The Age

Tuesday 23 May 2000

Paying for the love that matters

The Age (Melbourne)

In Australia there are 545,000 single parent families - a fifth of Australian families. Mothers head 86 per cent of these families. I speak to these women on the phone three mornings a week.

In the past six months I have spoken to more than 500 single mothers. They ring me for lots of reasons. They can't buy food, they need a house or child support, they have access trouble. Mainly they ring because they are poor.

One told me: "I knew I could never give my children financially everything I wanted to, so I made sure they got whatever I could give them on the other levels - love, good values, the stuff that really matters."

That is what you do when you are a mother with no money and little support - you put in your time, your love, "the stuff that really matters".

Thinking on the stories I hear, I just can't understand how the Federal Government in its budget can say that it is creating financial incentives for fathers to keep in contact with their children.

Real parents stay in touch with their children because of love, because they want to care for their child, not because of a government's financial incentive, not because their child support will discounted by 1 or 2 per cent for every additional 36 days a year with their child. This is what the budget proposes.

Two of the founding principles of the child support system were that children had a right to see both parents and both parents had the responsibility to financially support their children. These principles exist independently - money and care were not to be linked.

For this reason the system recognised that one parent was the primary care-giver. One parent usually has the children living with them and provides the majority of the care - usually the mother. As the primary care-giver they relinquish their full ability to work and earn. So the primary carer received the full family payments from the government, and child support from the other parent.

Now the government has changed the definition of a primary carer, for separated parents, to the person who provides 90 to 100 per cent of the care.

From July, if the access parent provides 10 per cent of the care - 36 nights a year - the primary carer's family payments will be cut by that 10 per cent. If 72 nights are provided, the mother's payments will be cut by 20per cent. What is cut will be given to the father - if his income is not too high.

The upshot is that if a single mother's children see their father (as is their right), she will be worse off than other families. Our estimates suggest, depending on the number of children and the care rate, she will be worse off by between $40 and $140 a fortnight.

These measures take money from single mothers, the most impoverished families in Australia. There has been no consultation or research on whether these initiatives will result in positive shared care.

The Family Assistance Office expects parents to notify them within 14 days of any change in the pattern of care. An extra night at home or at Dad's will mean a call to Centrelink. These measures increase government intervention in family's lives. Flexible, cooperative care arrangements will be undermined, to children's detriment. For many single parent families already under the poverty line, care will be linked to financial survival.

This policy approach has been promoted by the government as a way to encourage separated fathers to be more involved with their children. What an insult to responsible fathers, who provide care because they love their children.

If cooperative shared care is the intention, why does this policy result in cutting sole parent's entitlements - which are at the poverty line - to give to the access parent? Why would such a measure create positive shared-care relationships?

If the government is committed to helping with access parents' costs, why doesn't it create an access parent payment? This would mean parents who have strained relationships do not have another area of contention, which directly and irresponsibly links children's care with money.

This policy is ill-conceived. It is difficult to see how it fits with government claims that the best interests of children are the primary consideration.

Shannon Keebaugh is the outreach worker at the Council of Single Mothers and their Children, Victoria.E-mail:

Copyright The Age Company Ltd 2000.