The original text appears in black, with your comments in red and my reply in green.



Australian Child Support Scheme Policies:

Robbing Peter to Pay Mary?


In response to the much publicised trend away from life-long marriages, child support policies have been contrived to ensure the financial support of single-parent families independent of government welfare payments. These policies and the effects they have had on separated families are discussed. In light of many difficulties with the Child Support Scheme, particularly the financial hardship placed on non-residential parents, the perceived inequities of sentencing men from failed1 marriages to a life of providing for a family they no longer share their lives with2, should they remain in the workforce, and the gender 'warfare'3 this has inspired, it is proposed that a new approach, more in line with the realities of family trends is required. Specifically it is suggested that the raising of children might reasonably be redefined as a ÷÷ legitimate form of social employment and parenting payments considered a social wage, funded by money recouped from such quarters as tax-evasion and government excess.

1. No comment

When people marry, you'll agree they usually make vows to stay together through thick and thin. The intention is generally to make a commitment to live together in a caring, sexual relationship, making compromises where necessary for the sake of an enduring partnership, and live "happily ever after", till death..., otherwise why marry in this day and age (disregarding monetary or title concerns among the "upper" classes)? If a couple then separates because it didn't work out for one reason or another, haven't they failed in that endeavour, whether or not they agree that they had their good times and/or move on to bigger and brighter things? 

2. Not as absolute as your statement. More a question of sharing differently and with less day to day contact & intimacy.

Many fathers are denied access to their children in one way or another. Even where relations between separated parents are comparatively congenial, spending every second weekend and the occasional week in the holidays with one's children is not "sharing one's life" with them in at all the same sense as when one lives with them on a full-time basis, being responsible for schooling, forming relationships with their friends, being aware of all the major concerns in their lives. Non-custodial parenting is very much about watching from the sidelines, sitting on the bench waiting for an opening, rather than playing the game, if you will.

Perhaps as a sporting metaphor, I am employing masculine imagery, and it occurs to me as I re-read your interaction with my assignment that part of the problem is that there is now an accepted feminist discourse through which to discuss certain salient issues on the subject of male-female relations - i.e. in terms of power relations, ground won, backlash, etc - but a modern, revised discourse which acknowledges and responds to both feminist discourse and to new problems faced by men in a post-feminist society, but without being masculinist, is not as readily at hand. Perhaps you can point me in the direction of authors I ought to know about who achieve this. I think I need to aim for this in my writing about this highly volatile topic. 

It feels from your comments almost as though a feminist perspective is the "politically correct" one, and I'm not sure that being bound to one perspective is the best way to approach an analysis of a situation which effects both genders in different ways.

3. struggle might be better term.

Well, people are literally losing their lives.  The Cuban child custody case, in the news recently, caused rioting, no doubt because many people relate so personally to the issues involved. I think it's a serious enough situation to warrant strong language, but perhaps you're right in that 'struggle' sounds more suitably academic in its moderation. But aren't such metaphors as "gaining ground" and "backlash" reminiscent of war? 


The nuclear family, consisting of a mother, father and 2.5 children, idealised from the 1950's as the "core of society", is giving way to single parent and blended families, consisting of separated parents, step-parents, step-siblings, half-siblings and all the extended step-relatives (Smart & Neale 1999, Disney & McPherson 1998) . Although the majority of children still live in "intact" nuclear families, one in four live apart from one of their natural4  parents (ABS 1997). "Families" are becoming complex structures, and policies devised to administer the social consequences of these changes are putting many parents in a ÷ position of being obliged to care for their children remotely, to the point where the upkeep of first families is becoming detrimental to the success of subsequent relationships, those with whom they currently share their lives (Smart & Neale 1999).

4. biological

Fair enough, point taken.

In Australia, UK and USA, family policy in the last decade has been based on the premise that it is the responsibility of biological parents, rather than residential parents and step parents to support their children financially, as was previously the case (Funder 1997, Smart & Neale 1999, Alexander 1995). In the period between the advent of The Family Law Act 1975 (which made it easier for couples to divorce), and the late 1980's, when one marriage partner left the nuclear family, typically the husband, he was assisted by family policy at the time to more or less walk free and start a new life. The wife, similarly was free to remarry and reconstitute a nuclear family without undue interference from her previous partner (Smart & Neale 1999). Soaring divorce rates, which tripled in Australia after the introduction of the "no fault" divorce (AIFS 1997) and the corresponding increase in the number of single mothers living on welfare led governments to insist on biological fathers helping to foot the bill generated by their offspring (Alexander 1995, Funder 1997).

This was perceived5 by many fathers to be an unfair requirement in an age where women had supposedly fought for and won the right to equal employment opportunities, negating their claim to post-divorce "maintenance" payments (Smart & Neale 1999). Notwithstanding the well documented fact that women have yet to attain equal employment rights, the sense of5 injustice inspired the conception of the "Fathers' Rights" movement whose charter is to push for the right of fathers to gain more control over regular access visits to their children and in more and more cases, to attain legal custody of them (Smart & Neale 1999, Simpson 1997, Sawer 1999). Courts became unsympathetic of remarried mothers' requests, made in the interests of second family stability, to deny the re-entry into their lives of previously disengaged, or even violent, fathers. Obstructing the biological father-child relationship, became a jailable6 offence, as did breeches of child support orders (Smart & Neale 1999), although this is rarely put into practice (Nicholson 2000)

5. I think you need to critically examine this gap between perceptions and sense of injustice & issues of power, of relations, social structural issues of gender roles & inequities.

Perhaps, but I thought it was a bit beyond the scope of this essay. My original aim was to explore the effect of child support policies on separated families, and as such, I am presenting the male perspective here as a way of understanding the interaction between non-residential fathers and the child support agency and policy makers. I didn't feel it was my place to weigh up whether or not one group or other were justified in their actions and reactions, although perhaps I betray an impression that I sympathise with the fathers' rights movement. In fact the movement makes me rather nervous as a woman when I get too close to it, eavesdropping  on single fathers' email lists and so on. I think it is important to understand their viewpoint, however, and to accept that they have legitimate grievances which need to be addressed. The fact that women do not have equal access to employment, particularly in higher paying work, might seem to warrant them being paid some sort of supplement as compensation, but are they owed that by the individual men they have been in relationships with, or by the still patriarchal society as a whole? 

