A snapshot of contemporary attitudes to child support

A snapshot of contemporary attitudes to child support

Bruce Smyth and Ruth Weston

Research Report No. 13 — June 2005

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The Attitudes to Child Support Study, conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies early in 2005, was designed to inform the work of the Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support. The study was jointly funded by the Australian Government Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) and the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Data were obtained from a general population sample comprising 1,001 people aged between 18 and 64 years. Data were also collected from a national random sample of 620 separated/divorced parents with at least one child under 18 years. These data represent the views of two distinct groups: those within the ambit of the system 'looking out' (resident mothers and non-resident fathers - the two most common post-separation parent groups); and those outside of the system 'looking in' (men and women who had not experienced separation). Telephone interviews lasting approximately 12-15 minutes were conducted with respondents.

Most of the survey questions were taken from a recent UK survey series of attitudes to child support, which explored scenarios in which the father was the non-resident parent. The issues covered focused largely on whether child support should be paid, rather than enforcement issues or the recognition of unpaid work in caring for children.

It should be noted that there is a danger in placing too much emphasis on community attitudes in the shaping of policy, particularly where the rationale behind policy decisions entails a complex set of issues that may not be well understood.

Director's foreword

In line with our legislative responsibility to investigate factors affecting the wellbeingof children and families, the Australian Institute of Family Studies hasalways maintained a keen interest in the development and evaluation of Australia'sChild Support Scheme. The first major evaluation of the Scheme wasconducted by the Institute in 1990, and the collection of child support data hasbeen an important part of most Institute studies of divorce since then.

This report presents a snapshot of contemporary attitudes to child support in Australia.The study on which the report is based represents the first detailedAustralian investigation of these attitudes, and was conducted to help inform thework of the 2004-2005 Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support. The Institute isindebted to the Australian Government Department of Family and CommunityServices for co-funding this research, and for supporting the project throughoutits duration.

As the authors of the report point out, child support is not just about money.Indeed child support raises many fundamental issues about social values and'fairness'. Policy should therefore have some basis in present-day views ofparental responsibility and fairness. The attitudinal data in this report act as ananalytic prism to understanding the community's sense of fairness in relation tointer-household financial transfers after parental separation. Not surprisingly,women and men (ever or never separated) held different views in different familycircumstances.

The findings are both simple and complex; some patterns are to be expected,others are not. The various patterns are likely to be of considerable interest topolicy makers, family law professionals, divorce mediators, and separated parentsthemselves. It is hoped that Attitudes to Child Support will stimulate empirical workinto why respondents supported certain propositions and not others, which childsupport issues should be targeted by community education programs for separatedparents, and which issues may act as sticking points for parents in reachingagreement on their post-separation parenting arrangements more generally.

Child support aims to benefit children. This report was written in the spirit of thisaim. I congratulate Bruce Smyth and Ruth Weston on an excellent report andcommend it to you.

Professor Alan Hayes
Australian Institute of Family Studies


Authors and Acknowledgements

Bruce Smyth is a Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. He has worked on a number of large-scale studies of divorce in Australia since joining the Institute in 1995, and has published widely on issues related to post-separation parenting. He is currently a member of the Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support.

Ruth Weston is Acting Deputy Director Research of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Over the past two decades, Ruth has published extensively on a range of issues, including quality of life, couple formation and relationship stability, fertility decision-making, and parent-adolescent relationships. She has a long-standing interest in divorce research dating back to her work on the economic and emotional consequences of divorce for the Settling Up-Settling Down series. She was also involved in modelling some of the early policy options when the original Child Support Scheme was being developed in the late 1980s.

The authors are deeply indebted to the many respondents who participated in this study. This research would not have been possible without their help.

The authors thank the following individuals and organisations: the Australian Government Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) for supporting this project, particularly Tony Carmichael and Robyn Seth-Purdie; Daphne White, Victoria Peacey and Laura Rainford from the United Kingdom for laying some of the conceptual foundations on which the present study rests; Emily Cattell from the UK Department of Work and Pensions for her support and encouragement; Wallis Consulting for conducting the fieldwork - Pam Millwood, Julie Higgs, and the skilled interviewers deserve particular thanks; members of the Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support, and the Taskforce Secretariat (FaCS) for their helpful suggestions on early drafts of the interview schedules; members of the Taskforce Reference Group for their feedback during a presentation of preliminary findings; and Rebecca Pietsch of the Taskforce Secretariat (FaCS) for her help coding the open-ended data presented in Chapter 5, and Emma Hall of the Secretariat for monitoring the pilot test and fieldwork.

Other colleagues also deserve special thanks: Alan Hayes and Alison Morehead for their unwavering support throughout this study, and for their feedback on the final draft of this report; Juliet Behrens, Adrienne Burgess and Denise Swift for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of the main findings of this report; Lawrie Moloney for his thinking, concepts and language in relation to the discussion of Family Relationship Centres; Sophie Holloway for deriving the complex code for analysing family type; and Lixia Qu for statistical advice.

 Any shortcomings or errors are, of course, the authors' own.

Publication details

Research Report
No. 13
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, June 2005.
118 pp.
0 642 39526 8
Suggested citation:

Smyth, B., & Weston, R. (2005). A snapshot of contemporary attitudes to child support (Research Report No. 13). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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