put in in 2008.

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  4. One final word ‘B’, I am not insinuating that CM Options is delivering a service which is discriminatory, I am stating it as a fact. Just because you say a service is open to fathers does not mean that it is and the part of your comment which literally tells fathers that it is their fault that they perceive bias in services and if they would only try Options they would see its impartial, reinforces the reality of that discrimination. What father, facing the reality of objective discrimination after separation across all services available to him, would want to ring a service that puts the blame on him for perceiving services to be biased. This is double speak of the worst kind and I have heard it right across the government since 2010. The reality of the matter is that there is objective bias against fathers in legislation and practice, I know, I undertook a gender analysis for Oxfam in 2000 that demonstrated it clearly. The original Options service was not biased, it was truly empathic and it was impartial and the message that fathers themselves are to blame for the discriminatory attitudes towards them would never have been countenanced. It is shocking to me, deeply disappointing and frankly quite frightening just how entrenched the discriminatory attitude displayed in your comment are. You speak of assumption and bias in my article and go on to make the most appalling assumptions about fathers. If fathers do not use your services it is your responsibility to go and find out why not tell fathers its their fault. Just like Relate who are busy ‘fixing’ fathers, the message from Options is that its fathers who need to be sorted out…Its leaves me wondering exactly what it is that constitutes ‘success’ in the world of CMOptions.

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  5. Success I would imagine in the world of CM Options and the CSA is achieving the required set targets. The only consideration that is of interest to either of these organisations is monetary. Their façade that they are concerned only with the welfare of children is a complete sham which one day will be exposed for what it is worth.

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  6. I picked this particular example up, at random, from Netmums last year while I was browsing. It shows just how little skill (or care) Options has in helping parents to overcome the barriers that they face in reaching family based child maintenance agreements or building collaborative arrangements.

    “09-02-12, 10:16

    Tatiana

    separation advice- where from here? Some advice needed once again.

    Me and my ex decided to try and be civil at the end of last year. Now everything has turned bitter again and to be honest I just want him to leave me alone and out of my life.

    He is very bitter because I do not want to be with him and so uses my daughter against this.

    He is so insecure and unpredictable, and also quite unorganised so whenever he does arrange to see her, its the day before which I usually cant facilitate as already planned with the childminder etc what will happen for the next day. And in most cases he does not even arrive!

    I’m not sure what to do as a next step. I’m happy with him having her as she needs to know her father, but I do worry as he thinks its ok to have her home by 9, which means 10. He is very manipulative and trys to make me out to be the bad one. I’m also sick and tired of his abuse through texts so do not want any contact with him at all. He is so childish and so by beating around the bush, he thinks it will upset me. :S I do not entertain his childish antics so he ends up apoligising after his abuse very very often.

    I do not want my daughter in the middle of this. i just want him to grow up and start being a bit more responsible. He does not give me any money for her and we really are struggling now that we live alone.

    Any advice would be helpful.”

    “Hello Tatiana

    I’m Sarah the Child Maintenance Options consultant.

    I’m sorry to hear that things are unsettled for you and your daughter at the moment, you’re right to want a regular routine and your ex does have a responsibility to provide for your daughter.

    You mention that you no longer want any contact with your ex, as you feel this way you could arrange child maintenance via the Child Support Agency (CSA) who would deal with this on your behalf. Following the CSA formula, your ex would be required to pay 15% of his net weekly income, with an adjustment made if your daughter stayed overnight with him for 52 nights a year or over. To apply for CSA all you need to do is call them on 08457 133 133. Child maintenance payments do not affect benefit or tax credit entitlement so do make a real difference.

    You may find it useful to speak to the National Family Mediation team on 0139 227 1610 or visit their website on National Family Mediation Training Divorce Separation Breakdown for help in setting up contact that works best for your daughter.

    The following contact details may also be able to give you advice:

    1) HMRC Tax Credits Online or tel: 0845 300 3900 for details about tax credits and eligibility.
    2) Jobcentre Plus or tel: 0800 055 6688 for benefits information.
    3) Website of the UK government : Directgov is a government website with information on parenting, money & benefits.
    4) Citizens Advice *- the charity for your community helps people resolve their legal, money and other problems

    I hope this has helped you.
    Sarah”

    No exploration of why there are are problems between mum and dad, no exploration about how mum might be able to manage the situation differently, no exploration of how mum may strengthen her boundaries to improve dad’s lack of organisation, no gentle exploration of dad’s emotional experience which, after all, is the cause of the difficulties, no exploration of how to engage with dad to see whether a family based arrangement is possible, no offer of the negotiations tool to help mum think about how she might approach dad in a confident, structured way, no offer of a parenting plan as a foundation for bringing stability for their daughter… In fact, absolutely nothing except a judgmental ‘your ex does have a responsibility to provide for your daughter’, instructions on how to use the CSA (statutory maintenance system) and an incongruous reference to family mediation to sort out ‘contact’.