Again, I am merely attempting to explain 'the' male position here, not promoting it. Doesn't the paragraph speak for itself? I've said it's well documented that equality has yet to be attained in the workforce, but that men find it unfair that women should get money from them, from the government and from the workforce, while men are limited to working away in the public sphere, earning money to keep themselves, their ex-family and any subsequent families. 

6. gaol

Really? I was unaware that "gaol" was the correct spelling... When does one use "gaol" and when "jail"?

From the point of view of many Australian and international fathers, Child Support Policies have made their lives intolerably difficult. Under the weight of debilitating financial constraints and emotional baggage they are not allowed to put down, it is a struggle to build a new life for themselves (Webb 1996, Webb 20007, Smart & Neale 1999). Child Support payments, which amount to post-marital "gift-giving" (discussed later) effectively keep them in an unwanted and uncomfortable relationship their ex-spouses. If the first marriage is not allowed to end in a real and final sense, new relationships for both ex-spouses are inevitably undermined. Second wives must deal with the fact that their husband's income is depleted in favour of his ex-wife and in that sense she shares in the burden of his debt and their quality of life is compromised (Pearce 2000)8.

7. I think your own research needs more background & setting up - I'm a little concerned that you treat the information you get from fathers at face value. It is not face to face interview research & this method of obtaining info does count & needs to be evaluated as such.

Not sure what you meant to say in this last sentence.

Actually, Webb 1996 - viewable at - was face to face interview research. I met with local non-custodial fathers and a couple of non-custodial mothers and was very much moved by what was a very eye-opening experience. It was through this face-to-face research that I came to see how the male perspective has been invalidated and considered illegitimate by myself, for one, and many other single mothers I had spoken too. The subjects in that research really opened up and discussed their frustration and dismay and shared that, although they tend to bottle up their emotions when they are upset, giving the impression to the women in their lives that they don't experience deep feelings when it comes to their relationships with their ex-partner and children, most men in fact are struggling to deal with almost unbearably intense emotions. And if emotions don't count, there's still the inequality they experience in the private sphere upon divorce in that they have little to no choice but to continue to play out the expected masculine role of breadwinner, external to the family, only more so since they are physically separated from their children. Serves them right, a feminist might say, but - call me a functionalist if you will - society is better served by attending to glaring inequities with compassion and pragmatic solutions than by drawing lines on perceived bits of ground hard one in yesteryears.

I'm sure you must be right about the importance of setting it up better. I think when I revise the work I'll add real-life scenarios to illustrate my points more effectively. I've continued to collect data via the internet, using the interview questions at and I'd be glad if you'd offer your advice as to what other questions I should include or omit to make it a more valid body of research in years to come. The method I used for the original report was supposed to be Narrative Analysis, so I was looking for "narratives". I'm not sure I came out of that unit with a strong grasp of how the method is best employed, as there seemed to be some debate among professionals in the field. However, I wanted to elicit a spontaneous response from subjects and to avoid "pressing buttons".

8. This is a letter to the editor - you need to say this in the body of the text so that reader knows what type of research source it is.

OK. Ideally I'd like to find a more academically credible source. I mean, the position of the second wife is a quite obvious consideration which shouldn't need an 'expert' to spell out, but such are the constraints of University essay writing.

Conversely, second husbands can expect to bear the brunt of strong resentment from first husbands who might well be incensed that their money is financing their wife's relationship with their replacement, or "cuckold9". Tensions arise, and where there is ongoing conflict between separated parents the strain on second marriages will inevitably inhibit the success of that union (Funder 1997). ÖAnd then there are the children to consider!

9. meaning - husband of an adultress - be careful not to 'promote' draconian constructions of women's sexuality even if you  are presenting a possible perspective from ex-husbands'. You need to be reflexive about such a perspective rather than implicitly aligned with it.

I was thinking it meant a man who commits adultery with another man's wife. Should have looked it up to make sure. It wasn't meant to be a comment on women's sexuality so much as to point out the insult added to injury when the betrayal of a relationship is followed by an obligation to pay for it financially as well: "I've found someone I like better so you can go now. Just send money".

Research, behind policy decisions, has led to the conclusion that children benefit from contact with their biological father, provided they are not exposed to conflict between parents, but that they always benefit from their father's financial contributions, regardless of contact (Amato 1993). This would seem to lend idealistic support to the government's commitment to recouping social security money paid to sole parents, on the one hand, but it might be that CSA policies have increased conflict between separated parents by inflaming non-residential parents' resentment and over-riding previously functional arrangements.

Voluntary payers were treated in the same terse way as defaulters by the CSA and in the earlier stages of the scheme, a "phantom" debt would be assigned to them if their income dropped below the previous year's earnings, on which assessment of their current orders were based (see footnote Ibid p 9). There was little if anything to recommend it to the non-residential parents in the community.

These and other difficulties are discussed, and the validity of applying economic rationalism10 to families is questioned. But first, a history of the Child Support policies, their intentions and effects, and the rationale behind them is outlined.

10. This is  a bit out of the blue - need to set it up earlier & say what this concept means in the context of this paper. Does it belong in this paper?

You're right, it did come out of the blue. It occurred to me towards the end of my allotted time and so wasn't researched fully enough. I searched and searched for papers on the subject of economic rationalism and found one that said something along the lines of what I wanted to say, so felt justified in included the idea, although it did need more work. Can't find that article now. Damn!  I thought the term had come to mean more or less putting economic considerations ahead of social ones and creating policies which reflect this. I was thinking along the lines of the government treating "the family" as another public institution that needed to be 'privatised' to be more cost effective - which is ironic, and doesn't quite make sense, I grant you. It's an idea that's not quite baked, so perhaps I should have omitted it. I didn't realise it would be so problematic to throw the term in there, though. Never a good idea to introduce topics you know little about, I suppose.

Family Law Act (1975):

The Family Law Act (1975) repealed the "The Matrimonial Causes Acts (1959, 1965 & 1966)" and created the Family Law Court (Attorney General's Department, 1999). It introduced the "no fault" divorce, making divorce a much easier process. Instead of having to prove that one's spouse had failed to live up to the marriage contract, one could simply plead that the marriage had irretrievably broken down. Property was divided up, custody was decided and child maintenance amounts were set by the court. The couple went their separate ways with their share of the marital assets and started again. The wife typically retained the family home in which to continue raising the children, in return for minimal child maintenance payments. This was known as the "clean break" settlement (Smart & Neale 1999).

