Domestic abuse survivors have been put in danger because of government changes to child maintenance, campaigners warned today.
The new Child Maintenance Service (CMS), which replaces the Child Support Agency, risks putting survivors of domestic abuse in danger and may deter some parents from claiming the money they are entitled to, evidence by Women's Aid and Gingerbread suggests.
According to the government's own estimates, 50% of parents applying for CMS are expected to have suffered from domestic abuse. But the charities warn that staff working at the new service have no specialist training in how to work with survivors or how to recognise financial coercion.
Changes to how child maintenance is paid, mean that the parent with care of the children must now supply their bank details to the other parent. The charities have heard from domestic abuse survivors who are too frightened to use the new system in case their abuser gets hold of their personal details.
"Child maintenance is vital for enabling survivors of domestic abuse to separate from their abuser, and build a safe and independent life for themselves and their children," the chief executive of Women's Aid, Polly Neate said.
"But, there is a system-wide failure to recognise that, just because a relationship has ended, it does not mean the abuse has. Child maintenance is often used by perpetrators as a form of post-separation abuse and financial coercion - by deciding how much, and when, to pay. Many survivors struggle to secure successful payment arrangements - and many consider the risk too great to pursue maintenance at all."
The charities warn that some parents are dropping out of the system entirely, because they feel unprotected.
There are also concerns that a new £20 application fee which is charged on CMS cases will deter some people. The fee is waived for domestic abuse survivors but applicants are not asked about any history of abuse, they must first declare it themselves. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has acknowledged that this will mean many survivors end up paying the fee.
"Child maintenance matters. It helps single parents to provide the essentials for their children," the chief executive of Gingerbread, Fiona Weir said.
"Yet less than half of single parent families get any child maintenance at all. This makes the role of the CMS crucial. But it's clear that for the many survivors of domestic abuse who will be turning for the service for help, the CMS is not fit for purpose."
Both Women's Aid and Gingerbread are now calling for the DWP to roll out specialist training to CMS staff on how to recognise and work with domestic abuse survivors, offer survivors the option to fast-track to using the CMS collection service, drop the 4 per cent collection charges for single parents in cases of domestic abuse and review the 20 per cent charge for the paying parent.
A spokesperson for the DWP said:
"We are committed to giving children the best start in life and our staff are highly trained to support separated parents in very difficult circumstances. We do all we can to help families stay together but in the small minority of cases where that can't happen, procedures are put in place to ensure families are protected and can’t be traced."