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Exploring the CSA mentality

Questions for Jolly

As promised, I'm starting a new thread as a means of corresponding with a recently joined user, 'Jolly', who was at some stage in the employ of the Child Support Agency. Firstly I'd like to thank Jolly for agreeing to this idea and on behalf of our forum regulars I extend a sincere thanks for any time you may care to afford us in answering our questions.

I'll get us started with a broad spectrum type question.

Jolly, both payers and payees seem bitterly dissatisfied with CSA. Do you think CSA resolves post marital conflict, worsens it, or a combination thereof?

If you were able to change CSA, what would you do and why?
Well the experience on the inside is that the vast majority of clients are not dissatisfied with child support. Many people seem to think that they pay or receive about the right amount. You also have far more interactions that ultimately go well than those that don't, probabaly 90% in most areas of CSA. It is the minority of dissatisfied clients who are the most vocal. Nothing new in that I suppose. Sometimes people are right to be dissatisfied and sometimes not so much. I think there is an issue sometimes when people think that CSA has or should have a role to play in  resolving post relationship conflict. There is nothing in the legislation that permits that kind of intervention anyway. All child support exists for is two things - making assessments and transferring payments. The government sometimes tries to dress that up in some kind of touchy feely way but in the end that is the business CSA is in and no other. It would be good if the government of the day of whatever persuasion and various SES within DHS could stop pretending it isn't. After all the parliament made the legislation that CSA administers and if the politicians don't understand what they have created then that is a problem.

There has been a curious denial within CSA for many years of the assessment function the organisation has and a myopic focus on collection. Many of the SES will openly say CSA is a collection Agency which is only half true.  Of course CSA as an entity no longer exists, its just a brand now. Child Support is just a 'business line' of DHS now.

From my point of view it is how people respond to the circumstance they are faced with that determines whether conflict dissipates or escalates. Part of this circumstance is that they may experience having things ( child support )  imposed on them that they haven't experienced before and don't agree with. Fighting over that with CSA is pointless and just leads to dead ends. This is more a philosophical issue of the role of government in the lives of citizens, and ultimatley a political issue better addressed elsewhere. But understanding the history behind child support in this country can help. Some may remember Bob Hawke's great tearful claim that no child will live in poverty, a remark that was actually about the creation of CSA. Before CSA existed there was  a system of family Court and magistartes Court maintenance Orders for sums like $5.00 per week. Many single parents had no financial assistance form the other parent of their children. That had to change as the electorate at the time was demanding that it did.

But having said all of that - what would i do to improve the place ? The first thing i would do is get rid of most of the EL2s and above as the culture is polluted and toxic. They need to start again and have managers who know the business, not managers who are no more than tin pot politicians bowing and scraping to their political masters, implementing one bad idea after another and failing to ever give that 'fearless' advice to the parliamentarians that public servants should. Then the other improvements would follow, chiefly better training for staff, more subject experts for staff to rely on etc. The other thing i would do is get rid of the 'new' formula as it is pretty messy and very hard to understand. Parkinson got that wrong for sure. At present at higher levels there is no appreciation of how complex the scheme is and until there is it will remain really hard for everyone to understand it, explain it and work with it to get the right amounts assessed.
Thanks Jolly. Very interesting indeed.

Could you please tell us about the workings of changes of assessment, in particular Reason 8, and did you as a staff member ever find that it was prone to abuse of process?

Can you tell us about the role gender played (if any) in CSA decision making?

Did you ever question the evidence submitted by payees?
I don't know what you would like to know about Reason 8. To state the obvious yes it is the most contentious of the COA reasons and not well understood outside the more specialised areas just like general accounting isn't very well understood by the average person in the street. . I have never known of an accountant who understood it either for that matter. It is all about the application of some basic principles though - children are entitled to be supported by their parents to the extent that they are able to support them etc etc  so Reason 8 is about measuring what the extent of someone's capacity really is if the standard formula isn't able to determine something meaningful.   If you mean is Reason 8 utilised by some people in bad faith I think that would be rare given that there are protections built in to the legislation to prevent it. The question is whether those parts of the legislation are administered correctly i guess in COA. My view is that this has varied over the years.  I can say that everyone is in the same position whether they are in a COA process, at the SSAT or in Court in that it is very hard to know much about the other party's financial circumstances and there is often great reliance on any of those bodies to discover as much as they can. This can be quite problematic at times, anyone can read the Family Court decisions on this stuff and see that for themselves. I think the powers available in this area ( to CSA, SSAT and the Courts ) fall short of the expectations that the reason sets up in some people's minds and this can lead to repeat applications. Some times the SES try to respond to this sort of pressure from outside by demanding longer time frames for decisions but that causes another layer of problems that they don't want to acknowledge or don't have the intellect to understand.