Many couples took advantage of the no fault divorce and the Australian divorce rate immediately soared from about 1 per 1000 population, prior to 1975, to 4.5. It settled in the mid 1980s to between 2.5 and 2.9, with a gradual increase evident in ABS statistics up to the last census (AIFS 1997). This increase in divorces meant a corresponding increase in single parent families. That in turn resulted in an increase in sole parent pension payments made by the Department of Social Security. With so much of tax-payers money going to support divorced families, governments turned to the former bread winners to recoup ÷ some of those costs. It was deemed desirable, and indeed mandatory, that where non-residential parents had the capacity to pay, money for child support should come from their wages (Alexander 1995, Funder 1997, Bowen 1994).

It became apparent by the 1980s, however, that the Family Law Court was not an effective institution for handling the issue of Child Support payments. Child Support orders set by the court were inconsistent  between cases, were often for inadequate amounts, with no allowance for increases in the "cost of living". ÷ Good point. The onus was on the custodial parent to petition the court for a Child Support order and once set, there was no guarantee of it being honoured by the non-custodial parent. In fact, it was ÷ estimated that as little as one third of orders were adhered to (Bowen 1994, Harrison 1986). In the early 1980s, payments that were made were generally less than $40 per week, with the mode being around $20 for younger ex-couples (Harrison 1986). Any appeal, or attempt at enforcing a court order, again had to be dealt with by the Family Court, and was generally a futile and expensive exercise (Bowen 1994). Children in single parent families were increasingly supported by government funds, courtesy of tax-payers, and brought up in comparative poverty. This was a matter of concern to the government and was the driving motivation behind the establishment of the Child Support Agency (Bowen 1994), discussed in detail below. ÷

The interpersonal ramifications for separated families of court ordered child support were also problematic for the new high-divorce-rate-society. The adversarial nature of a court battle, which involves pitting ones case against another in a win/lose scenario, exacerbates a post-separation parental relationship already marred by high conflict, particularly if there are strong disagreements over parenting styles and spending habits. Inevitably any bitterness between them is accentuated, stress and anxiety heightened, making "good" parenting more difficult.

In a similar vein custodial parents were known to use non-payment of child support money as a reason to withhold the non-residential parentís access to the children. Arguments about payment or non-payment often took place at the time of access visits, ÷ which meant that the children were placed in the undesirable position of becoming involved in the argument, or at the very least, were exposed to their parents fighting about money for their upkeep (Alexander 1995, Funder 1997).

In response to these perceived difficulties with the system at the time, the "Child Support Consultative Group"(CSCG) was appointed by the Government in May, 1987. Its charter was to devise a system of child support assessment, collection and distribution which would be suitable for Australian separated families. The group consisted of representatives from the Family Court, Community Aid, the Taxation Department, business, and single11 mother and lone11 father organisations. It came up with a list of recommendations that formed the new Child Support Scheme which was comprised of two stages: Stage One, in which the Child Support Registry and the Child Support Agency was to be established to collect money in cases which had already been decided in the courts, and Stage Two in which a formula was introduced to determine the amount payable, in new cases, by non-custodial parents to their ex-spouses for the upkeep of the children resulting from their union12 (CSCG 1988).÷

11. Interesting this semantic difference - why aren't fathers 'single' or conversely mothers 'lone'?

Yes. I should have used their proper names, I suppose - Lone Father's Association and, you know I'm not sure which "single mothers'" group was represented on the committee now, the book's gone back to the library. Does give connotations of "lone wolf" as opposed to "still/back on the shelf", doesn't it?

12. relationship - a bit too biblical?

I used the word "union" rather than "relationship" because it doesn't take a relationship to make a baby, it only needs a single sexual union. I could have said "intercourse", I suppose, but that didn't seem quite right either. But then I used the term "ex-spouses" rather than, say "custodial parent", so perhaps that doesn't really wash. It's difficult to find the correct terminology to cover all bases.

Child Support (Registration & Collection) Act 1988

The CSCG recommended that a Child Support Agency be set up as an independent body to collect the money due from liable parents. The Child Support Registry was established and all existing maintenance and child support orders were officially registered. The Child Support Agency (CSA) was set up in the Tax Office and given the power to deduct payments from the pay checks of liable parents, with or without their consent, to ensure accurate, regular payment. Distribution of child support payments became the business of the Department of Social Security (DSS). The Tax Office was already set up to collect income, and the DSS was long experienced at distributing it, so it seemed logical and expedient that these two institutions should be assigned these extra roles of administering the collection and distribution of Child Support payments (Alexander 1995).


Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989

The second part of the new reforms was the Child Support Assessment Act which replaced court ordered maintenance agreements with an administrative procedure. A formula was applied across the board to all non-custodial parents, regardless of circumstance, whereby a percentage of their income-less-an-exempt-amount was payable to their ex-families for their upkeep. The Act applied to all new cases from 1 October 1988 onwards ("Stage Two" cases). Any appeals to pre October 1988 cases ("Stage One" cases) still had to be settled by the courts. In Stage Two cases where there were other considerations, such as step-children living with the non-residential parent, special needs children and so on, appeals and disputes were also to be referred to the family court.

The Formula

The formula was proposed as follows: the non-custodial parent was liable to pay a percentage of the amount left when the custodial parent's income less a disregarded amount (Average Weekly Earnings plus child care costs) was subtracted from what was left after a "self support component" (basically the social security payment they might otherwise be entitled to, were they unemployed) had been deducted from their gross income (see Figure 1). The percentage varied depending on their income and the number of dependents living with them and/or the custodial parent. Family Payments paid to sole parents were reduced by 50 cent in every child support dollar they received.


Figure 1: Formula for stage two cases as proposed by the Child Support Consultative group (CSCG 1988 p 9)

Positive Outcomes

The system had beneficial effects, such as relieving the custodial parent of the responsibility of collection, which in turn (theoretically) moved acrimonious sentiment regarding child support payments from the parent versus parent relationship to the newly formed parent versus13 CSA relationship. Arguments need not erupt in front of the children at access changeovers, helping to keep separate the issues of Child Support and access visits. It also sent the message to non-residential parents that society holds them financially responsible for their children14 and expects them to furnish their ex-partner, as custodian of the children, with funds to support them. State enforcement of this ensured that residential parents were much more likely to receive Child Support payments than they were prescheme, thus achieving, in part, the government's objective of reducing family payments, while also increasing residential parents' income. ÷

13. I think this construction is debatable. It might seem this way from the point of view of some parents but at a structural level it is a mediating agency.

