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Child support payments and parental alienation

By Augusto Zimmermann - posted Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Parental alienation can devastate the relationship between parents and children. It can be a central issue in child custody disputes. There is, however, an apparent link between the child support scheme and malicious attempts by some custodial parents to completely eradicate the relationship between the child and the other parent. According to Daily Telegraph journalist Corrine Barraclough, 'countless parents are paying child support through the government yet alienated from their children. Given that child support is calculated on the number of nights children spend with each parent, a moral hazard is created that can tempt a primary carer to withhold access for the basest of reasons, money'.

One of the undeniable facts about divorce is that children often adapt better to their parents' separation if they are allowed to have a continuing contact with both parents. Indeed, a recurring theme in the field of child psychoanalysis is that children of divorced parents often desire to develop a meaningful relationship with both of their parents, including their non-residential parents. According to a significant academic paper endorsed by 110 leading international experts, it is not correct to assume that sharing overnight care is necessarily problematic for the little child. Written by Richard A. Warshak, this peer-reviewed academic article analyses existing research and it finds that little children commonly develop attachment relationships with more than one caregiver. It also finds that, in normal circumstances, children are likely to do considerably better if they have overnight contact with both parents. Thus the article concludes, beyond reasonable doubt, that 'sufficient evidence does not exist to support postponing the introduction of regular and frequent involvement, including overnights, of both parents with their babies and toddlers. The theoretical and practical considerations favoring overnights for most young children are more compelling than concerns that overnights might jeopardize children's development'.

As mentioned, 110 leading researchers and practitioners have read, provided comments, and offered revisions to Dr Warshak's article and they endorse his article's conclusions. This includes Dr Don Edgar, former foundation director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies; Judy Cashmore AO, Professor in Socio-Legal Studies at Sydney University; and Barry Nurcombe, Emeritus Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Queensland. According to Nurcombe, 'the experts who signed the report are amongst the best in the world in their fields'. As he also explains, 'the paper highlights the fact that current policies relating to overnight contact with […] young children have been excessively affected by misplaced concern to the mother'.


This leads to the important discussion of government policies in Australia. Policies across many areas of public administration appear to tacitly endorse the concept of easily available divorce. In doing so these government policies have seriously encouraged the irresponsible behavior of parents who apply for a divorce at the first sign of trouble with their relationship. Instead of trying to resolve their problems, state-sponsored financial incentives will tempt a parent to leave the marriage and subsequently alienate their children from the other parent, so as to collect a sole parent's pension in the form of support payments.

Here in Australia the Department of Human Services (DoHS) is the federal agency responsible for determining the level of financial support that non-residential parents are expected to pay. The amount is based on the amount of care received by a child from each parent, which is then determined by the time this child spends with his or her non-residential parent. There are some obvious financial advantages available for those who maliciously alienate another parent from their children. Indeed, support payments have become a lucrative reward for a more narcissistic parent who make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the other parent to develop any meaningful relationship with their children. After all, if the non-residential parent spends a more substantial or meaningful time with his children, then the amount paid to the other parent is lower than it would be if the relationship with that other parent had completely broken down, or if their children were cared for after separation entirely by one parent.

Contrary to popular belief, child-support payments have nothing to do with irresponsible fathers abandoning their children. The Child Support Agency was establishedin 1988 and legislation passed in 1989 imposed a mandatory formula for all parents who separated. This support scheme, writes Patrick Parkinson, Dean of Law at the University of Queensland and an internationally renowned expert on family law, 'was certainly motivated by concerns about growing welfare expenditure'.

Developed to outset the jurisdiction of the courts in relation to child support, he notes that such a scheme 'was largely driven by the need to ensure … that private transfers of money from fathers to mothers reduced the burden of the state in terms of welfare expenditure'. According to Professor Parkinson, the child-support scheme provides 'perverse incentives … for primary caregivers to resist children spending more time with the other parent to avoid a reduction in the child support obligation.' As far as possible, such 'perverse incentives need to be avoided, and legislative policies in these areas should be in harmony rather than conflict', Parkinson says.

Originally justified as a method of recovering welfare costs, child-support payments have been transformed into a massive subsidy on unilateral divorce. Because in a 'no-fault' system nobody can contest a unilateral divorce, these payments are an entitlement to be assessed on parents and even on those who are unwillingly divorced against their will. As a result, a loving parent may be forcibly separated from his or her children, and such payments awarded ostensibly and regardless of any reference to 'fault'. As noted by U.S. sociology professor Stephen Baskerville:

No-fault divorce allowed a mother to divorce her husband for any reason or no reason and to take the children with her. Child support took the process a step further by allowing the divorcing mother to use the now-fatherless children to claim her husband's income – also regardless of any fault on her part (or lack of fault on his) in abrogating the marriage agreement.


Across Australia, many parents are being told in mediation sessions or by lawyers that there is no hope of overnight contact with their children. In view of the financial reward acquired, the position of some parents is that the other parent should spend the littlest time possible with their children. A parent holding temporary custody may decide to procrastinate custody litigation so as to prevent the other parent's access to their children. When this awful situation occurs, a loving parent may completely lose access to their children through no fault or agreement of their volition. As noted by Bettina Arndt, a psychologist who has served on two federal committees concerned with children support and family law, 'thousands of Australian fathers have had their contact with their young children limited to a few hours often spend huge sums on lawyers, fighting to be able to care for their children overnight'.

According to Sir Paul Coleridge, a former High Court Judge in the United Kingdom, 'mothers who refuse to let separated fathers see their children should have them taken away. The children should be handed over to the full-time care of the father if the mother persistently defies court orders'. In the UK, around 5,000 new cases a year come before the family courts in which parents – almost always mothers – defy orders to let the other parent have contact. Judges are extremely reluctant to jail mothers because of the damaging effects on the children, so many continue to get away with it. And yet, as Justice Coleridge points out, 'occasionally it might be necessary to send a mother to jail.

What is happening is not merely an accident but the product of a radical ideology that has declared open war on the institution of marriage. As stated in a January, 2015, submission of the Australian Family Association to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Child Support Program, womens groups' that had also lodged submissions to that same inquiry have displayed a remarkable lack of consideration or recognition of the problems that non-residential parents might face. 'The payer appears to be recognised as only a financial source', noted this family association in its review of all these submissions, thus observing that some of the women groups 'are open about the fact that they provide services to women based on gender equality and/or a feminist framework'. It is worth also noting what this "feminist framework" essentially means. According to the Australian Family Association,

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This article was first published in Quadrant.

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About the Author

Augusto Zimmermann, LLB, LLM, PhD is a Lecturer in Law at Murdoch University, Western Australia.

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