    I can’t work out whether this Options consultant is simply out of her depth or whether this is indicative of a culture that cares only about the management stats it produces and a service that is driven by call centre standards and procedures rather than an empathic desire to support families in difficulty. I suspect it’s a bit of both.

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  7. First we have the CSA, then Child Maintenance Options and now G4S has been recruited as well. Is this a case of three organisations doing the same job or is it a general increase in the work-load of these organisations due to the high number of fathers who find themselves paying their child maintenance through them instead of arranging a payment plan with their ex. partners.

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    1. Hi Yvie. The CSA is a directly run DWP service that deals with old cases. There is now a new Statutory Maintenance Service to deal with new cases. Although Child Maintenance Options is also a DWP service, it has always been an outsourced – first to Ventura then, when Ventura was sold, by Capita and now, it seems, it will be managed by G4S.

      Options is simply an information service. The trouble is, it doesn’t matter who owns it, it is operationally managed by people who have lots of experience in running call centres, but zero experience of the real lives of separated families. Sadly, the management have destroyed what was, at least, an attempt to meet the different needs of both mums and dads and they seem unable to conceptualise financial provision for children as anything other than the arbitrary figure arrived at through the Statutory Calculation.

      They have no idea how to promote collaboration and, the last time I visited them, the managers responsible for increasing collaboration weren’t even able to describe what collaboration meant! Worse than that, they now control the budget that was intended to help the voluntary sector help parents to collaborate. No doubt the DWP will keep telling the world what a fantastic job they are doing and how much money is being ‘collected’.

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  8. Thanks for your explanation Nick. I have a deep mistrust of this organisation and the fact that the hapless G4S organisation is now in charge leaves me even more fearful for the fate of decent fathers in the future.

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  9. Karen,

    Firstly I do not work for Options in any capacity, however, for personal reasons feel very emotive about this subject.

    To say my response was discriminatory is laughable, to quote – ‘non-resident parents (both male and female)’! The non-resident is not always the father as you seem keen to put across that it is.

    ‘I know, I undertook a gender analysis for Oxfam in 2000’ – that was 13 years ago, times and statistics change.

    ‘comes straight out of the mouths of the civil servants, academics, charity bosses and others who lay the blame for fathers lack of support at the feet at fathers themselves.’ – I am none of these things either and my personal belief is that parent’s as a whole do not always put their own feelings aside to come to a collaborative arrangement, so NO I am not discriminating as you so clearly and honestly are.

    As for my obvious bias against fathers, I myself am a father and a non-resident parent who has used the Options service, I found it useful and was able to come to an arrangement with my son’s mother using the discussion guide on their website, I did not believe it was possible to speak to her about maintenance as she had always been unreasonable. I was under the impression that they would not help as they were just like the CSA but by calling I was proved wrong.

    As for the other thousands of people helped and the success stories of Options, Wikipedia states ‘As at March 2011 around 91,000 children were benefiting from a family-based arrangement set up by separated parents after contact with the service *Options*.

    The success of the Options service was further demonstrated in 2010 by its success in winning the Contact Centre Association Global Service Excellence award for Best Outsourcing Partnership, as well as being shortlisted to the final three for the Best Public Service award.’

    You say ‘If fathers do not use your services it is your responsibility to go and find out why not tell fathers its their fault’ yet in your original article you state ‘It seems, however, that more dads are likely to use their instant chat line and this is a target for increased use by ‘non resident parents’’ – does this not show that Options are looking in to why non-resident parents do not contact them and are attempting to overcome that barrier?

    Yes you state the chat service and Options is not working and Nick has interjected with a forum post (which I will come back to), however, you have based this on the one chat example.

    Coming to Nick’s post regarding the forum, again is this the fault of Child Maintenance Options or the moderation that goes with the obvious bias that Netmums as a whole displays throughout their website.

    The main point of my response was that there is more than one side to everything and it is not just black and white as you seem keen to portray that it is.

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  10. I wish it were that simple B and I am so glad to hear the Discussion Guide so helpful, it is the one thing left from our work with Options, Nick wrote it!

    I guess you prove that something of what we did back then IS left and that it works. The rest of it, well, its not just one chat we are referring to if you read our posts again, I visited and listened to several calls recently. We regularly monitor the service. I will write more in reply to the rest of your comment shortly.