At a structural level it is ostensibly intended to be a mediating agency, but in fact it was set up largely to extract money from one parent to pay the welfare bill of the other, and in that sense it is not necessarily a mediating agency between custodial parents who seek monetary support from non-custodial parents, but a tool of the government to recoup funds. Parents are told they are only entitled to family payments if they take reasonable steps to get maintenance from the non-custodial parent. I got a letter saying this from the DSS just last week, and was informed that my family payment for my eldest daughter was to be stopped, accordingly, and I'm not even sure who her father is (long story). This is of no consequence to the various departments who say whoever he is, he must take a blood test and pay child support. In fact she's a stage one case, so thankfully it doesn't apply and I'm to disregard the letter.

14. So why aren't they financially responsible? You need to set-up precise & thoroughly argued points to support your contrary position.

I don't think I'm arguing that they are or aren't financially responsible, nor really that they should or shouldn't be financially responsible. It's more that I'm saying that the child support policies are problematic and make already messy post-separation relationships even messier. They are also counterproductive in terms of the economic stability and work incentives of anyone unfortunate enough to be tied by children to a defunct partnership and therefore need to be reviewed.

The Child Support Agency claims to have achieved a net return to the Government of $151 million dollars in recouped family payments in the 1995-96 financial year, although the recorded debt of uncollected child support payments still stands at $517m (Commonwealth Ombudsman 1997). Unfortunately, the ATO based CSA went about it in a tactless and sometimes counterproductive way (Alexander 1995). The CSA is arguably more efficient at administering Child Support orders than the Family Court,÷ and freed the court to deal with the supposedly more complex issues of custody disputes and property settlements, but as the Joint Select Committee on Certain Family Law Issues (JSCCFLI) found, five years into the scheme there was much room for improvement (Commonwealth Parliament 1994).

Problems with the Child Support Scheme

Poor Communication of CSA

The Committee found that methods devised by the Tax Office for communicating with clients, such as computer generated letters, were overbearing, bureaucratic, complex, threatening and generally unfriendly. It also found that it was very difficult to get in touch with the agency, with long waits experienced by clients, and no consistency of case officers, meaning that it was unlikely one would get to speak to the same officer twice in order to get a matter straightened out and that letters often went unanswered altogether (Commonwealth Parliament pp 23-4). Given the extremely delicate nature of the area of social life being dealt with - relationship breakdowns, disintegration of families, alienation from offspring - the Tax Office was found to be extremely wanting in diplomacy, not least because that institution's business has historically been about routinely extracting money from resistant citizens15. A culture has therefore developed in the Tax Office of dealing with clients as recalcitrants, coldly demanding payment forthwith. This culture was extended to its dealings with non-custodial parents, and inappropriately so, considering the inter-personal intricacies involved in the post-separation family (Alexander 1995).

15. but why should citizens be resistant when it is modelled on the principle of collective benefit & funding or public works & infrastructure.

I'm surprised that you pose this question of me. Am I supposed to evaluate citizens' justification for being resistant to taxation? Obviously people would rather not part with money unnecessarily since it buys much of what they need to survive and what they want to make their lives more enjoyable; government waste and excess is well-documented and few people would agree wholeheartedly with every area of public spending. Many people resent money being spent on defense, others are opposed to excessive welfare (it can't be denied), some want it all spent on the roads. If your intention here is to draw a parallel between taxation and child support, I think this is the answer (lack of government/custodial parent accountability). 

Discouragement of Voluntary Payers

An unwanted offshoot of this practice was that non-custodial parents who had been paying reliably were met with this unpleasant, admonishing attitude and thus discouraged from abiding by the irksome16 requirement of sending a percentage of their earnings to their estranged spouse, instead of receiving positive reinforcement17 for their voluntary compliance. It was a disempowering and in some ways humiliating turn of events for the non-custodial parent.

16. really - this sounds like a wounded ego argument. Surely these parents want to support their children over & above attitude & ? of ATO

Many parents do want to support their children, but sending money out into the dark abyss of lost love in the hope that some of it will find its way to one's children is difficult enough without being met with unnecessary institutional hostility. If egos are wounded, why is this a thing to be derided, sneered at or dismissed as irrelevant? And isn't it a bit like a pre-feminist masculinist accusing women who want to work of suffering from "penis envy"? 

17. Why do they need this? Why do they need to be told they are 'good' for supporting their children financially? I can see your point but I think you need to examine your moral position & set it up more carefully & convincingly.

I wasn't so much taking a moral position here as pointing out that if one wants to get someone to do something, from a child in a classroom to consumers in a shopping center, positive reinforcement has been shown by psychological experiments to be the most effective means of achieving this. It's a popularised term that I didn't think needed further explanation, but obviously if it's not convincing to you, it won't be to others, so I'll need to do a lot of rewriting...

There is a strong sentiment among non-custodial fathers in particular that they are viewed by "the system" as faceless money-making machines existing to supply funds for their failed families (Webb 1996). This sentiment18 seems to be justified by the attitude projected by the ATO based CSA and its insensitivity to the range of issues facing the typical non-custodial father, such as the sense of grief at losing his family, losing his daily relationship with his children, and his home (Campbell & Pike 1998).

18. resentment?

I'm wondering why you would substitute resentment here for sentiment, when further along in the essay you seem to take issue with me using the word. Or is it the concept? More on that later, I suppose.

19. Do you think that some of the ATO employees should be trained to recognise the emotional context of what they are administering? It could be an effective strategy or antidote to the 'faceless money-making machine' experience.

Yes, that was one of the recommendations of the committee, and the ATO claims to have addressed their customer service to some extent although it reportedly still needs work. I know when I've made enquiries of the CSA regarding some of their more difficult policies, the officers I've spoken to seem to take a dim view of non-payment and have defended the long-term accumulative "phantom" debt I mentioned elsewhere in the essay. I don't see how anyone could defend that with any conscience, let alone taking the high moral ground. But of course they do. Particularly custodial mothers who make a point of citing the accumulated "debt" owed to them by their no-good ex-partners. I come across them often in the course of my research.

