A third of UK children will see their parents split up before they reach their 16th birthday and less than half of those separated parents have any arrangements in place to cover the upkeep of their families.
It’s an issue which provokes heated political debate – and it sits right at the heart of efforts to tackle child poverty.
“By far the majority of parents agree they have a moral obligation to pay towards the upkeep of their children when they separate – and on socio-economic grounds, policy makers want everyone to pay something,” says Dr Christine Skinner from our Department of Social Policy and Social Work.
“But when it comes down to the practical arrangements, even if they can afford to pay, successful arrangements depend on a parent’s willingness to pay – and that primarily depends on the quality of the relationship and the circumstances of the break up.”
A tricky business
As one of the UK’s leading academic experts on the issue, Dr Skinner has spent over 20 years unravelling the complexities of what she admits is a “tricky business involving numerous competing interests.”
She has advised Governments, delivered policy seminars and trawled the world for examples of international best practice.
Her research, often conducted in collaboration with York colleague Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, repeatedly emphasises the importance of a collaborative, holistic approach to child maintenance arrangements, rather than a punitive, enforcement system which stigmatises so-called absent parents.
The York academics have shared their insights and influenced thinking among Government Ministers, senior politicians and civil servants at all levels of Government, to help shape policy in this area.
“Our research highlights the importance for policy to try and deal with emotions around separation and not just the finances,” explains Dr Skinner. “When a couple separate, there’s often a lot of anger, as well as feelings of loss and mistrust. These can be powerful overwhelming emotions and they have to be dealt with before couples can get to the stage of discussing arrangements around the welfare of their children.”
Now, evidence of that new thinking can be found running through the new statutory Child Maintenance Service (CMS), a system which replaces the enforcement ethos of the previous Child Support Agency with a more collaborative, holistic approach.
The CMS, launched in 2012, encourages parents to work together to draw up their own private financial arrangements, while at the same time, offering help and advice from a range of relationship support organisations for those who find it difficult to reach agreement.
The aim is to reduce conflict, improve the chances of successful shared parenting and improve the welfare of children throughout a difficult, stressful event.
“The new approach is for the Government to step back and encourage parents to work together to make their own arrangements in the best interests of their children,” says Dr Skinner.
“This doesn’t mean there is not a place for effective enforcement if a ‘non-resident parent’ fails to meet their obligations, but our research shows very clearly that you can’t ignore the quality of separated parents’ relationships or their emotions, and the new system partly reflects that.”
Her leading role in child maintenance research continues today with a study into an innovative new support service offered as part of the maintenance reforms under the Help and Support for Separated Families fund.
As part of the initiative, the family justice organisation ‘Resolution’ launched a support scheme aimed at low-income families run by lawyers and mediators, known as ‘guides’. The pioneering project – called Family Matters – encourages the guides to work with both parents to provide professional legal information and relationship support, without the full services of a lawyer.
Studies led by Dr Skinner could shape future developments for the project which, in the last 18 months, has worked with over 900 low income parents. Her work could also influence professional practice for those working in the new scheme.
She is also sharing some of the insights from the new child maintenance system with international scholars and policy makers in a series of seminars funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The events have already attracted academics from France, Germany, Finland, Iceland, the United States and Australia.
“Research carried out at York has helped to underpin the new child maintenance arrangements, but there are still some big questions to be asked about a system that attempts to deal with a social problem affecting thousands of families across the country.
“It’s important that policy makers finally get this right. The emotional cost for children if we don’t is immeasurable,” says Dr Skinner.
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