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.
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