Australian Ombudsman: Child Support Agency Unfairly Targets Dads

In Australia, the report by the acting Commonwealth Ombudsman into the policies and practices of the Child Support Agency is complete. The full report is not publicly available, but the abridged version is here. And here is an article about the report (Sydney Morning Herald, 8/26/10). Predictably the report is written in the blandest language imaginable, but a picture of the process and the behavior of CSA investigators comes into focus. To be polite, CSA investigators are poorly trained and primarily motivated to increase support levels. They tend to see their job as that of increasing support levels and tend to ignore the other side of the coin
– cases in which it should be lowered. That’s why the Ombudsman reports that, for example, when a father targeted by the CSA called the investigator to give information he hoped would help his case, the investigator simply didn’t return the call and went ahead and increased the amount owed as if the man had never tried to talk to him/her. People who truly want to come to the right conclusion don’t do things like that. In other cases, the CSA investigator seems to have been, well, not very smart.

The financial investigator treated a depreciation amount as the parent”s income, without having any regard to the size of the business”s overall trading loss. This analysis was flawed as a matter of simple arithmetic–disregarding the depreciation figure still meant that the business had traded at a loss. In any case, the CSA”s policy is that an amount claimed for depreciation will only be ‘added back” if the sum is available for the parent”s day-to-day living expenses.

So the investigator failed at “simple arithmetic.” Worst of all, the Ombudsman found that the CSA chose to pursue cases in which more child support might be owed and ignored those in which increased income received by the payee (usually the mother) would have meant lower support levels for the payer (usually the father). He recommends that CSA change its policy about how it selects cases to pursue.

[T]he CSA should not prioritise its CTP investigations on the basis of the parent”s role (i.e. payer or payee). In other words, the CSA should also investigate cases where the payee parent appears to have additional financial resources (see recommendations 1 and 14).

That anti-father bias directly contradicts the CSA’s own public descriptions of its policies and its mission which are even-handed treatment of both payers and payees. The Ombudsman urges that the CSA do what it claims it does. The Ombudsman also pointed out that the CSA

also created the impression that parents under CTP (Capacity to Pay) investigation are those who deliberately attempted to avoid their child support responsibilities. This was not borne out by the cases that we examined in our sample. The CSA”s CTP investigations include many where parents had perfectly legitimate business arrangements for taxation purposes, and the question of their motivation was usually irrelevant.

Once again, even those targeted by CSA turned out not to be “deadbeats,” but in the cases sampled, people claiming legitimate reductions to income. Finally, the CSA “routinely” demands the financial information of a payer’s new partner or spouse despite the fact that that information is “usually not relevant to the CTP investigation.” It’s unduly intrusive and has nothing to do with the case, but they do it anyway. Picture the stereotypical crooked cop. He knows he’s essentially above the law, so he can get away with whatever petty shakedown schemes he can think up. And it’s not just the money he can get from you that’s enraging, but the fact that he can walk into your home any time, track mud in, look around, kick your dog, insult your kid and generally disrupt your life, your privacy, your peace of mind. There’s not one thing you can do about it, and he knows it and you know it. Get the picture? That’s your friendly neighborhood CSA investigator. Have a good day. Thanks to John for the heads-up.

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