Child maintenance and domestic abuse
Ffyona Taylor is a Children and Young people Policy Officer at Scottish Women’s Aid. Previously Ffyona worked at the Corra Foundation as the Policy and Communications Manager, and graduated from the University of Stirling with an MSc in Applied Social Research in 2016. In 2021 Ffyona was a paid advisor on a co-creation group for Sue Ryder’s research exploring access to bereavement support in the UK.
Scottish Women’s Aid (SWA) is the lead organisation in Scotland working to end domestic abuse and plays a vital role in campaigning and lobbying for effective responses to domestic abuse. We provide advice, information, training and publications to our member groups and to a wide variety of stakeholders. Our members are local Women’s Aid groups, each providing specialist services, including refuge accommodation, information and support to women, children & young people. We also provide the National Domestic Abuse & Forced Marriage Helpline and support a Survivor Reference Group.
- Ffyona Taylor, Children & Young People Policy Officer, Scottish Women’s Aid
The current child maintenance system is failing to protect women and children affected by domestic abuse.
The child maintenance system is part of a host of structural inequalities fuelling women and children’s poverty. The persistent gender pay-gap, the imbalance of unpaid care roles and a social security system that fails to provide an adequate safety net all serve to deepen women’s poverty. Poverty can also serve as a tool for perpetrators of domestic abuse to further entrap women. 90% of women experience financial abuse as part of domestic abuse, this can include control over bank accounts, coerced debt incurred in the victim’s name, and limiting access to money for day to day spending. When mothers are forced to be financially dependent on their abuser the exit strategies for themselves and their children become limited and dangerous.
- Women’s Aid service user,
However, for women and children that do flee their abusers, separation does not always equal safety. The legacy of power and control can remain long after an abusive relationship ends. Evidence and insights from across the Women’s Aid network highlight the ways abusers can manipulate systems to sustain control over their victim. This can include through child contact proceedings and refusal to pay child maintenance payments.
The current child maintenance model operates on the assumption that separated parents will facilitate their own arrangements and requires survivors of domestic abuse to report their experiences if they believe state intervention is required. This approach is not always cognisant of the dynamics of domestic abuse, the risks of escalation and the legitimate safety fears preventing survivors from reporting the abuse, locking them into silence and poverty.
- Women's Aid worker,
Recent research found that domestic abuse and concerns over safety were the most common reason for non-take up of child maintenance payments. Once again, mothers are forced to make difficult decisions about their safety whilst grappling with the rising tide of poverty.
90% of single parents are women, combined with the gendered nature of domestic abuse means that non-compliance of child maintenance is persistently pushing women and children into poverty. When we fail to protect mothers, we’re failing children too. It is vital that we understand the role child maintenance could play as a child poverty intervention.
There is a growing body of research exploring the connection between domestic abuse and non-compliance of child maintenance payments. In England and Wales, the Department for Work and Pensions commissioned an independent review into the way in which the child maintenance system support survivors. It found evidence of abusers sharing incorrect information on their income as a way of under-paying. The review also found that the burden is often placed on the survivor to demonstrate the ways in which their abuser may not be complying with their duty to make regular payments. Further, Surviving Economic Abuse shared concerns that when reports of under-payment or non-compliance were reported to the child maintenance system survivors were told this information could be communicated to the abuser.
Further information/sources of support
Support with domestic abuse:
In 2023, the UK Government passed the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act, which introduces stronger enforceable powers in cases of non-compliance. The Act, which is enforceable in England and Wales, was a welcome recognition of the issue however there are concerns that is not go far enough to ensure the system is protecting mothers and children. Gingerbread report that the arrears for non-compliance of child maintenance payments is approximately £547.9 million. This figure is likely to be higher given it does not include informal arrangements and parents with a direct pay plan.
We welcome the ongoing work of the Transforming Child Maintenance project and the work of the advisory group, exploring the Scottish context and building an evidence base to call for transformational change to the system. It is vital we make the hidden harms of child maintenance and domestic abuse visible. We must build a system that is centred on protecting the rights of children and their mothers, equipped with the knowledge of coercive control and financial abuse, and lifts survivors out of precarity and poverty. We welcome recommendations made in Fife Gingerbread and Poverty Alliance’s research into Child Maintenance during a cost-of-living crisis including:
- Children’s rights-based approaches underpinning the child maintenance services, ensuring that parents and their children are treated with dignity and respect.
- The need for all case-workers and practitioners to be trauma informed and cognisant of the complexities of coercive control and financial abuse.
- Improved mechanisms for compliance and enforcement when arrears arise, this must be done in a way that upholds the safety and rights of survivors of domestic abuse and their children.