Taxation without representation

The amount liable parents were ordered to pay as a result of the Child Support formula seemed punitively high to them. Without a say in how the money is spent20, many non-custodial parents feel they are being subjected to "taxation without representation" (Arditti 1991, p 143). Expensive bad habits21 of custodial parents, such as smoking21 and drinking21 become a major concern and source of frustration, increasing the likelihood of conflict. Some liable parents decide they are better off not working and become economically dysfunctional, increasing the burden on the social security system - the very thing the child support system was designed to alleviate.

20. Why should they? You need to critically examine this desire for control in this way - you accept it, it seems on face value as legitimate.

I accept it after four or five years of deliberate reflection. To the residential mother it's an intrusion into her privacy, an affront that her spending of the child support payments society deems are owing to her should be questioned, and yet if there is no accountability, as far as the non-residential father knows, it may be going on any luxury items of her choice, if for no other reason than to spite him. To deny the legitimacy of men's desire to ensure their child support payments directly benefit their children is to assume that it goes without saying that the women who are paid in trust are above reproach and should not be questioned. 'Women are caring and nurturing, therefore they will naturally put their children's needs before their own and spend the money wisely to ensure optimum benefits for their children'. 

21. This sounds prejudicial - too generalised & highly moralistic. Is there some kind of implicit 'good'/bad parent (or indeed mother) model operating here on the basis of drinking & smoking?

It is a generalisation, and it's intended to be. It's a common and not completely unjustifiable concern that men have that their money might be going on damaging or luxury goods rather than toward the welfare of their children. As for being 'moralistic' - smoking and drinking to excess are bad for one's health and when indulged in around children, not only set an example which might well be mimicked in the future but also expose the child to dangers ranging from passive smoking to being left with unconscious or incapacitated carers. I don't think there's much one could say about this that is a 'good' thing, any more than one could reasonably find positive aspects to being exposed to family violence. Violence ranges from occasional harsh words and raised voices, which most people accept as part of life, to physical abuse, bruising, broken bones, etc. Drinking ranges from one or two wines with dinner - which shouldn't be too expensive or necessarily problematic for anyone concerned - to regular binge drinking and all-night partying. It is the latter which many men fantasize their ex-spouse indulging in. I'm just saying these things become more of a concern to child support paying men if they think that's where their money is going instead of on good nutrition, clothes and school books for the children, and it adds an area of conflict. Not all single mothers drink and smoke, of course, but I've heard it said so many times "He thought I was going out partying all the time on his money", "Why should he pay her child support? She'll only spend it on cigarettes & alcohol. I know because that's what I did..." It's a common theme, and I'm presenting it as such.

Perhaps you're suggesting I should keep pointing out that these are not necessarily well-founded concerns. I suppose I thought that went without saying. Perhaps it sounds as though I'm saying "Custodial parents all waste their money on smoking and drinking." when what I mean to say is "Any expensive 'bad' habits that a custodial parent might have innocently picked up along their way in life become of intense concern to paying non-custodial parents..."


Access is inevitably linked with child support payments despite the oft expressed desirability of keeping them separate. This raises gift-giving, commodity22 issues at a deeper analytical level, but on the surface level of emotional reactivity, merely stands as another arena for conflict. The requirement placed on non-custodial parents to pay significant amounts of child support leads them to demand something in return, generally greater access to their children, or more control over their children's lives (Smart & Neale 1999, Simpson 1997). This implies an attitude toward the children as Ďcommoditiesí but it is also difficult to refute the validity of requiring something in return for large sums of money23, in a consumer based society such as ours. Custodial parents are keenly aware of this, and many would rather go without child support, relying solely on social security, than invite attempts by non-custodial parents to come calling to collect what they perceive to be owing to them in return for their payments24 (Webb 1996).

22. You need a footnote to explain & distinguish these terms.

It probably needs more than a footnote. By then I was trying to cover all kinds of sociological issues as well as policy ones, was aware that I couldn't include everything, but didn't want to leave anything out. The whole thing needs re-editing, and this time with the purpose of writing something I think needs to be written, rather than trying to write some Social Science & Policy/Sociology of Family hybrid thing.

23. Are they always large?

If he'd got lots of money, he's expected to pay it. If he's got nothing, it's a nominal amount. If he's a wage-earner, it's definitely not a negligible amount, though.

24. This is interesting & quite complex - it needs more analysis & unpacking.

Yes. I'm not sure where it's documented though. It's a fact I know well from personal experience and it formed part of the public discussion when compulsory child support was to be introduced as a requirement for eligibility of the sole parent pension. I recall seeing women being interviewed on television when it became policy saying they didn't want to reopen those sort of connections with their ex-spouse, but I have no idea of the date or network.

This reluctance on the part of sole parents to seek child support was countered by the Department of Social Security requirement that sole parents file for Child Support in order to qualify for the Sole Parent Pension (subsequently known as the Parenting Payment, now to be referred to as "Family Tax Payment B"). In other words, in order to save a few million dollars, the government created a policy which effectively insists on inter-parental conflict and confrontation!


Stage One cases disadvantaged

Another criticism levelled against the Child Support Assessment Act has been that Stage One custodial parents are comparatively disadvantaged by the fact that they are locked into previously assessed court orders for less significant amounts than those arrived at by the application of the formula (Alexander 1995). This is, perhaps, a reasonable criticism on the face of things, but the alternative of overturning old cases retrospectively has proved to be problematic for Britain, where the reversal of clean break settlements, on the introduction of the Child Support Act 1991 led to angry, nationwide demonstrations and is alleged to be responsible for at least four suicides of non-custodial fathers25 (Craig et al 1995, p14). Clearly it is a complex matter to ensure financial support for children of divorced parents. ÷

25. Reasons for suicide are usually very complex too & you need to acknowledge this as well otherwise the 'alleged' connection between 4 suicides & changes in child support laws is too over determined.

It was presented in more concrete terms than that in the source material. I added the "alleged" part. You and I don't know the circumstances surrounding the suicides in question, but divorce can be a very emotionally upsetting life experience which can take years to heal from. Whether or not there are extenuating childhood traumas, or whatever, I don't see that it's so very unlikely that overturning a previously settled divorce and throwing a person's emotional and financial life into upheaval a second time, as opposed to leaving him alone to get on with muddling through, might drive a man to end it all. 

