Child Support: What would a just system look like?

I did not attend the “Paying Child Support And Can’t See The Children” forum so my comments on it are based on reports in the press.

The Nation News reports that Attorney-at-Law and Senator, Verla Depeiza, has stated that the Family Law Act is “skewed against men”. The Men’s Education and Support Association (MESA) has been saying the same thing for a long time. Similar to Men’s Rights Activists who argue then men are punished during divorce and discriminated against as fathers.

Verla Depeiza is quoted as saying

This is the thing. There is no punishment for the lady for not giving over the child even though there is a court order stating that the child is to be handed over at a particular time, but there is a punishment called prison for a man who does not pay maintenance but I feel it should be equally applied because it is a court order.
“If a woman has a court order saying that every other weekend the father should have access to the child but refuses to comply, I believe that woman should be just as open to punishment, at the highest incarceration, as a man who does not pay the maintenance.

A few responses to Verla Depeiza’s gender equality with a vengeance are required here:

Most men who do not contribute or contribute minimally are NOT, in fact, in prison. It is a myth that droves of men are locked up for failing to pay child support or that even most men court ordered to pay end up in prison when they do not. Many only end up in Magistrate’s Court when whatever informal arrangement they had between them breaks down. In many, many cases there is NO court-mandated child support arrangement. Some mothers may do it all alone, others have informal arrangements with the fathers of their children.

Most local feminist activists I have heard speak on the matter DO NOT support imprisonment for non-payment of child support. They have called for a more humane system which eliminates the hassles and embarrassment women face negotiating the court system and collecting support on behalf of their children. A 2006 UNIFEM study found that the average maintenance order is $250.00 per month or nowhere near half the cost of supporting a child. It also revealed that 50% of applications under the Maintenance Act are for arrears and are not new applications. In other words, there is massive non-compliance and the system is not working, not for mothers and not for children.

Understanding child support as a part of gender justice is way more complex than claiming the system works in women’s favour. It does not.

Not only are women dissatisfied with the system, men are too. Lloyd Springer conducted research with non-residential fathers in Barbados. Some of his informants stated that women took fathers to court for child support as an act of vengeance for some perceived wrong. A 2006 UNIFEM report on child support in Barbados states:

many men attributed motives to the court action that are not related to children’s needs and therefore there is hostility and resentment about having not only to go to court but also to pay child support. Some men felt the system was biased against them, particularly in relation to access, and/or that court actions were unnecessarily invoked when they already made contributions on request by the child’s mother. There seemed to be little appreciation of any obligation to make these payments and even less understanding of how the mother might feel in having to continually make such requests.

The point is we need a system that eliminates non-compliance, humiliation and waiting in long lines for collection of support. We also need for fathers to understand that contributing to the overall well-being of their child is their responsibility. It is not a demand that should be made of them by mothers, it should not been seen as a “tax” nor reduced to exclusively monetary terms. In fact, research shows that not only do children need their fathers, fathers need their children. Fathering is associated with many positive outcomes for men.

One area where the courts discriminate against men is often not talked about.  That is the prejudice fathers face in court that is often related to their socio-economic background:

There is harsh censure of men deemed deviant  fathers, usually those who are young,  unemployed and with ‘rasta hairstyles’. Conversely, considerable effort is made  to support and accommodate men who are not deemed hopeless ‘low lives’ and are engaged in activities that are  viewed as worthy ones for men and  that will improve their ‘future’. (source UNIFEM report)

Very often child support is painted as a battleground between women and men.  This bypasses the role the courts play in reproducing the class system as well as reproducing gender ideologies, resulting in negative outcomes for both women and men.  All of these issues are erased in favour of an ongoing theme of how women, themselves, disadvantage men.

Back to the theme of the forum: that men are denied access to their children. Where there is no history of abuse or violence and where there is no threat of violence to the mother at the point of hand over of the child, men and women should share in the parenting. Reform of the child support system toward gender justice must include this.

That said, where there has been a history of violence, women’s lives are put at risk by being forced to interact with someone who has harmed them in the past and continues to be a threat that must be taken into account in any order for visitation or shared custody. I’m not aware of any Caribbean research in the area, but research elsewhere has demonstrated that women who have been victims of violence at the hands of the father of their child, still want their children to have a relationship with the father. However, they want an arrangement which would ensure the safety of themselves and their children. A child support payment is NOT payment for seeing a child. These are two separate arrangements that must not be conflated. Justice for all parties involved must reflect this understanding.

But what of the woman, “the implacably hostile mother–caregiver who for no reason chooses to deny the father his rightful contact with his child (she’s the one who also fabricates allegations of domestic violence or abuse for strategic purposes)”? Australian researchers have found that woman to be a “mythical creature”.* What would empirical research in Barbados reveal? How many women would have to go to prison (according to Verla Depeiza’s suggestion) for failing to allow fathers to see their children? Is this really a widespread problem? Or is the issue far more complex than vengeful mothers and dutiful child-support-paying fathers victimized by women and by the courts? When it comes to family law can we honestly say that the Magistrate’s court is a woman’s world? What would a just system look like, one that delivers fair outcomes for girls and boys, women and men?

* Source: Graycar, Reg, Law Reform by Frozen Chook: Family Law Reform for the New Millennium? (2000). Melbourne University Law Review, Vol. 24, pp. 737-755, 2000; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 08/72. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1170522

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3 thoughts on “Child Support: What would a just system look like?

  1. Halimah says:

    This is a careful, appropriate and very well thought through response and I wish it could be shared with Ms/Mrs Depeiza and other panellists from the event. What the author refers to as ‘gender justice with a vengence’ is all too common in popular discourses on gender, particularly as it relates to topics such as child maintenance, domestic violence and work. Can this be sent to the Nation who published the original story? Much of what was demystified here should be shared with a wider public because as it stands it may be a case of preaching to the converted. Nonetheless, thanks to Code Red for taking the time to critically commenting in this instance.

    Like

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