The Times

October 17 1999


Family values: Graeme Martin's former wife continues to pay maintenance for their sons Jimmy, right, and Charlie
Photograph: Simon Townsley

CSA chases 52,000 missing mothers

Zoe Brennan
The Sunday Times

THE number of mothers who abandon their children and have to be chased to help pay for their upkeep has almost trebled over the past three years.

New figures from the Child Support Agency (CSA) show that since 1996, the number of absent mothers being targeted by the agency has risen from 18,500 to 52,000. Many women are failing to make any payments to support their children. Thousands more have disappeared and are proving harder to track than absentee fathers.

"When women flee the nest they can be more difficult to trace because many are not employed," said a spokesman for the CSA. "They might have left with another man and are able to go to ground easily. The numbers are rising rapidly."

Many men left caring for their children without maintenance payments are living off benefit because they are unable to earn enough to pay for childcare.

Guy Wright, 33, was unable to cope financially when his wife left the family five years ago to live with another man. Her maintenance payments - although agreed in court - were erratic. Wright had to leave his job in the off-licence trade to care for his three daughters, Danielle, 12, Natalie, 8, and Gabrielle, 7.

"The payments just fizzled out over the first Christmas because she was subsidising her lover," he said. "It was a real struggle: all the presents were bought on a credit card that year. I've had to explain to the girls that we now buy clothes in charity shops and that if they need a pair of shoes something else has to go.

"Before my marriage broke down we used to have an au pair, expensive clothes and nice holidays. The girls at Danielle's school all have mobile phones and I'm looking for things for 50p in bargain basements."

Steve Johnson has looked after his son Dominic for 18 years. His wife suffered from severe post-natal depression and left when Dominic was six weeks old. Johnson, who lives in Plymouth, Devon, has received no maintenance despite appealing to the CSA.

"I told them where she lived but I never got a penny," said Johnson, 45. "There was never an explanation. In the end I just gave up. The CSA was awful. I had to leave my job to look after Dominic because without maintenance I couldn't earn enough to pay for childcare.

"When he was older I really wanted to get back into work, but I had missed the boat and wasn't qualified enough. Before the break-up we were well-off, but we have really struggled since. I couldn't even afford to fix the central heating when it broke down. We've made a lot of sacrifices and I feel very angry that the CSA wasn't able to do anything."

Families claiming benefit are legally obliged to go to the CSA to have their maintenance payments assessed, although an increasing number of people are going to the agency voluntarily. The 52,000 absent mothers being dealt with by the CSA are only the tip of the iceberg, according to statisticians.

Gingerbread, the support group for single parents, is undertaking a research project on the needs of lone fathers and the reasons behind the rise in their number - now a fifth of members. Many report that they are treated less sympathetically than single mothers.

"Women are now able to leave their families because they are more financially independent," said a spokesman for Gingerbread. "In the past the perception was that women would fight to keep their children because they were female. What is now apparent is that some of those women were unable to leave because they had no income, not because of maternal instinct."

"Lucy" left her husband and two children, then 11 and 8, in the Midlands three years ago and has now lost touch with them. She is aware that the CSA is looking for her but believes they will not find her as she has moved hundreds of miles from her family and now lives with a boyfriend. She is pregnant again and does not work.

"I do feel guilty about them," she said. "But my boyfriend and I are only just getting by on the money we have. It all seems so long ago now that I feel it is kinder to the children to leave them alone. My former husband has a good job. I'm the one who is struggling."

Graeme Martin, 37, is hoping to settle maintenance payments with his wife without going through the courts or the CSA. His wife walked out on him and his two boys Jimmy, 10, and Charlie, 8, earlier this year, shortly after the family had bought their first house in Bromley, south London.

"She has been paying maintenance, which just about covers the mortgage," said Martin, a youth worker. "We haven't really finalised it, but it is never going to be enough. If we lived together we would have a much better standard of living because we would have two salaries rather than 1 1/2. It is financially very tricky at the moment, but I hope we can sort payments out amicably."

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.