Sarah* shared with us her experience of the Child Maintenance Service in relation to being in an abusive relationship with her ex partner.
*A pseudonym has been used for this story for the safety of the parent and child involved.
“The situation is that I got separated from my husband in relation to domestic abuse. He was convicted for an incident when we separated and I had raised a case with the Child Maintenance Service at the time, which he was really annoyed about and he told me to close the case or he would leave his job and earn cash in hand so I wouldn’t get anything. We agreed that he would pay me direct but I kept the case open so I could keep an eye on his income.
“When I received the annual review this year it said he was earning £80 odd per week but I knew he was working full time, so I contacted them and said that can’t be true. They said, well, do you have evidence? I said I have text messages and screenshots of emails from his employers.
“They suggested that I report him for tax evasion and benefit fraud, and give them details of those, which I did, because I thought it was done anonymously. They didn’t tell me that the next steps would be that they were going to write to him and tell him that I specifically had raised a mandatory reconsideration.
“At no point did they ask me whether I’d been subject to domestic abuse or anything like that. When I very first raised the case with them, years ago, I think I did tell them at the time about the domestic abuse because at the time he still had bail conditions in place so I couldn’t contact him and that’s why I decided to go through them. Other than that, nobody has ever asked me, and I don’t think it should be for me to volunteer that information. If they’re going to use my data in that way, it should be for them to say “are you okay for us to do this? And is it safe for us to do this?”, and at least give me the option.
“They said the mandatory reconsideration could only be raised at my request. In my eyes they had enough justification for doing it anyway because they didn’t have up to date figures. My ex was obviously really annoyed when he found out and tried to contact me, but because I’ve blocked him because the abuse is fairly constant – he drinks heavily and ends up sending me messages – he then reached out to me through our daughter who’s only 10.
“He was texting her asking her to ask me questions, so she was getting quite anxious about the whole thing. I texted him on her phone saying I’m not going to speak to you, I don’t want to speak to you. And then he continued to contact her, she was then getting distressed and saying he was going to get angry if I didn’t respond.
“So I contacted the Child Maintenance Service and asked why they did that and the response I got initially was “that’s just what we do”. I said that’s not acceptable, and they referred me to their Personal Information Charter and said they can use it for child maintenance purposes. I said that doesn’t mean they can use that however they want, they can only use it as far as is necessary to fulfil the purpose, but they don’t seem to accept that. They say they’ve followed their policies and it would have been a breach of his human rights if they didn’t tell him why they were looking into his income.
“When I raised a formal complaint about this, they said there were only two parents so it could only be me or him, and I said actually he’s got other kids from 2 other women so that’s not true. They’ve put me in that situation, they put me and my daughter at risk because they told him it was me specifically who had raised this. I don’t know what the repercussions of that might be.
“They have now said he should pay £80 a week, which he’s still not paying, he’s challenged that. He’s refusing to pay it. I asked the CMS to collect it from him and they just outright rejected it with no explanation. So, I had to spend another hour on hold to them yesterday and when I got through to them, they said it’s because there’s something else going on in the case, but they can’t tell me what it is that’s going on. So, they can protect his rights, but they can’t protect my rights?
I’m not going to get the increased amount until whatever is going on in the case is resolved and then they’ll write to me. So, I’m left in the situation where I’m getting the same amount of money as I was getting before from him, and they’re just not willing to accept that they put me at risk or change their processes.
“If this is their process, I’m certainly not going to challenge his income again, so he could be saying anything to them.
“Regardless of whether I had been a victim of domestic abuse I don’t think they think they’re in the wrong anyway. They just print off a standard letter which is sent to the other parent and it has the parent’s name in it.
“They left me with no way to defend myself because when he first texted my daughter he said “ask your mum if she’s reported me to the Child Maintenance Service” and I just said “no”, and then he sent me a photo of the letter that had my naming saying I had requested a mandatory reconsideration. So, they left me with no ability to deny it.
“I still don’t know what the repercussions are going to be because if he does end up having to pay me more, he’s going to be really angry and if I end up having to claim it through them he’s going to be charged the 20% on tip, which he’s going to be even angrier about, so I don’t know what he’s going to do.
“I’ve spoken to my MP and she agreed it’s not correct and that because of the Domestic Abuse Act that they’ve got a higher standard of care towards victims of domestic abuse and that they should be doing what they can to prevent further abuse – but they caused it.
“I’m in a position where I managed to get myself away from him, I managed to make sure that me and my daughter are safe, and I have little contact with him. I read a debate in the House of Commons where Guy Opperman was asked what they are doing to safeguard victims of domestic abuse, and he responded that there were processes in place to prevent unwanted communication between parents. They’ve actually caused unwanted communication. I challenged him, I contacted him, but I’ve had no response.
“When I made a formal complaint they said they were going to pass it on to an independent case examiner. I didn’t trust them, so I went to ICE themselves and they said that wasn’t correct, that they can’t actually send it on, it has to be me that reports it. So when I went back to the CMS, I then got a letter back which said it’s not the type of situation that can be reported to ICE.
“I reported it as a data breach to the ICO in May but when I called last week they said they’re still working on cases from January so I doubt they’re going to get to that any time soon. I thought if the ICO find that they’re in the wrong, they might have to do something about it.
“Regardless of the fact that I’m concerned because of the domestic abuse, dealing with them has been so draining of my time and energy. The amount of effort I’ve had to put in, the amount of people I’ve had to contact to try to get something done is absolutely incredible.
“The amount of time I’ve spent just on the phone to the CMS to try to speak to someone… once I was on hold for half an hour and then when I told them why I was calling they put me on hold at the back of the queue and it then took me another hour of being on hold to get through to someone again. In total I was on the phone for about two hours. A lot of people don’t have that time so they just want call, they won’t report things.
“It’s impossible to get in touch with anyone, the system is just so broken really. The answer I got from the woman on the complaints team is they just don’t have the resources or the funding to do what they really need to do so things just don’t get done properly.
“This isn’t all about me just trying to get them to admit that they’re wrong. There is part of me that feels like I want some sort of acknowledgement from them, but the other part is that we need to protect other women. There are other women who are in much more vulnerable positions than I am who just won’t be able to get money from their ex-partners because of situations like this”
In March 2022, OPFS submitted a report on the Child Maintenance Service to Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee investigation into the value for money of the child maintenance system. The report is based on a survey and case studies from our national advice and information service and from parents using our local community-based services.
We continue to work to ensure the government hears single parents’ voices on the CMS and we recently submitted to the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into the CMS and child poverty.
If you are affected by any of the issues in this story, please call the Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline 24/7 on 0800 027 1234. You can also get in touch via email or web chat at www.sdafmh.org.uk or contact the local Women’s Aid services www.womensaid.scot/find-nearest-wa-group