The undeniable links between the Child-Support Scheme, unfair parental alienation and the male-suicide crisis in Australia
Parental Alienation can devastate the relationship between parents and children. It can be a central issue in child custody disputes and it undoubtedly is a leading cause of the disturbing incidence of male suicide in Australia.
There is an undeniable link between the child support scheme and malicious attempts by some parents to eradicate the relationship between the child and the other parent. As noted by The Good Sauce journalist Corrine Barraclough:
‘countless parents are paying child support through the government yet alienated from their children. Given that child support is calculated on the number of nights children spend with each parent, a moral hazard is created that can tempt a primary carer to withhold access for the basest of reasons, money’.
One of the well-known facts about divorce is that children often adapt better to their parents’ separation if they are allowed to have a continuing contact with both of their parents. Indeed, a recurring theme in the field of child psychoanalysis is that children of divorced parents often desire to develop a meaningful relationship with both of their parents, including their non-residential parents.
According to a significant academic article endorsed by 110 leading international experts, it is not correct to assume that sharing overnight care is necessarily problematic for the little child. Written by Richard A. Warshak, it analyses existing research and it finds that little children commonly develop attachment relationships with more than one caregiver. It also finds that, in normal circumstances, children are likely to do considerably better if they have overnight contact with both parents.
Thus the article concludes, beyond reasonable doubt, that:
‘sufficient evidence does not exist to support postponing the introduction of regular and frequent involvement, including overnights, of both parents with their babies and toddlers. The theoretical and practical considerations favouring overnights for most young children are more compelling than concerns that overnights might jeopardise children’s development’.
As mentioned, 110 leading researchers and practitioners have read, provided comments, and offered revisions to Dr Warshak’s article and they endorse his article’s conclusions. This includes Dr Don Edgar, former Foundation Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Judy Cashmore AO, Professor in Socio-Legal Studies at Sydney University, and Barry Nurcombe, Emeritus Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Queensland.
According to Professor Nurcombe:
‘the experts who signed the report are amongst the best in the world in their fields’. As he also explains, ‘the paper highlights the fact that current policies relating to overnight contact with […] young children have been excessively affected by misplaced concern to the mother’.
Here in Australia the Department of Human Services (DoHS) is the federal agency responsible for determining the level of financial support that non-residential parents are expected to pay. The amount required is based on the amount of care received by a child from each parent, which is then determined by the time this child spends with his or her non-residential parent.
Contrary to popular belief, child-support payments have nothing to do with irresponsible fathers abandoning their children. The Child Support Agency was established by federal legislation in 1988 and legislation passed in 1989 imposed a mandatory formula for all parents who separated.
There are some obvious financial advantages available for those who maliciously alienate another parent from their children. Indeed, support payments have become a lucrative reward for a more narcissistic parent who makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the other parent to develop any meaningful relationship with their children.
After all, if the non-residential parent spends a more substantial or meaningful time with his children, then the amount paid to the other parent is lower than it would be if the relationship with that other parent had completely broken down, or if their children were cared for after separation entirely by one parent.
Developed in the late 1980s to oust the jurisdiction of the courts in relation to child support, the scheme was also originally justified as a method of recovering welfare costs, child-support payments have been transformed into a massive subsidy on unilateral divorce.
The child support scheme, writes Patrick Parkinson:
‘was certainly motivated by concerns about growing welfare expenditure’. Indeed, Professor Parkinson notes that such a support scheme ‘was largely driven by the need to ensure … that private transfers of money from fathers to mothers reduced the burden of the state in terms of welfare expenditure’.
As also noted by Professor Parkinson, the child-support scheme provides ‘perverse incentives … for primary caregivers to resist children spending more time with the other parent to avoid a reduction in the child support obligation.’ As far as possible, such ‘perverse incentives need to be avoided, and legislative policies in these areas should be in harmony rather than conflict’, Parkinson says.
Because in a ‘no-fault’ system nobody can contest a unilateral divorce, these support payments are an entitlement to be assessed on parents and even on those who are unwillingly divorced against their will. As a result, a loving parent may be forcibly separated from his or her children, and such payments awarded ostensibly and regardless of any reference to ‘fault’. As noted by U.S. sociology professor Stephen Baskerville:
No-fault divorce allowed a mother to divorce her husband for any reason or no reason and to take the children with her. Child support took the process a step further by allowing the divorcing mother to use the now-fatherless children to claim her husband’s income – also regardless of any fault on her part (or lack of fault on his) in abrogating the marriage agreement.