Bureaucratic Inefficiencies

As stated earlier, the CSA, located in the Tax Office shared responsibility for the administration of child support payments with the Department of Social Security. The trouble with this arrangement was that the two departments are large, separate and, to some extent, disorganised bureaucracies which had not previously been integrated in any way. Inevitably, poor communication between the two meant that there were long delays between money being deducted from liable parents' income by the tax office and payments being made to custodial parents by the DSS (Alexander 1994). Naturally, this has been the source of further unnecessary conflict and anxiety.

* Many of your sub-sections are too small & tend to fragment the text against coherence. Perhaps you could restructure it particularly if you want to develop it for a publication.

Yes, I agree. My sub-sections aren't particularly meaningful to the flow of text. You should have seen it before! I had such a job to connect up all the various trains of thought.

Policy: Family Law Reform Act (1995)

The Family Law Reform Act was influenced greatly by the English "Children's Act" which sought to direct attention away from parents and toward the "best interests" of children. Mediation became the preferred method of dealing with family disputes, rather than adversarial litigation. The language used to describe parental relationships to children was altered to reflect a more child-centred approach: "custodial parents" became "residential parents", "access" became known as "contact". Parents were encouraged to negotiate parenting plans which could include child maintenance agreements to be accepted by the Child Support Registrar (Pollard 1996, Graycar & Harrison 1997). 

*What about in cases of domestic violence? Was mediation still the model?

Not so much, no.

Policy: Recent amendments to the Child Support Scheme

Recommendations of the JSCCFLI for improvements on the Child Support Scheme have gradually been implemented including improved telephone services and a more client centred approach to case management, (CSA 2000). Following pressure from fathers' rights groups, the Child Support formula was altered in 1999 to reduce ordered amounts, relieving some of the burden on non-custodial parents. Payers' exempt income amounts were increased by 10%, the amount of income payees were allowed to earn above the disregarded amount before payments were affected was reduced26, with child care costs, previously included in payee's disregarded amounts, being removed from the equation. Also, money spent by non-residential parents on children's education, medical and dental expenses can now be credited against child support payments up to a limit of 25 percent of a payer's order (Harrison 1999).

26. grammar

 Rework sentence- break into two sentences.

Payersí responsibilities to second and subsequent families were taken into account, with reduced percentages applicable where the payer has two or more Child Support claimants to pay. Where both parents share the care of their children, a different table of percentage amounts applies than the one used to assess families in which one parent lives with the child and the other is comparatively uninvolved in day to day care. Finally, a concession was introduced for wealthy non-residential fathers, namely that any amount they earn above 2.5 the AWE is exempt from the Child Support Formula ÷ (CSA 2000). The thinking behind this is that child support payments should reflect the estimated cost of raising a child and that money beyond that is basically ex-spouse maintenance.

These changes were clearly aimed at reducing the frustration and sense of injustice expressed by fathers' rights groups, but complaints regarding the scheme continue to pour into the offices of Members of Parliament and the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the gist of which amount to the sentiment that the changes don't go far enough toward achieving an equitable outcome (Funder 1997).

27 Is this about 'equity' then, or about relations of power & power struggles? Is equity just a tactic? To what extent do fathers' rights group recognise women's structural inequality vis-a-vis men? If these very historically embedded issues of gender equity are denied or elided by father's rights groups then I think you need to critically examine this discourse of equity & its deployment. Is it part of backlash against the gains women have made?

Again, I'm not sure that this is within the scope of the essay. Obviously it's of primary concern to you, so I suppose it will be to other feminists and perhaps does need to be discussed. I think most fathers' rights groups are comprised for the most part of sad, hurting, angry men, and they aren't thinking too hard about unachieved equality for women. They just feel defeated and confused by those gains already made by women. I don't believe it's so much a deliberate backlash, although there are bound to be many men within these groups who think a great deal about the forays women have made into the public sphere and would like to see them get back into the home. I think the majority are only aware of their own pain and want to find a way to reconnect with their children, but are unable to approach their ex-spouse in a way that is helpful to their cause. 

On the other side of the coin, a minimum rate of $260 child support per year was introduced so that all non-residential parents, regardless of income, are required to pay at least a token amount. Loop-holes which allowed payers to take advantage of exemptions for foreign income and rental property losses were closed as well, in some cases increasing (wealthy) payers' income amount to which the formula was applied.

Changes earmarked for next year (2001) include lower Child Support rates for non-residential parents who exercise regular contact with their children, an exemption of second job or overtime payments from Child Support assessment where that paying parent is earning extra income for second families, and increased support infrastructure for non-residential parents (CSA 2000, CSA Audit/Partone.html).



Gender War

Whether because divorce is easy, or because modern life places too great a strain on the nuclear family for it to survive, families are increasingly breaking up and regrouping. Earning a living and raising children simultaneously is a difficult feat because children require constant care. Social security payments take up the slack, but that means that the taxes of working parents and individuals support an increasing number of other people's failed?28 families. Public approval for continuing to provide this safety net is conditional, according to Funder (1997), on biological parents, supporting those children to the capacity that they are able, whether or not they reside with their children.

28. You need to be reflexive about these constructions - you are not outside the discourse.

I don't think I'm really trying to be. I think my style of writing is more about getting in there amongst it. I think the shine of sociology is beginning to wear off.

The measures put into effect to enforce parentsí financial support of their offspring, i.e. the Child Support Scheme, coupled with the fact that since the early to mid twentieth century, women most often retain the care of the children of a marriage, has had the unfortunate effect of eliciting a virtual gender war, and the CSA is the central target of menís wrath (Sawer 1999, Webb 1996, Webb 2000). Put simply, men resent29 the fact that they have to pay money to their ex-wife because she has the children, when they have little to no chance of being able to reverse this position. In these days of the (albeit unrealised) ideal of equal opportunities, this smacks of gender discrimination30 in the minds of non-residential fathers, and their anger is turned toward women generally (Sawer 1999).

29. There is no philosophical dimension to this analysis. What is resentment? what is the relationship between resentment & the sense of injustice? To what extent is your discourse reiterating a gender war, adversarial model whilst at the same time critiquing this model in terms of FLC & CSA?

The word "resent" is out? Is there a philosophical paper on "resentment" I should have read?

30. Is it justified? Is the recognition of women's unequal income relative to men factored into this consciousness or belief in (fathers') discrimination?