You know it is not unheard of for a decision to be received as allegedly gender biased in both directions by both parties at the same time !  That was always entertaining to see. I think that said more about the biases of the clients. For every allegation that CSA favoured men ( usually because CSA cant get them to pay )  there is an allegation that it favours women ( because they get paid too much, or spend it on drugs or whatever the story is ) so in the end i think this is just not worth debating. But there was a very unfortunate period in CSA's history where the government installed a GM who some people say was obviously put there to favour paying parents and some people think that everything went bad in CSA from there. This was the period when collection rates dropped dramatically which of course triggered demands from government to fix it, after that GM was banished of course !

If anyone thinks evidence has not been tested they should tell CSA about it during the process they are in and discuss how it can be tested. If decisions are made without having that opportunity then that would usually be legally problematic. Having said that there are limits to this depending on the circumstances but those limits have nothing to do with the client role. There was a big investigation into bias in CSA a few years back and it turned up hardly any evidence of serious bias despite the efforts of some to claim that it did. A really common problem is though that when CSA report what one party has said this is taken by some people to mean that CSA endorses it, but of course that isn't what is going on. This is actually about making sure people have a chance to know what arguments are being made by the other parent so that they can rebut them, or try to.
Jolly said
After all the parliament made the legislation that CSA administers and if the politicians don't understand what they have created then that is a problem.

Do you, really believe that politicians really understand what they legislate? I would suggest that most ministers simply follow their party line, which is very likely to be based very much upon the minority "loud voices" that you have mentioned and often are quite void of rationality and/or careful consideration of all relevant factors.

As an example who, in their right mind, would knowingly support a formula that can result in amounts in excess of $10,000 for a single night's care? Yet that is the case with the current formula that has existed in an implemented form since July 2008.

I very strongly suspect that CS legislation has basically been put forward by the very administrator's themselves (e.g. the notorious changes that enables systemic child abuse by the CSA basically supporting ease of administration over what the far more highly qualified Family Law system determines in regard to disputed care. i.e. In 2008 the legislators agreed to court orders, if existing, taking precedence. I can't quite recall when, but perhaps 2010 or 2011, this was over-ridden by "actual care" (too often not based upon facts but upon what suited the most collected (e.g. a professional investigator's report being discarded for affidavits from friends and family, fortunately overidden when Centrelink investigated and found facts). I do not recall any mention of the changes to use actual care being discussed by parliament nor do I recall any person saying that they were themselves aware. However, I am aware that "disputed care (specialised care then if I recall correctly)" did have administrative issues and wanted a more efficient process. Furthermore, I also recall being part of a project where legislation changes, not regarding disputed care, were deemed to be required and of senior members of the CSA saying that they had the legislation already prepared (i.e. they were likely yet again trying to abuse the process and to abuse those who volunteered to assist in order to implement legislation that they wanted and very likely knowing that they could then introduce it to suit their needs/wants rather than anything at all to do with the electorate).

Can you Jolly definitively state that the CSA do not prepare/propose legislation and thus do no more than administer it?

Of course few would likely deny that the legislation itself it very hard to read and comprehend to most, even those with a legal background. Few politicians have the time and/or the ability to read and comprehend the CS legislation I would suggest that most simply rubber stamp it assuming that it's what is wanted. Of course if you look at recent legislation changes then you have debacle after debacle (e.g. batts, BER).

Do you Jolly have absolute faith that politicians do understand the CS legislation they pass?
Jolly are you telling me that I could hop down to my local Federal MP and they would explain how to calculate a case that involved, multiple CS children with differing levels of care and multiple cases? I'd suggest that the vast majority within the CSA would be unable to explain how to work that out. I'm certainly aware that the training provided before the introduction of the 2008 legislation did not cover such a scenario.

Jolly said
………… There has been a curious denial within CSA for many years of the assessment function the organisation has and a myopic focus on collection. Many of the SES will openly say CSA is a collection Agency which is only half true.  Of course CSA as an entity no longer exists, its just a brand now. Child Support is just a 'business line' of DHS now.
When it boils down to it, this is the real design behind CS systems or equivalents throughout much of the world. They are for the collection of monies, it is a form of taxation upon parents of separated children by recouping social security benefits. Of course this aspect had to be rubber-stamped to re-enforce that emphasis the Richmond report. A report that I was involved in a knew within minutes that this was very likely the reason that it had been commissioned.

Jolly said
From my point of view it is how people respond to the circumstance they are faced with that determines whether conflict dissipates or escalates. Part of this circumstance is that they may experience having things ( child support )  imposed on them that they haven't experienced before and don't agree with. Fighting over that with CSA is pointless and just leads to dead ends.
I think that is a very simplistic point of view. For instance, the parent who knows that what they are paying/receiving is not just, equitable and fair should try to have a just, fair and equitable outcome. OF course the attitude that it is pointless itself introduces obfuscation of a just, fair and equitable outcome. The collection mentality also very likely adds to such obfuscation and so on. Personally I believe that no person in the CSA should be able to make any legislative decision they should only administrate from facts.

Jolly said
Before CSA existed there was  a system of family Court and magistartes Court maintenance Orders for sums like $5.00 per week. Many single parents had no financial assistance form the other parent of their children. That had to change as the electorate at the time was demanding that it did.
I believe that there are facts that show that the introduction of CS legislation actually reduced the amounts paid to support children. Perhaps Secretary_SPCA could elaborate as Secretary_SPCA has greater knowledge than myself of the history. In reality I believe much of the push for CS was to free the courts of the administrative burden of calculating child support amounts.