Across Australia, many parents are being told in mediation sessions or by lawyers that there is no hope of overnight contact with their children. In view of the financial reward acquired, the position of some parents is that the other parent should spend the littlest time possible with their children.
A parent holding temporary custody may decide to procrastinate custody litigation so as to prevent the other parent’s access to their children. When this awful situation occurs, a loving parent may completely lose access to their children through no fault or agreement of their volition.
As noted by Bettina Arndt, who has served on two federal committees concerned with children support and family law:
‘thousands of Australian fathers have had their contact with their young children limited to a few hours often spend huge sums on lawyers, fighting to be able to care for their children overnight’.
At the present time more women than men file divorce applications, which could be interpreted as a stronger wish by women than men to divorce under the current no-fault rules. There is indeed some evidence that expectations of child custody may be factor influencing women to initiate divorce proceedings.
As noted by Dr Barry Maley:
‘it’s clear that many more women today can contemplate divorce with greater confidence that the benefits might outweigh the losses – subject to the material and emotional costs of divorce.’ By contrast, he writes, a crucial issue for men ‘is the risk of separation from their children and loss of regular contact after divorce if residence and primary care rests with the mother’.
‘For men, a particular cause of dismay and anger at divorce may be the loss or partial loss of contact with children they have loved, protected, and helped raise’, Dr Maley says.
According to Sir Paul Coleridge, a former High Court Judge in the United Kingdom,
‘mothers who refuse to let separated fathers see their children should have them taken away. The children should be handed over to the full time care of the father if the mother persistently defies court orders’.
In the United Kingdom, around 5,000 new cases a year come before the family courts in which parents – almost always mothers – defy orders to let the other parent have contact. Judges are extremely reluctant to jail such parents because of the damaging effects on the children, so many continue to get away with it. And yet, as Justice Coleridge points out, ‘occasionally it might be necessary to send a mother to jail.
What is happening is not merely an accident but the product of a radical ideology that has declared open war on the institution of marriage. As stated in a January 2015 submission of the Australian Family Association (AFA) to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Child Support Program, submissions lodged to that same inquiry by woman groups’ have displayed a remarkable lack of consideration or recognition of the problems that non-residential parents might face.
In its comprehensive review of all these submissions, the Australian Family Association noted that ‘the payer appears to be recognised as only a financial source’, observing that ‘some of the woman groups are open about the fact that they provide services to women based on gender equality and/or a feminist framework’.
It is worth also noting what such “feminist framework” essentially means. According to the Australian Family Association,
Radical feminists regard [traditional] marriage … as a “patriarchal” institution based on gender inequality and the division of labour between men and women. In this context the transfer of money between the payer man and the payee woman is essentially viewed as compensation to be expected and earned for every woman who separates from her male “oppressor”. Hence, it is not surprising that women groups emphasise the “oppressor” male with repetitive claims about financial manipulation and domestic violence. Of course most of these claims are based on reports and generally we can never know which claims might be true or not true. Also with this categorising of the “oppressor” male the male’s (father’s) contact with the children has no importance. The feminist view appears to be that children are “all-right” without contact with the father. This situation perhaps explains the assertion by [one of these submissions] about fathers not having contact with children.
By contrast, the AFA noted how the father groups had a special focus on the parallel of child contact and child financial support. These submissions reveal an alarming level of suicides by post-separation fathers who are alienated from their children.
One such submission reminded members of that inquiry that ‘over 1 million children are living without their fathers and that … the legislation underpinning the Family Court of Australia and the Child Support Agency has been a major factor contributing to the fatherlessness crisis’. After analysing the suicide rate amongst non-residential fathers, that submission reported that ‘the death rate amongst child support payer fathers is almost double the rate of Australian males who do not have administrative child support assessments’.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that the suicide rate for men aged 20 to 39 years has risen by 70 per cent over the last two decades. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1,901 males (16.8 per 100,000) and 634 females (5.6 per 100,000) died by suicide in 2012 alone.
This finding has been highlighted in an academic paper by Susan Beaton and Peter Forster. Published by the Australian Psychological Society, these two experts in suicide preventions explain that ‘suicide is the number one killer of men under 44 years’ in Australia, and that the dramatic increase in male suicide is at least partially due to ‘marriage breakdown ‘coupled with ‘poorer social support among … divorced males’.