I don't think there is a strong awareness in the male community of women's unequal income relative to men. Irrespective of that, however, women have made far greater headway in their struggle for equal opportunity than men have for equal parenting rights in the home. Until now, I'm sure they didn't know there was anything worth fighting for. It's only that they suddenly find themselves bereft of human relationships, particularly with their children and are unsure how to go about addressing this problem. The fact that they are also under financial constraints as a result of Child Support policies only exacerbates the situation and perhaps gives them a tangible battle to fight. 

...Wait a minute... You're not telling me the CSA really is run by feminist separatists who use it as a cunning ploy to get that equal wage, are you??? ;-)

In an article entitled "Emily's List and Angry White Men: Gender War in the Nineties", Marian Sawer (1999) discusses the heated gender debate in the political fora in the lead up to the 1998 federal elections. She outlines the intensity of anti-feminist sentiment expressed by groups such as "Equality for Fathers", "Dads Against Discrimination", "Parents Without Rights" and "The Men's Rights Agency", certain members of which apparently harbour fears that the Child Support Agency and the Family Law Court are run by lesbian separatists. In fact, as the Chief Justice is reported to have said, there is little likelihood of the male-dominated judiciary harbouring a bias against men either collectively or individually (Harrison 1999), but fear and anger31 run rampant, nevertheless. According to the Sawer article, some of these groups are closely aligned to the gun lobby and claim that violence toward women over Family Law issues is symptomatic evidence of the victimisation of men! (Sawer 1999 p 2).

31. In what sense?

Prior to the 20th century, of course, women had little to no rights, and were extremely unlikely to be granted custody of their children in the comparatively rare instances of divorce. It was only the gradual shift toward considering the well-being of children that saw women, with their (allegedly) innate and instinctual 'mother's love', being considered the more appropriate guardians of the children of divorce (Smart & Neale 1999). Be that as it may, as the pendulum swings, current Child Support policy is evidently problematic for men, and therefore for society as a whole.

It must be said that a certain amount of men's anxiety about the unfairness of their predicament is unwarranted and based on a misunderstanding of Child Support policies. According to the Child Support Agency website (CSA 2000) many men are under the misconception that they are paying up to twice as much as they actually are. Unsure of the details of the formula, when they hear that a percentage of 18% to 36%, (depending on the number of children in their care), is to be applied to their income, they assume that it is applied to their gross income, when it is actually applied to their income less a disregarded amount. Thus, a man paying 18% of his gross salary in Child Support might be under the impression that he is actually paying 29%, and becomes anxious and angry, and rages against his ex-wife and her alleged misappropriation of his hard earned money. There is also little awareness of the fact that the formula has changed in favour of non-residential parents and that it is now part of CSA policy to move people off the scheme, provided the residential parent is not in receipt of supporting welfare payments, wherever possible, in favour of private arrangements (see Webb 2000). This anxiety is fuelled by the range of emotional issues separating parents, men in particular, are faced with, and are often ill-equipped to deal with.

Many men, on the breakdown of their marriage suffer a tremendous sense of grief and loss. Their role as "father" becomes confusing and undefined. They might not have been in the practice of # undertaking the daily care of their children, leaving this role traditionally defined as being "mothering" to their wives. On separation, not having a history of daily, structured, routine care of the child, it is a daunting task for a man to reinvent himself as an occasional primary carer (Campbell & Pike 1998, Smart & Neale 1999). Some men might strongly desire full-time care of their children, but believe they are unlikely to be granted this by a court, although Harrison (1999) reports that courts are less likely to order that children live with their mother than parents are to privately agree on such an arrangement (p 62).

Even if full-time care is more than a father feels able to deal with, the daily relationship with the child he had been accustomed to enjoying, forsaken with the breakdown of the marriage, is a heartbreaking loss. If it was his wife who initiated the separation, as it is in the majority of instances32, to be then instructed by a government department in a hostile, or at least insensitive way to pay a sizeable proportion of his weekly earnings to her, so that she and his children can live a more comfortable life without him is more than many a man can bear.33 They become hurt and angry (Campbell & Pike 1998) and strongly resent, above all else, the Child Support Scheme.

32. Why - what is behind this statistic?

33. So? You are not being analytical about these resentment issues & moral economics

You've turned this emotional context into some kind of neutral issue or space vis-a-vis issues of power, domestic violence, relationship breakdown (loss of love) etc, etc. It becomes too easy to elide the complex threads between emotions & actual contexts of families & relationships.

"Gift" Giving and Social Exchange

Simpson (1997) poses some interesting considerations regarding Child Support payments as a kind of redefinition of marital "gift-giving".

"... an important aspect of the divorce process is the conscious re-definition of relationships by means of the style and content of transactions which occur following the breakdown of the nuclear family. Positive reciprocity, characteristic of familial relations and symbolizing long-term relationships, must give way to balanced (and indeed negative) reciprocity as social distance between former spouses is expressed." (p 734)

Child Support policy implies the expectation that ordinary marital exchanges, which tend to be characterised by vague boundaries, the "what's mine is yours" philosophy, will continue after divorce, but in a formalised and more clearly defined way (Simpson 1997). Perhaps it is this enforcement of "gift-giving" that is so infuriating to estranged non-residential parents. If, as in Maussian theory, gift-giving is central to the maintenance of relationships (Simpson 1997), it is little wonder that men strive to retain control over the ways in which they contribute financially to their former families, preferring to furnish their children with gifts, or at least contribute directly to their school or extra-curricular activities, rather than handing money over to their ex-wife to add to the household budget, or worse, to spend on cigarettes and alcohol34. Giving money to one's ex-wife is tantamount to maintaining a humiliating one-sided relationship with her35, when one expects a divorce to end that relationship.36

34. Isn't this too generalised? Shouldn't you critique this perception & its generalisability?

35. Is it one-sided when the upbringing of children is involved?

36. Well clearly the notion of closure is complicated by the issue of children.

The changes made in 1999 to the Child Support scheme, mentioned earlier, allowing the payer to pay for the children's medical and dental expenses, or the payee's car, rates or mortgage payments in lieu of up to 25 percent of their payments (Harrison 1999), in effect, enable the non-residential parent, albeit in a small way, to regain control over their "gift giving". The Men's Rights Association argue for the right to include a great deal more categories of in kind payments as part of CSA orders, (Cassidy 2000), which lends support to the theory that it is the idea of enforced gift-giving to their ex-spouse which irks them and seems so unfair; a CSA spokesperson says that right has already been granted to them as long as they are able to reach an agreement with the residential parent (Cassidy 2000).