Jolly said
The other thing i would do is get rid of the 'new' formula as it is pretty messy and very hard to understand.
So Jolly, what would you have "pie in the sky" amounts? The formula I believe should actually be more complex if anything and most importantly fact based.

The complexity of the formula should be a moot point as if properly/professionally implemented it can be handled by a system. My understanding is that many in the CSA only utilise the CSA's estimator and are bound by it's ridiculous limitations. This website is an itself an example of how ridiculously limited the Estimator is. The advanced child support calculator provided freely to all on this website can handle most scenarios, this calculator was written in under 6 months and cost nothing other than the time freely given by the individuals who developed it. I can also say that the time taken to develop it also included the learning of numerous new skillsets (e.g. more advanced HTML, OC Portal interface techniques, CSS style sheets to name some). In short complexity can be simplified for the end user.

I won't disagree that the formula is currently fundamentally flawed; an example is shown above where in two separate scenarios the amount for one night can be over $10,000. However, it is less fundamentally flawed than the previous formula. Of course another major flaw is that the formula incorporates amounts to purportedly adjust/balance for lifestyle/living conditions but does not take into account other major lifestyle/living condition factors.

Again I would and have proposed an entirely administrative based CSA, they simply input the facts and the underlying system makes ALL legislative determinations based upon rules encoded within the system. In fact it could even be that there would be no need for the CSA, parents could even input the facts or perhaps, if the thought were put into the system, the facts could actually be gathered automatically.
Thanks once again Jolly.

Could you please tell us about how CSA administered dollar value collection targets and what incentives (if any) were in place for staff with dedicated collection and/or enforcement roles?
Jolly said
Well the experience on the inside is that the vast majority of clients are not dissatisfied with child support. Many people seem to think that they pay or receive about the right amount.
How many is many?

According to the ombudsman the Department of Human services (Child Support Agency program) is the 4th most complained about Agency program in Australia. Last year the Ombudsman received almost 2500 complaints from payers and payees. Complaints have been increasing every year.  The Commonwealth Ombudsman office does monitor trends and track systemic problems with in CSA administration. The results of which are then tabled in the Ombudsman's Annual Ministers report. According to the Ombudsman there are issues with disasitified payers/payees even knowing they can complain to the Ombudsman Office. If 2500 disatified payers/payees are formally contacting the Ombudsman, how may are not? Although you have inside experience, it seems you (and thus CSA itself) maybe out of touch or in denial about how may people could be truly dissatisfied with Child Support.

Last edit: by Frenzy

THE child support scheme, which underwent a major reform in 2008, is so complex that only a handful of experts can understand the rules, a study shows.

Most of the 1.5 million divorced and separated parents who pay or receive child support have no idea how the calculations are worked out, and most of those who claim to know the rules are wrong.

''The new scheme was intended to reflect the complexity of modern families, but it is so complicated that hardly anyone understands it,'' said the lead investigator Bruce Smyth, an associate professor in demography and social research at the Australian National University.

As a result of this, it was unlikely many parents were using their children as pawns to extract the most financial gain from the system, despite widespread perceptions to the contrary, he said.

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Professor Smyth will present the findings at the Australian Institute of Family Studies annual conference this week.

The study, involving thousands of separated and divorced parents, some followed for four years, is part of an evaluation of the reforms that changed the way child support liabilities were calculated and family tax benefits split. It suggests the Child Support Agency has not been able to keep parents well informed of how overnight stays with a non-resident parent can affect payments and family tax benefits.

The reforms were promoted as being fairer to mothers and fathers, encouraging more contact between children and non-resident parents, and reducing conflict between parents. But they were opposed by some women's groups, who feared mothers would receive reduced child support and family tax benefits. As well, there were concerns fathers could insist on children having more overnight stays simply to reduce child support payments.

Under the new rules, instead of child support being based on a non-resident parent's income, it was based on a calculation of what children cost. And instead of reductions in child support payments kicking in when children spent 30 per cent of the week with a non-resident parent they began at 14 per cent, or one overnight visit a week.

''Where judicial officers and mediators were once able to do a quick calculation of child support liability on the back of an envelope, they now need to enter information into the [agency's] online child support/FTB estimator,'' Professor Smyth said.

Few surveyed parents knew that one overnight stay would trigger a 24 per cent reduction in child support. Most did not know the connection between payment and stays, while others thought it took more or fewer nights. About 70 per cent did not understand the rules, less than one in 10 understood the rules correctly and 20 per cent claimed to know the rules but were wrong.

Professor Smyth said the evidence suggested those who bargained over overnight child stays to maximise financial gain were in a minority. But those who did so were likely to be acting out of misinformation and hearsay.

''There might be some dads who want their kids more nights but think they can't afford it because they don't know their child support liabilities will be lower,'' he said. ''And there might be some mums resisting children's extra nights with the father because they have the wrong information about how much money they might lose.''
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