Suicide is therefore much more prevalent among Australian males than Australian females, which is consistent with current trends observed particularly in other western countries.
Of course, if a similar rise in female suicides were also occurring, one may assume that there would be a public outcry and a demand for remedy. Yet the extraordinarily high rate of male suicide is rarely discussed.
According to a round of studies carried out in America, Europe, and Australia, one fundamental reason for the dramatic increase in male suicide is the apparent discrimination encountered by fathers in the family courts, especially the denial of any access to their children.
According to sociology professor Augustine Kpsowa of the University of California at Riverside, divorce following the loss of contact with their children has become a major factor of male suicide. ‘As far as the divorced man is concerned, he has lost his marriage and lost his children and that can lead to depression and suicide’, he says.
The primary purpose of Professor Kpsowa’s seminal study was to examine the effect of marital status on the risk of suicide. Using a large nationally representative sample he noted that the risk of suicide among divorced men was 2.4 times higher than that of their married counterparts.
Amongst women, however, there was actually no statistically significant differentials in the risk of suicide by marital status categories. Indeed, divorced men were nearly 9.7 times more likely to commit suicide than comparable divorced women.
This leads to the natural conclusion that marital status, especially divorce followed by the loss of assess to children, has strong net effect on mortality from suicide but ‘only among men’. Thus an important question arises: ‘Why are divorced men killing themselves?’
Professor Kpsowa tries to answer to this important question:
Some analysts argue that societal institutions tend to ignore or minimise male problems as evident in suicide statistics. For instance, in many jurisdictions … there seems to be an implicit assumption that the bound between a women and her children is stronger than that between a man and his children. As a consequence, in a divorce settlement, custody of children is more likely to be given to the wife.
In the end, the father loses not only his marriage, but his children. The result may be anger at the court system especially in situations wherein the husband feels betrayed because it was the wife that initiated the divorce, or because the courts virtually gave away everything that was previously owned by the ex-husband or the now defunct household to the former wife.
Events could spiral into resentment (toward the spouse and “the system”), bitterness, anxiety, and depression, reduced self-esteem, and a sense of “life not worth living”. As depression and poor mental health are known markers of suicide risk, it may well be that one of the fundamental reasons for the observed association between divorce and suicide in men is the impact of post divorce (court sanctioned) “arrangements”.
This explanation helps us understand what happened to people like Martin Romanchick, the police officer who hanged himself after being denied access due to charges brought by his ex-wife, which the court found to be frivolous.
Or to Darryn White, the loving and caring father who hanged himself after being denied access to his children because he could not afford paying child support that was twice his take-home pay.
In a letter signed ‘In Memory of My Loving Father’, his distressed 14 year-old daughter stated: ‘I know my father was a good man and a good father … He obviously reached a point where he could see that justice was beyond his reach and decided that taking his life was the only way to end his suffering’.
Of course, the problem is not restricted to Australia.
In the UK, a study commissioned by the Samaritans involving eleven leading social scientists concluded that marriage breakdown and a family court system perceived to favour women with the custody of children and the family home (even where these men are unemployed and have nowhere else to go) are significant factors in the suicide of countless men.
When marriages fail, the research paper concluded, ‘men are less likely to be awarded full custody of their children, more likely to be displaced from the family home and have less access to their children’. This means the loss of personal identity, social status and respect. Adding to loneliness and the natural isolation of so many men in their mid-life, these are significant causes the high risk of male suicide.
According to David Collier, a retiring judge from the Parramatta Family Court, false accusations of domestic violence have now become a ‘major weapon’ in the war between parents who wish to secure full custody of their children.
A common strategy in these false accusations is to apply for a restraining order. Family Violence Orders (FVOs) are a common strategy for the purposes of generating parental alienation. Such orders are easily obtainable and they can be used to alienate an innocent parent from their children.
The residential parent only has to defame the other parent without the slightest need of proof. Such accusations completely tear apart entire families, all on the word of one person and with no need of evidence. As noted by Dr Adam Blanch, a family counsellor and psychologist working in Melbourne,
The more a single parent can restrict the other parent’s access to the children the more financial support they receive from the alienated parent and the government, and a restraining order even when based on allegations that have been unsubstantiated is a great weapon in the fight for primary custody and restricted access.
