Government service puts domestic abuse survivors at risk

Posted 13 September 2016

Untrained staff and flawed systems failing parents, warn Gingerbread and Women’s Aid

Domestic abuse survivors are being put at risk by the government’s new Child Maintenance Service, finds new evidence from Gingerbread and Women’s Aid.

The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) is replacing the Child Support Agency (CSA), requiring parents who were using the CSA, or new applicants, to apply to the CMS if they need help to sort out child maintenance.

Domestic abuse survivors are expected to make up 50 per cent of parents applying to the CMS [1], but Gingerbread and Women’s Aid have found that staff working there have no specialist training on how to work with survivors or how to recognise financial coercion.

The CMS insists that all parents initially pay child maintenance directly to each other, requiring the parent with care of the children to supply their bank details to the other parent [2]. The CMS will only step in to collect maintenance if payments are consistently missed.

Gingerbread and Women’s Aid are concerned that the lack of specialist training for staff, combined with the expectation that parents interact over payments is leaving survivors open to financial and emotional abuse. They warn that some parents are dropping out of the system entirely because they feel unprotected.

The charities have heard from parents who are too frightened to go ahead with direct payments in case their abuser gets hold of their personal details. While the CMS advises survivors to set up non-geographic bank accounts, there is little clarity over how this will work or help protect those at risk: one survivor told Gingerbread that this would still reveal her new name and another found that her bank couldn’t set one up.

Gingerbread Chief Executive Fiona Weir said: “Child maintenance matters. It helps single parents to provide the essentials for their children, 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.

The service as a whole has to get a better understanding of the support that domestic abuse survivors need. As it stands, children aren’t getting the financial support they should and survivors are being put in a vulnerable position.”

After Rachel* escaped her abusive marriage she successfully secured child maintenance through the CSA: “I spent many hours on the phone to the CSA back in 2012 setting up an application for child maintenance. This agreement will not be transferred to the CMS, it will simply cease and stop – so my ex-husband will be under no obligation to make any payments to me. It is evident that the onus is on the survivor to enter into a private agreement with the abuser and all the risks that it entails.

I feel unsure about disclosing any information about domestic violence to them because if my ex-husband knew I had referred to the domestic violence he may well become angry and this anger may manifest in another court battle for more custody for my son. I don’t feel confident in the new service ensuring my safety at all.”

Gingerbread and Woman’s Aid have also raised concerns over the impact of charges in the new system. The CMS charges a £20 application fee to open a case. While this is waived for domestic abuse survivors, they have to declare a history of abuse and are not directly asked. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) itself has acknowledged that this will mean many survivors end up paying the fee [3].

If the CMS does step in to collect unpaid maintenance it imposes charges on both parents [4]. Not only do single parents lose out financially, but some have told Gingerbread that they won’t move into the collection system for fear of upsetting the other parent. This leaves some trapped in arrangements where the paying parent gets away with paying what they decide, when they decide.

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: “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. 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 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. 

Women’s Aid calls for the Government to ensure women and children have safe child maintenance arrangements in place by fast-tracking domestic violence survivors to the statutory ‘Collect & Pay’ system, dropping charges for survivors to use the system and ensuring all staff receive specialist training on domestic abuse. The current system is simply not safe for survivors – change is urgently needed.”

Gingerbread and Women’s Aid are calling for the DWP to:

  • Roll out specialist training and clear guidance for 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.

Gingerbread is campaigning for significant improvements to the Child Maintenance Service. For more details visit our Maintenance Matters page.

If you are a parent who has experienced domestic abuse please read our advice for using the child maintenance system safely.


Notes to editors

*Name changed

[1] DWP (2012) Estimating the impacts of CSA case closure and charging.
[2] The CMS preference is for parents to make payments between each other directly (after the CMS calculates how much should be paid) – a ‘Direct Pay’ arrangement. If payments are missed and the receiving parent raises this with the CMS, the case can eventually be transferred to the collection service – a ‘Collect and Pay’ arrangement.
[3] DWP (2012) Estimating the impacts of CSA case closure and charging.
[4] In ‘Collect and Pay’ the CMS charges the paying parent an additional 20 per cent, which the CMS keeps, and deducts a further 4 per cent from the maintenance paid before it is passed on to the parent with care.

One thought on “Government service puts domestic abuse survivors at risk

  1. I have suffered over a decade of this CMS cannot collect if the parent just decided to abscond to a different country and you as the abused are responsible for alerting them if they are back in the country and in employment!!. You would be the last to find out this information the first people are DWP so why is there no link between these two services for alerts? . I have just secured 9 years back pay of child maintenance awarded in court in OCT 2017 but still, I am suffering from abuse as he fails to pay. I also have suffered 18 months through the system of CMS where he has been allowed to pay 19 days late every month finally he has stopped paying altogether and they have only just put him on collect and pay but again I am through the government scheme made to pay 4% of this to them for collecting when he is made to pay 20% why I ask is the abused made to pay to the government for the abuse she receives they support!! If anyone is interested in helping to support this through parliament please get in touch.

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