A group representing fathers is calling for a complete overhaul of the child support system because it fails to put the needs of children first."The system is too crude at the moment and encourages one parent to be a care parent and one to be a cash parent," Union of Fathers president Allan Harvey said. "That's not best for our children."
Last month the Sunday Star-Times revealed that of the 176,500 people liable for child support, 121,500 were behind in their payments. Together they owed more than $560 million in unpaid child support and $1.2 billion in late payment penalties and interest.
The government has not ruled out making changes to the child support system, but has been waiting on a report from the auditor-general on child support debt levels before deciding what steps, if any, it will take to improve the way child support is collected.
That report was tabled in parliament on Thursday. It estimated child support debt and unpaid penalties would reach $7b by 2018 and most of it would never be collected.
Auditor-general Lyn Provost said while Inland Revenue was doing a good job managing child support payments, it needed to focus more on preventing debt piling up in the first place.
Revenue Minister Peter Dunne welcomed the report, saying the auditor-general had "hit the nail on the head on a number of issues and challenges around child support".
"The auditor-general has pointed out that the system can seem complicated, particularly when it comes into people's lives at a very stressful time as a relationship breaks down. I also agree with the report's comments on simplifying the information available to parents," Dunne said.
He was expecting a report from Inland Revenue officials shortly and that was likely to form the basis of a paper that he would in turn present to cabinet outlining recommended changes to the system.
Any changes cannot come soon enough for the men Harvey is working with, many of whom are involved in protracted disputes with their former partners over care arrangements for their children.
One dad, who was reluctant to speak publicly out of concern for his children, had custody of his two teenagers but his ex-partner was paying only $350 a month in child support despite earning more than $100,000 a year and having a new partner who earned more than $200,000. He was battling to get an extra $50 a month from her.
Another dad had shared custody of his two children, aged two and five, but was still expected to pay $1500 a month in child support even though the children lived with him every second week, during which he met their full costs.
"The system is fraught with problems and inequities," Harvey said.
"It is stuck back in this care versus cash parent model rather than a more dynamic model like the Family Court has moved to, where both parents have a continuing involvement in a child's life in terms of care and hopefully in terms of cash."
Child support reform advocate James Nicolle said the system was failing both parents and children.
"It's just not fair to anyone - I have seen case after case where people have been pushed to the wall by the amount of child support they have to pay.
"Systems like this don't work anywhere in the world. If you go to the UK, Australia, the United States, Europe . . any system that is based on a percentage of income of the parent results in massive debt. They don't just work - they're unsustainable," Nicolle said.
The government needed to move to a model based on shared parenting, where time spent with children and related costs were acknowledged and the expenses of raising a child were shared equally.
Unfortunately, he said, there seemed to be little political will to make such change.
"I suspect it has to do with the fact they see the child support debt and the huge dollar figure on their balance sheet and don't want to lose that potential revenue stream," said Nicolle.