Of course, maliciously separating an innocent parent from his or her children (so as to obtain undue financial gain in the form of child-support payment) constitutes an extremely serious form of child abuse. Perpetrators of such allegations should not go unpunished, as is so often the situation now.
It is fundamentally a matter of justice that those who irresponsibly refuse to let separated partners see their biological children should be punished by the law, and not financially reward as it’s currently the situation. And since parental alienation is a leading cause of male suicide that grossly violates the most elementary principles of equity and fairness, the child-support scheme must be entirely abolished, for the sake of the Australian people, children and innocent parents in particular.
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Dr Augusto Zimmermann PhD, LLM, LLB, DipEd, CertIntArb is Professor and Head of Law at Sheridan Institute of Higher Education in Perth/WA, and Professor of Law (Adjunct) at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney campus. He is President of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA), and former Law Reform Commissioner with the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia, from 2012-2017 (appointed by then state Attorney-General Christian Porter). Dr Zimmermann was chair and professor of Constitutional Law at Murdoch University from 2007 to 2017.
 Corrine Barraclough, ‘Dad to the Bone’, The Daily Telegraph, July 26, 2019.
 Judith Wallerstein and Joan Kelly, Surving the Break Up (New York/NY: Basic Books, 1980)
 Richard A. Warshak, ‘Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report’ (2014) 20 (1) Psychology, Public Policy and Law (American Psychological Association) pp 46-67
 Ibid., p 46.
 Bettina Arndt, ‘Empty Days, Lonely Nights’, The Sydney Morning Herald, April 28, 2014.
 Patrick Parkinson, Family Law and the Indissolubility of Parenthood (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p 223.
 Ibid., p 219. See also: Stephen Parker and Margaret Harrison, ‘Child Support in Australia: Children’s Rights or Public Interest?’, (1991) 5 International Journal of Law and Family 24.
 Parkinson, above n. 7, p 235.
 Ibid., p 236.
 Stephen Baskerville, ‘Divorced from Reality’, Touchstone Magazine, January/February 2009.
 Bettina Arndt, #MenToo (Melbourne/Vic: Wilkinson Publishing, 2018), pp 284 and 290.
 Barry Maley, Divorce Law & the Future of Marriage (Sydney/NSW: Centre for Independent Studies, 2003), p 12.
 Ibid. p 14.
 Ibid., p 49.
 Ibid., p 62.
 ‘Top judge says mothers should have children taken away if they don’t let fathers see them’, Daily Mail, 2 February 2016, at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1333549/Top-judge-says-mothers-children-taken-away-dont-let-fathers-them.html
 The Australian Family Association, ‘Submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Child Support Program’, 31 January 2015, p 6.
 Wendy McElroy, ‘Are Fathers’ Rights a Factor in Male Suicide’, Fox News, January 15, 2015, at https://www.foxnews.com/story/are-fathers-rights-a-factor-in-male-suicide
 Susan Beaton and Peter Forster, ‘Insights into Men’s Suicide’, Australian Psychological Society, August 2012, at https://www.psychology.org.au/inpsych/2012/august/beaton/
 Augustine J Kpsowa, ‘Marital Status and Suicide in the National Longitudinal Mortality Study’ (2000) 54 Journal of Epidemical Community Health 254-261, p 254.
 Augustine J Kpsowa, ‘PostScript: Divorce and Suicide Risk’ (2003) 57 Journal of Epidemical Community Health 993.
 McElroy, above n.28.
 Clare Wyllie, Stephen Platt, Julie Brownlie, Amy Chandler, Sheelah Connolly, Rhiannon Evans, Brendan Kennelly, Olivia Kirtley, Graham Moore, Rory O’Connor and Jonathan Scourfield, ‘Men, Suicide and Society: Why Disadvantaged Men in Mid-Life Die by Suicide’, Samaritans Research Report, September 2012, p. 43.
 ‘Men and Suicide: Why It’s a Social Issue’, Samaritans, July 2015 p 10.
 Wyllie et al, above n.30.
 Harriet Alexander, ‘False Abuse Claims are the New Court Weapon’, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney/NSW, July 6, 2013 <http://www.smh.com.au/national/false-abuse-claims-are-the-new-court-weapon-retiring-judge-says-20130705-2phao.html#ixzz31YnbCik0>.
 Adam Blanch, ‘Vigilante Justice: Feminism’s Latest Attack on Human Rights’, On Line Opinion – Australia’s E-Journal of Social and Political Debate, 22 August 2014.