Victoria Legal Aid

Stopping the weaponisation of child support

Closing loopholes in the child support system would prevent it from being used as a form of ongoing financial abuse.

Wednesday 10 January 2024 12:26am

‘Irregular and non-payment means my family assistance amount continually changes and I receive Centrelink letters about that once or twice a fortnight. I get anxious receiving each letter … and it’s very difficult to plan financially.’ – anonymous survey participant

Most parents on the receiving end of child support payments feel significantly or completely controlled through the scheme, prompting calls for major reform.

At our Family Law Forum, we heard that of 540 single parents surveyed, four out of five said they felt the Child Support Scheme was being used to control them.

Deliberately withholding child support was the main form of financial abuse, but also included an ex-partner manipulating the scheme to reduce the amount they are meant to pay or not paying before school fees are due or a child’s birthday.

‘Financial abuse sends shockwaves through single mothers’ lives, including their mental health, whether they can afford food and healthcare, their housing security, what they can provide for their children and whether or not their family can afford to socialise with friends and family,’ said report author Professor Kay Cook.

Her presentation on Financial Abuse: The Weaponisation of Child SupportExternal Link was one of the highlight sessions of our most recent Family Law Forum, held in Melbourne on Wurundjeri Country last year.

More than 200 people attended the day-long seminar either in-person or online to hear from experts to explore the latest family law issues, including recent landmark case decisions, making a recovery order application and applying to the Family Law Property Program.

We have held the Family Law Forum since 2016 to bring together lawyers from community legal centres and private firms on our family law panel, as well as Victoria Legal Aid staff in the Family, Youth and Children’s Law directorate.

‘Another robodebt’ – using government systems to perpetrate financial abuse

Based on respondents’ views, the report demonstrates the insidious ways the Child Support Scheme can be used to jeopardise the financial safety of recipient parents and their children.

99 per cent of respondents identified as women.

‘It’s really evident that there’s a clear intersection between family violence and the Child Support Scheme, in particular the withholding of child support payments,' said Georgia Millen, Deputy Managing Lawyer, Family Law.

The majority of those surveyed (78 per cent) experienced some form of family violence and for most, the violence began during their relationship and continued after separation.

The most common form of abuse was financial abuse, occurring over years or even decades, including through the withholding of child support payments.

In a panel discussion, Kay and Georgia explored the ways ex-partners perpetrate financial abuse through manipulation of government systems, including both the child support and Centrelink administrative processes and the Services Australia Fraud Tip-off line.

'We refer to this as another robodebt, but the difference with robodebt is that this is entirely legal and set up, deliberately set up this way,' Kay said.

'Every legislative reform that has come in has made it worse for recipient parents.'

An ongoing threat of debt

‘He still has many years of tax not done so I limit using the CS [child support] in case I get a Family Tax Benefit (FTB) debt one day. I already have a FTB debt because of this exact reason.’ – anonymous respondent

Under the current system, the more child support women receive, the less FTB they may receive. However, if their ex-partner does not properly declare their income, or fails to lodge a tax return, the women can then be made liable for retrospectively applied FTB debts.

The report recommends child support be de-coupled from family tax benefit and to close the loopholes that allow child support to be minimised or not paid.

It also recommends getting the government to compel payers to lodge tax returns and reward child support payment by linking non-compliance to payer’s credit ratings.

A child support guarantee paid by Services Australia would also give recipient parents certainty when payers do not make payments.

More information

Learn more about child support

Read how we or other organisations can help with child support legal issues

Reviewed 10 January 2024