I suspect that it is a common misconception that domestic abuse ends when a relationship ends. Well, it probably does in many cases, but in some cases it will continue for years after the end of the relationship, especially where the parties have minor children, and therefore have to continue to have dealings with one another.
There are two main situations in which abuse may then occur. The first is in connection with arrangements for the child to have contact with the absent parent. The second is in connection with the payment of child maintenance by the absent parent.
So far as the child maintenance situation is concerned, there are two particular issues. Firstly, the risk of the abuser finding out the whereabouts of the victim, where the victim has moved to an undisclosed address, in order to escape the abuse. Secondly, the risk of the abuser withholding all or part of the maintenance, in a form of financial coercive control.
Yesterday the single parent charity Gingerbread issued a press release claiming that new evidence from them and domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid shows that domestic abuse survivors are being put at risk by the government’s new Child Maintenance Service (CMS). They “are concerned that the lack of specialist training for staff, combined with the expectation that parents interact over payments is leaving survivors open to financial and emotional abuse. They warn that some parents are dropping out of the system entirely because they feel unprotected.”
Gingerbread point out two particular (linked) problems with the new system, one relating to the method of payment of child maintenance, and the other relating to the impact of charges in the new system.
So far as payment is concerned, there are two methods available: ‘Direct Pay’, whereby the absent parent makes the payments direct to the parent with care, and ‘Collect and Pay’, whereby the maintenance is collected by the CMS, and then paid to the parent with care. The new system was designed primarily with the goal of removing the burden of dealing with child maintenance from the state, and therefore it strongly favours the Direct Pay method. It does this in two ways. Firstly, via a rule that says that either parent may choose Direct Pay without requiring the consent of the other parent, unless there’s evidence that the paying parent is unlikely to pay. Secondly, by imposing charges for using the Collect and Pay service: paying parents have to pay a 20 per cent fee on top of their regular child maintenance payment, and receiving parents will have a four per cent fee deducted from their regular child maintenance payment.
The charities say they have heard from parents who are too frightened to go ahead with direct payments in case their abuser gets hold of their personal details, for example bank details. Further, and obviously, if the absent parent is a bad payer then the parent with care may have no option but to use the Collect and Pay service. However, say Gingerbread, many domestic abuse survivors may be reluctant to do so, for fear of upsetting the other parent (and also because they will lose out on part of their payments). They are then left at the mercy of the paying parent, who can decide what and when to pay.
There is also a £20 application fee for using the CMS in the first place. This can be waived for domestic abuse survivors, but Gingerbread point out that they have to declare a history of abuse and are not directly asked – the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) itself has acknowledged that this will mean many survivors end up paying the fee.
I agree entirely with Gingerbread and Women’s Aid that the new system is putting domestic abuse survivors at unnecessary risk. The charities are calling for the DWP to do three things. Firstly, to roll out specialist training and clear guidance for CMS staff on how to recognise and work with domestic abuse survivors; secondly to offer survivors the option to fast-track to using the Collect and Pay service; and thirdly to drop the four per cent collection charges for single parents in cases of domestic abuse, and review the 20 per cent charge for the paying parent. Whether the DWP will do any of these things, we will have to wait and see, although I won’t be holding my breath.
Photo by William Grootonk via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.