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  11. B, I think I should explain what a discriminatory service actually is because you seem to me to misconstruing what I am actually saying about Options. Your comment is discriminatory because you suggest that there is no bias against fathers its just that they believe that there is. Discrimination does not mean believing that only fathers can be non resident parents. Discrimination means delivering services to people in ways that can only be accessed easily by one type of person. I consider that the Options service is discrininatory BECAUSE it delivers its services mainly to mothers with care when the demographic of separated parents shows that for every mother there is a father. The stats I use come straight from the Options service, 92 percent of service users are mothers with care, the rest are fathers, either non resident or with care. Now, just because the gender analysis that I did is 13 years old, does not render its outcomes null and void. The statistical breakdown of PWCs and NRPs is barely a fraction different now to what it was then. The disaggregated stats of a non discriminatory service, one which is meeting the needs of mothers AND fathers on a regular basis, would be closer to 60 percent mothers with care and 40 percent fathers of either status as well as non resident mothers. This service is supposed to help NRPs as well as PWCs to overcome barriers to collaboration. It does not do that either in its telephony service or its online chat. It used to, once over, but the civil servants introduced something called Behavioural Insight Segmentation which then meant that the service became tainted again with assumption. It also had the cAll centre managers introducing ridiculous call standards which, interrupt the flow of the interaction and cause a lack of empathy and a failure to deliver accurate information. Now, you are one out of how many people who were helped. You were helped by the discussion guide which Nick wrote, so you were able to do what we know parents can do if they are helped correctly. How were those other people helped? the truth is no-one knows because no-one can know because no-one records the outcomes. We therefore have a service which is telling the world it works, without evidence it works. Just because you, as one NRP feels emotive about the service (and I would suggest that you feel emotive because you were helped, many dads feel just as emotive when they are not helped as too many are not). We have a duty, as the people who designed the training for the service and who brought the service to life in 2008, to hold the service to account and, too often it is not doing what it should be doing. I agree with you that the Options service is, at least, recognising that dads like to use online chat, which was why I used the online chat mystery shopping example to check how they were doing in their service, that it failed, badly, is a real shame but its not going to make it better by simply asserting that you were helped, when so many are at risk of not being helped if the service continues to be delivered in this way. Nick has given you samples of Netmums chat but you have dismissed that as being the fault of Netmums, you dismiss my concerns as being one sided and you are telling dads that their ‘archaic’ beliefs that they are being discriminated against as being their own fault, not the services they come up against. I applaud your support of Options and I am really really glad that the Discussion Guide Helped you, but I remain deeply concerned about this public service and unlike you, I do consider it to be black and white, Options could and should be helping parents to work together, it did, but now, unfortunately, it does not more often than it does.

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  12. Until both parents are treated equally including fiscally, at the point of separation, there is very little Options can do to help given the current and proposed legislation. It seems to me that Options can only do two things – firstly to advise fathers on how much they need to pay in child maintenance and secondly to advise fathers that they would be better off trying to reach agreement with their ex wives. Something I imagine, that most fathers know already.

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    1. Hi Yvie, I think that the worst of what the Options service has ended up doing is simply going full circle back around to the idea of child maintenance as an obligation. Henshaw’s 2006 review identified that the support of children financially could and should be something that parents arranged for themselves, that there was no ‘obligation’ to be enforced but rather that parents needed to be supported to find their own way of making their own arrangements that suited their own circumstances. So, for example, the idea that children being supported by both parents through both parents sharing the care and the cost of sharing the care, each buying nappies, clothes, paying for nursery and shopping and all of the things that children need, was built into the possible scenarios that parents could follow. When we designed the training, we front loaded it with gender mainstreaming techniques, challenging the trainees assumptions about the real lives of separated families, using real life case studies and the kind of research from around the world which is not heavily skewed in favour of mothers as being the natural carer and the father the natural provider. We took trainees on a journey of self discovery, about their own assumptions, about the assumptions made about family separation in our society and about the heavily gendered legislation that parents have to face. We made sure that, even if we couldn’t change the legislation, the service that was delivered was truly empathic and we also made sure that it understood that the world of family separation is heavily skewed to make it look like bad dads and good mums. The call centre staff were fantastic, they understood what we were trying to do, the took it and ran with it. In the early days I found myself listening to calls which were, for the first time ever in my experiences, starting from a place where mums and dads could call and both would get a fair, even and impartial experience and both would be helped to overcome barriers between them. The difference in five years is astounding. The lack of ability to do anything other than lead people to an online calculator and ask them if they know what they ‘should’ be paying or worse, telling them what the other parent ‘should’ be paying is depressing. All of this change has been imposed by call standards, the way in which call centre staff are monitored and considered to be doing the correct thing. Listening to one call recently I asked the staff member who had delivered the call what she thought would happen now that she had literally told the mother what he ‘should’ be paying…she said, ‘well its obvious isn’t it, she is going to go and demand that he pays that amount and then there will be a row and then he will refuse to pay and then she will go to the CSA.’ She knew exactly what the problem was but could do nothing about it because she had to follow the call standards or be marked down on her delivery. And, all calls are managed by call standards, and all call centre staff have to follow those standards, meaning that all calls that I heard followed exactly the same route. Quite how that is promoting or delivering collaboration is a complete mystery to me.

