Child support debts have surpassed $1.63 billion in Australia, leaving children in single parent families missing out when payments are late, sporadic or don't come at all.
The recorded figure of debt only includes payments managed through the Department of Human Services' Child Support Agency and not those made privately, so is likely to be higher, a new study has found. More than half of child support payments are not managed through the department, meaning those debts can't be measured.
The study, a joint project between Swinburne University and the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children, has recommended changes to the complex child support system, including the way the Family Tax Benefit is calculated and forcing both parents to lodge tax returns every year.
A survey with 468 female respondents found only 41 per cent said their ex-partner regularly lodged tax returns and another 47 per cent said their partner did not and it had a negative impact on the amount of child support owed. In many cases a parent's tax return is used to calculate how much child support should be paid.
About 80 per cent of single-parent households are headed by women, and although there are some single fathers who receive payments from their ex-partners, this survey only had one male respondent.
Many respondents reported issues with getting the right payment from their ex-partner but also issues with dealing with the bureaucracy associated with child support, including proving changes in their circumstances to the Department of Human Services.
A quarter of respondents whose ex-partner had a child support debt said they felt their case had been put in the "too-hard basket" and 21 per cent said they were made to feel they should be grateful for any collection of the debt, even if it was partial.
Only 4 per cent said the department had provided clear information about the debt and when it would be collected.
Two-thirds of respondents said they struggled with school fees, books and uniforms when payments were late or didn't come, and 64 per cent said they had difficulty paying bills and buying groceries.
More than 40 per cent said their child missed medical appointments or other healthcare needs if childcare wasn't paid.
"It is a nightmare not knowing when the next payment is coming or how much it will be. He still controls me financially by withholding child support," one respondent said.
Chief executive of the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children Terese Edwards said the survey showed women put up with late and sporadic payments because the system was so difficult to deal with.
"There are some really basic solutions," Ms Edwards said.
"It's not that they're too challenging, we just haven't found the political will to make a change.
"With a quarter of Australian children touched by the Australian child support scheme, it warrants such attention, it shouldn't be on the margins."
Ms Edwards said the new parliamentary inquiry into the Family Law system needed to look at child support payments.
"What we've found in past inquiries is the loudest voices have been heard and when you speak on behalf of women who are contending with housing stress and hardship and domestic violence, we are not one of those voices and we need to make sure there's equity at the table."