A man who received 37 letters from the Child Support Agency in one day is not an isolated case, with the public service outfit battling for years to control a computer system that just cannot stop spewing out correspondence.
Complaints bureau the Commonwealth Ombudsman has been trying for at least six years to stem the tsunami of paper coming from the Child Support Agency to fathers with family law groups describing the volume of letters as "staggering".
The West Australian man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, says he has been deluged with thousands of letters from the agency since his marriage broke up in 2010 with the frenzy of correspondence reaching a crescendo in 2013 when he was hit with 228 "assessment administrative notices" in just three months.
On one day, the father's letterbox groaned under the weight of 37 letters from the CSA.
The Department of Human Services, which runs the Child Support Agency, conceded on Thursday that the amount of automatically-generated letters coming from CSA "can be confusing"
But the department said a new system, which it hopes will be in place in the next 13 months, should solve the problem.
The blizzard of paper surrounding the father abated somewhat after the Commonwealth Ombudsman intervened in 2013, with the federal watchdog itself inundated by complaints by fathers struggling to cope under the volume of letters from the CSA.
Family law groups say the WA case is extreme, but not isolated, with many fathers reporting that 15 to 17 letters from the CSA in one day as a common occurrence.
Mr Butler said the simple act of a father filing a tax return might trigger a process that would see five or six letters dispatched from the CS's system.
Advocate and parents rights campaigner Wayne Butler of the Shared Parenting Council of Australia saidMy colleagues and I encountered many fathers who were struggling to cope with all the letters.The amount of material that comes out from the CSA is quite staggering.
A Human Services spokeswoman acknowledged there was a problem but said customers had the choice of opting out of the mail system and conducting their transactions online.
Wayne Butler saidIt definitely hasn't been sorted out and it's got a long way to go. In the case raised in WA we would write letters to the Child Support Agency daily to try to respond to the deluge of letters. I think in the end it was so complex, extensive and had gone on so long that even the WA Ombudsman gave up. I can say that this case was so bad it was causing the father to become ill and in the end he gave up both the CS fight and the children. I recall this case and have to say it was overwhelming dealing with the numerous errors in the balances over many years.It would take someone full time some months to write up the history and detail the vast number of issues that this case traversed.If you get 15 to 20 letters from the Child Support Agency in a day, which one do you respond to?There's no specific reference number on any of the individual letters, it's a debacle, an absolute travesty, the way they operate.
The spokeswoman said the agency was pinning its hopes on a new IT system which it hoped would be in place by mid-2016.
A Human Services spokeswoman saidThe Department of Human Services acknowledges that customers will sometimes receive multiple items of computer generated correspondence and that at times this can be confusingThe department is legally obliged to notify customers of changes to their child support assessment and other important information via correspondence.Customers can choose to receive correspondence through a range of channels including online, the Child Support phone app or by surface mail.
Mr Butler, speaking on behalf of the Shared Parenting Council was less optimistic.
The spokeswomen saidThe department is currently working to deliver a new Child Support system which will improve and modernise service delivery for Child Support customersThe system is expected to be delivered in the 2015-2016 financial year.Part of the new system design is a review of customer correspondence.
Wayne Butler saidIt is not at all as simple as the department makes out and choosing to receive your correspondences on line can be even more catastrophic than getting letters in the mail. The on line system has been fraught with very serious issues now for many years, although it is getting better, it is no where up to what can be expected for an on line application that delivers the sort of service customers in the Child Support system should expect. Systems like those delivered by the Commonwealth Netbank system are light years ahead. We also wonder if it is time to seriously consider passing account collection and on line management to the ATO, and focus the other elements of Child Support into social services, mediation centres and more closely aligned to Centrelink functions.It is simply not possible to do all business with the Child Support system on a mobile phone application. It is certainly practical to find out the balance owed but impossible to deal with multiple correspondences, Change of Assessment, Objections and letters relating to erroneous balances, overdue charges and the numerous representation that are required to be made when any variation to assessment is made that is unexpected or problematic.A significant issue is that you have to opt out of one or the other. You cannot have the luxury of having an on line account and receiving statements and correspondence in the mail. The other key point we have been raising for years is the complete lack of identification in relation to any of the correspondence. This makes it very difficult and extremely frustrating for the customers in the system when they have to correspond with Child Support to try and match up responses with different letters and assessments.The proposed future IT system may well deliver significant changes but it needs significant input from the clients who are receiving volumes of paper letters and it needs to resolve the issues of outstanding balances that lie unresolved for years. We have a number of complex Child Support cases from time to time and certainly managing the account in some cases is far more problematic than it needs to be.Some clients in the system simply give up … not only the Child Support fight to get their account sorted out and some resolution, but they give up their children as well, as it is too great a burden to deal with the stresses of family law matters and a complex and monolithic child support system that simply overwhelms and consumes their whole life