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  13. My son found himself with significant arrears thanks to the CSA. When he split with his ex. in 2009 the CSA contacted him. At that time he had his children overnight for over 50% of the time and he informed them of this. He heard nothing further from them. In the meantime, he and his ex. were sharing care, splitting the cost of school uniforms, splitting the costs of school trips and holidays etc. My son purchased all necessary clothing, shoes, coats, pyjamas etc. His ex. did likewise. I did child care for them both, as I had done since the children were five months old, so that both could work full time. It was done willingly and it cost them nothing. The children were dropped off at my house at 7 a.m. and picked up at 5 p.m. My son thought this arrangement was acceptable to his ex. She never at any stage approached him for child maintenance, so he assumed (wrongly) that she was happy with the shared care arrangement.

    However, in August 2011 my ex. dil said that she no longer required me for child care and that she would be using a ‘professional child minder’. In February 2012 the CSA contacted my son and informed him he owed his ex. arrears of £7.800. They had been told that he had not seen his children ‘for a very long time’. They actually referred to him as an absent father. Fortunately there was by that stage, a Court Order for 3.5 days week l and 2.5 days week 2. My son had also kept a contact list from when he split from his ex. The CSA refused to accept that for one year he had his children 198 days out of 365 but they did accept the Court order and re-adjusted his arrears.

    The fact that my son and his ex. had shared care and expenses equally for two and a half years and that I had provided all the required child care was of no interest to the CSA. They did not consider it odd that his ex. did not contact them for nearly three years after her initial application, to ask them to collect child maintenance. The rules are that child maintenance is payable from the time the CSA are contacted so that is how they calculated my son owed his ex. so much money.

    They asked him to sign a blank direct debit which he refused to do and within six days they had put a DEO with his employer, who presumably think he is an absent father who has refused to maintain his children. He was totally shocked at the amount owed but the CSA never gave him a chance to come to terms with it. They started by taking 40% of his salary which left him under £200 to pay all his bills and feed and clothe his children and 3.5 days/2.5 days alternate weeks. Eventually they reduced it to 25% of his salary. There is still more money going out than coming in so the family support him financially and will do so until the arrears are paid off.

    The CSA did admit that they had mishandled my son’s case and they gave him £150. However, the DEO still remains on his salary, despite the fact that he has a shared residence order of his children.

    He is a decent father and has always put his children first. That cuts no ice with the CSA.

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    1. And your story Yvie is EXACTLY what David Henshaw identified as being the failure of the CSA. That horrendous, state intervention into family life, that destroys any ability of the family to continue to work together and the spiteful, faceless bureaucracy that purports to be about children’s well being but in reality is simply state sponsored robbery, is what we believed would be ended by the Child Support Redesign Team. Its why we agreed to do the work in the first place, we thought Henshaw had got it right. How wrong could we be.

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  14. This is similar to my story too. I’ve written to the CSA several times as well, to try and correct their mistakes, but I never get a reply. Nor do they care that i copy all this correspondence to my MP because surely they know that the MP couldnt care less either. I just put all this down to the fact that the government sees dads as disposable at best, and that they need someone to pay for the upkeep of the other party, and better dad than the government. It’s obvious that things can not continue like that. What is not obvious is why nobody who has thought a bit about the magnitude of this crisis is thinking ahead. It seems that not only does power corrupt, but also saps the brain of any creativity.

    I am not sure what planet B is on, but I do very much doubt their honesty.

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  15. I think it needs pointing out that all Options call agents MUST direct callers to the so-called online calculator. It is written into their call standards and not to do so attracts a ‘fail’ assessment.

    This has absolutely nothing to do with helping parents to work collaboratively. It is simply asking parents to operate the statutory scheme for themselves. The statutory ‘calculation’ is an arbitrary percentage not something that is based on the individual needs of a child and is often grossly unfair.