This and other proposed changes announced on the CSA website (CSA 2000) are evidence of a clear policy decision to ease the burden of the non-residential parent, and this is due in no small part to the active lobbying of the fathers' rights movement (Sawer 1999; Gallagher 1987; Harrison 1999). Bearing in mind the difficulties faced by non-residential parents under the Child Support Scheme, 88% being fathers (ABS 1997), it would seem to be an inevitable and much needed change in the direction of societal harmony37.

37. really? What is the assumption in this vague & general claim? Is it Utopian? Because it certainly implies or assumes that it is possible to step outside of power relations. As you no doubt know Marxists refute these constructions of social harmony evident in functionalist schools of thought.


Economic Rationalism and the Family

The Sole Parents' Union is occasionally pitted against the men's rights movement in media debates on parenting and Child Support issues, but it should be recalled that it is chiefly the government's desire to recoup social security money that drives the CSA, not a response to pressure from the Sole Parents' Union or women's groups. The Child Support Scheme, then, is in fact the (misguided) application of economic rationalism38 on the institution of "the family", placing economic concerns ahead of social cohesion39. Putting the squeeze on wage earners to foot the bill for an apparent breakdown in the basic fabric of society is inappropriate, unhelpful40 and lacking in foresight.

38. You haven't explained what economic rationalism means in this context.

39. Again, what are you assuming in & through idea(l)?

40. Why? - these are assertions without arguments to back them up - but I'll assume they are yet to come!

As mentioned earlier, Kate Funder (1997) of the AIFS reports that community support for the Social Security safety net for sole parents, as carers of the children of separated families, is conditional on parents contributing as much as they are able toward the children's upkeep. She does not disclose her source on this matter, and one wonders how loud the public outcry against sole parent pensions would be if the complexity of the issues involved were widely understood. One wonders if the government ministers in charge of policy appreciate the complexity. Indeed, there is talk of policies being introduced by the current conservative government to push sole parents back into the workforce, which run counter to its directives to encourage (married) mothers to stay at home with their children rather than taking the place of others in the workforce yes ÷ (Gunn 1999). The reason given is that children brought up on welfare will see their future options as limited, not having been shown a parental example of adults 'working' for their money,÷  implying that the job of mothering does not qualify as work for single mothers, whereas it is regarded as important work for married women.÷ excellent critique And if the government's main concern is employment over social security, Child Support policies are working against that directive too.

The Child Support scheme is a strong disincentive to non-residential parents to participate in the workforce and progress in their career path. Any increase in their income means a corresponding increase in both taxes and Child Support payments, so in effect there is a sense that they are slaves41 working for the government and their ex-spouse42 - and many make the choice to abandon their careers (Cruikshank 1997). In the US, such fathers are (controversially) referred to as 'Dead Beat Dads', but CSA policy does little to disuade them from this option. Surely it is preferrable that the government supports parents while they raise their children, allowing non-residential parents to participate unhindered in the workforce, rather than supporting both the residential and non-residential parents, as current policies encourage.

41. What makes it slavery? Not sure this is an appropriate term - far too emotive.

42. Aren't they working for their children? (in part at least).

Sole Parent Pension as Social Wage?

As outlined above, child support policies have been geared toward reducing government spending on welfare, often at the expense of positive inter-familial relationships. Latest ABS statistics indicate that the ratio of unemployed people to job vacancies is approximately six to one (ABS 2000). Why then, should the government or the community be concerned if large numbers of parents sit out of the workforce to raise their children, leaving the available jobs to those who have no such prior responsibilities? It isn't as though the vast majority of sole parents sit at home on welfare, anyway: almost half (44%) of all sole parents are in the workforce (ABS 1996). ÷ If there aren't enough jobs to go around, which there clearly aren't, it seems ridiculous to be at all critical of welfare recipients engaging in the entirely legitimate occupation of "home making". After all, effective parenting skills are just as important for parents to model for their children as workforce participation; a tired, stressed, mostly absent, working single parent is unlikely to be able to provide both.

Dow (1999) reports that, contrary to what one might expect, generous welfare states apparently correspond with higher rates of labour force participation, rather than the reverse. If the raising of children were redefined as being a form of social employment, which, it undeniably is - some would say it is the most important work undertaken by members of any society, reproducing and hopefully advancing the society itself - the amount provided by the government to assist parents in raising their young children could reasonably be redefined as a social wage. If the Tax Office were to apply the same doggedness to tax evaders that has been applied inappropriately to non-residential parents, funds recouped from the wealthy five percent of Australians who own the majority of national capital, yet pay little to no tax (Trainer 1985) could easily support such a plan, as could money saved by cutting back on Government wastage and excessive 'fringe benefits', such as luxury travel to and from their place of work. A socialist approach, perhaps, but a more realistic one than the economic rationalist approach of attempting to rob Peter to pay Mary, as the Child Support policies dictate in a misguided, moralistic determination to force defunct nuclear families to maintain marital financial structures when their social relationships have irretrievably broken down.


The government's intention that non-residential parents help shoulder more of the burden of support for single-parent families was the main driving force behind setting up the Child Support Scheme. It has been a costly exercise dogged by mismanagement and social unrest, and has inspired gender wars, economic dysfunction and sometimes even suicide of non-residential parents. Far from solving conflict problems between separated parents, it has provoked violence toward women43. While reforms have been implemented to address some of the obvious problems and inequities it is questionable whether retaining the Scheme is of any benefit to Australian society whatsoever.

43. How? It seems to me that you are using a scapegoat argument by not making the perpetrators of violence responsible for their actions.

Instead of trying to salvage the wreckage of an ill-conceived endeavour, a possible way forward in addressing the financial management of separated parenthood is the redefinition of child rearing as social employment and the Parenting Payment as "social wage" funded by effective taxation of the wealthy (which must be possible, if government is legitimate). This would reflect the reality for many parents, and be more socially constructive than trying to bring unreasonable pressures to bear on both residential parents for "draining" the system and non-residential parents for "shirking" their alleged responsibilities. Admonishing society's parents for relying on the public purse when relationships give way under the pressure of modernity and economic rationalism is counter productive and ill-founded. Better to support what remains of family structures than to add to their already heavy load.



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