Child Support: Opaque & Sidelined

Leanne HoSocial security rights review

Terese Edwards[1], National Council of Single Mothers & their Children Inc, Catherine Eagle, Welfare Rights and Advocacy Service (WA)

Child Support: a significant national policy which operates with limited public reporting, scrutiny and a complex interaction with Social Security. Women just get lost or give up. What does this mean for gaining economic justice?

Child support commenced from a position of compulsion. Essentially, single mothers were forced to take out a child support agreement for their economic survival. The Child Support Scheme was enacted in the late 1980`s and ‘failure’ to apply for child support reduced family payments. Currently, the penalty is reduced payments of Family Tax Benefit Part A (FTB A). The interaction is the Maintenance Action Test (MAT). Currently 11.8% of the child support population have failed this test, and as a result they are receiving the base rate. What is less known, is the circumstances surrounding that failure. It remains a possibility that women have failed a test that they did not know existed. Many are not aware of the circumstances in which they can claim an exemption from satisfying the test.

The interaction between child support and the social security system is called the Maintenance Income Test (MIT). In 2005, and as part of the major overhaul of the Child Support Scheme, the recommendation from the Ministerial Taskforce was to increase the low-income thresholds related to the MIT. It was one of the few recommendations that the Government did not adopt, and one of the few recommendations that could advance economic security for single mothers. Essentially FTB A payments are reduced when women receive child support that is over the Maintenance Income Free Area (currently $1,752.00 plus $584.00 for each additional child).

The presentation will illustrate how the Maintenance Income Test can and has created debts for women. It`s messy due to the interaction of differing legislation and Departments, whilst the prospect of having a debt reviewed and possibly waived (forgiven) is opaque and burdensome. Furthermore, I have witnessed a declining appetite to waive debts. Equally, there is a gender imbalance regarding the requirement to provide timely and accurate income information, all of which contributes to a system that accepts incorrect financial information or where there is no financial information provided uses two-thirds of the annualised Male Total Average Weekly Earnings (MTAWE) to do an assessment

Moreover, and despite that the child support policy can be used by its customers to inflict post separation control and financial abuse it is not part of key declarations such as The National Plan to End Violence against Women and their Children. It is a national policy that does not penetrate the gender violence or child poverty policy debates. A further matter for Economic Justice Australia and partners is the cultural climate. Women are told ‘not to budget’ or ‘not to expect child support’ and to be ‘grateful’ if they receive a payment albeit late, sporadic or partial. Quickly they can become problematic customers.

Another area of overlap between the child support scheme and family assistance payments arises where there is shared care and no agreement about the percentage of care each parent has. Under family assistance law there are clear guidelines as to how issues of disputed care should be resolved and evidence that is relevant to the decision. There is also a review process where decisions about changes in care can be reconsidered. There has been an increasing practice for the family assistance decision maker to ‘adopt’ percentage of care decisions made by Child Support and then refuse to consider any relevant evidence when someone seeks a review of the decision to change the rate of their FTB and/or raise a debt for a past period. The person is told to contact Child Support and seek to review that decision. This can disadvantage the person seeking review.

The aim of the presentation is to provide attendees with an insight into the Child Support Scheme, to raise awareness of matters and to explore avenues that could lead to an increase of justice for child support customers. The session will also consider how and when to claim an exemption from the maintenance action test and how this can be relevant to family assistance debts, the relevant rules in relation to dealing with shared care and relationship between the review process for Child Support decisions and the review process for Family Assistance decisions. 

Join the conversation!


[1] Terese Edwards is the CEO of the National Council of Single Mothers & their Children Inc, a member of the Child Support National Stakeholder Engagement Group 2007 to 2015 (last time the CSNEG operated). Click here for Debts and Disappointment: Mothers’ Experiences of the Child Support System