    As Karen has pointed out many times, in the Lone Parent Model of support, all of the assistance – 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 regulations 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.

    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.

    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 made. In Norway, the maintenance cost of a child is shared proportionately between the parents according to their incomes.

    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 £7 per week), 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.

    The statutory scheme is iniquitous and simply asking parents to operate it for themselves rather than helping them to work together to agree equitable arrangements that can alter to meet a child’s changing needs is, in my opinion, a disgrace.

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  16. Never mind the fact too that the so called primary career, even though she only has 50 percent of the care, spends the maintenance on herself, meaning that dad is often required to pay again for clothing, travel, school, and anything else.

    I really don’t think for a second that any of this unfairness is just an oversight. It seems to be programmed into the system for very good reasons.

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  17. Karen and Nick have identified the shortcomings of the CSA only too well. It is very odd that those in Government charged with looking after the welfare of all citizens both male and female, have no inclination to devise a system which is fair and just. It seems that only the wealthy have the financial means to share the care of their children. Perhaps that’s the plan.

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  18. Hi Nick,

    You write above that the NRP has no claim on tax credits. I wanted to check whether this was the case for parents that split the care equally, so I called the tax credit office at 0345 300 3900, only to go through automated messages for 10 minutes and have them tell me goodbye at the end because they were too busy. I then did the questionnaire on their website to see about eligibility, and lo and behold, there was the question as to whether you were the primary carer or not, implying I guess that the other carer was secondary or disposable perhaps, but not taking into consideration that there are co-primary arrangements. Assuming that someone with equal care would be considered primary, it turns out that you are eligible for tax credits. So I rang up the office to confirm this, and this time I got through, only to learn that separated dads are not eligible. When challenged that this is sexual discrimination and violates the equality acts (assuming something like these exist), I could no longer tell if I was speaking to a real person or an automated message, because what I got was something that sounded like it was being read from a script. It was as if the person had been trained to deal with questions like this. What I got was: in these cases, the two parents need to make a decision as to who will claim tax credits. This didn’t make sense to me at all, not only because decisions of this kind are usually not up for discussion after separation, but because it makes the presumption right off the bat that one parent is more important than the other. Any such decision is effectively a decision as to which parent has the means to support their children financially, and which parent only has the means to support himself alone. Asking the person on the telephone to communicate to their manager that sexual discrimination was implicit in this language was apparently asking them for something that was just too difficult for them to comprehend.

    Speaking of taxes, how can it be possible that we are paying taxes for a service that is ineffective, incompetent, discriminatory, and not interested in the real needs of real people?

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    1. Hi ThreefoldDisappointed. It is true that, irrespective of the post separation parenting arrangements, only one parent may receive tax credits in respect of a child. HMRC advice reads:

      “If your child lives with more than one person – only one household can get Child Tax Credit for a child.
      You might look after a child who sometimes lives with you and sometimes lives with someone else. You can’t both get Child Tax Credit for the same child, so you’ll have to decide who should get it.
      You can’t claim Child Tax Credit if your child doesn’t live with you at all – even if you’re paying maintenance.
      If you can’t agree who’ll get the Child Tax Credit, both of you should claim for the child. Then the Tax Credit Office will decide for you. They’ll contact both of you so that they can work out who has main responsibility for the child. They will consider things that include the number of days the child lives with you, and where they keep most of their clothes and toys.
      If you’re already getting Child Tax Credit for your child- someone else might make a claim for a child you’re getting Child Tax Credit for. If this happens, the Tax Credit Office may ask you to tell them why you think you have main responsibility for that child.
      If you can’t agree who should get the Child Tax Credit, the Tax Credit Office will decide for you. You’ll still keep getting paid while they make their decision.”

      In reality, who has the main ‘responsibility’ for a child is determined by who has the Child Benefit entitlement. As you point out, this is clearly unfair and probably discriminatory – although challenging it in law would require someone determinedly single minded and with endless financial resources.

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  19. Has anyone thought of salary sacrifice as a means of paying child maintenance (essentially meaning it is paid before tax is taken off)? We are allowed a capped salary sacrifice to pay for child care so why not maintenance? I appreciate it will not change any of the very wrong incentives the current system generates, but it would ease the financial burden on the paying parent. It would of course also result in lost tax revenue. I have no idea whether this would be workable, just a thought.

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  20. Thanks Nick, back to the barbaric reality of ‘you only get the justice you can afford’ then.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a couple lawyers in this world who actually did real work, and aimed to make the world a nicer place for people, instead of getting paid in direct proportion to how much havoc they can wreak.

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