Weblog archive for July 2004

1st July 2004

Man wrongly traced via Friends Reunited!

I couldn't believe the CSA could act like this without checking the facts first. What sort of place are they running when an honest, married bloke, who has never been unfaithful, can suddenly be accused by a person they have never met before and be expected to prove they are not the father? 

Stephen Williamson

We can not comment on individual cases. However, if a parent is alleging paternity and that is being denied, we would go back to the parent and make sure they are absolutely certain it is the right person. 

CSA spokesman

This could have been worse! It is not clear that there was much else the CSA could do. The option of a DNA test is given with costs refunded if negative.

A POSTMAN found himself at the centre of a bogus love child row after using the Friends Reunited website to trace old school pals. Stephen Williamson described his ordeal after being falsely accused by a woman of fathering a child during a trip to the Canary Islands he never made.... he was stunned to receive an e-mail from the woman who claimed she met him on a holiday to Gran Canaria in 1994. She said that he was the father of her child.

But today, Stephen's wife Jane revealed he received a phone call from the CSA late last night telling him to "rip up" all the documents as there had been a mistake.

How can the CSA tell the difference between a man such as Stephen who is wrongly accused, and a father who doesn't want to pay child support? The easiest way is via a DNA test, and this doesn't rely on any adversarial procedure such as a court.

But the impact and suspicion of being contacted by the CSA has been known to put marriages under lots of strain, and has caused relationships to break. The news articles summarised on this site record a number of such cases.

2nd July 2004

Complaints about CSA to Independent Case Examiner 50% up

Given the time delay between the initial recording of a complaint by the Agency and its subsequent referral to my office, we saw few complaints about new scheme cases until the last quarter of the year. However, the spiralling numbers of these referrals gives me cause for concern. These cases serve as an early warning of problems, which are likely to generate further complaints unless urgent measures are taken. 

Jodi Berg, Independent Case Examiner

... we made numerous recommendations to the Agency about what it should do to put matters right for individual clients.... However, there have ... been occasions when its response has met neither the aspirations of clients nor my own expectations. In a number of these cases it has fallen to the Parliamentary Ombudsman to negotiate a reasonable outcome and it is disappointing that it has been necessary for people to take this extra step. 

Jodi Berg, Independent Case Examiner

... the findings are the first official warning sign of the chaos building in the child support system. It is time the Government admitted the CSA has been a shambles since it started and should be scrapped. 

Steve Webb, Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman

It is clear that the consequences of the failings in the new computer system are getting out of control. The inability to record details of customer contact will cause problems for those cases for years. If calculations are done manually, they may be hard to transfer into the system later.

Although the Independent Case Examiner managed to find bits of good news, the overall picture is of an agency that cannot do what it exists to do, largely (but not entirely) because its systems don't work properly.

Some quotes from the report and news reports:

"Regrettably, problems that have arisen with the computer system have affected every part of the process. In particular, new cases, which have connections to others already being dealt with by the Agency under the old legislative rules, have been subject to persistent system failures".

"One of the key concerns with the IT system highlighted in the report is the inability of CSA staff to record details of customer contact on the system. Previously they could record text notes to detail communications with customers. The result of this is that discussions with customer, details of advice given, action instigated and commitments made by the Agency are not generally recorded. As a consequence, when customers telephone the Agency to check on progress, the person dealing with them is unable to determine this from the management information system. This situation is unsatisfactory to customer and staff, and will undoubtedly result in complaints".

"The Agency has contingency measures to provide a clerical calculation of maintenance if necessary, but this course of action is not taken lightly. The management of the calculation and collection of maintenance without the assistance of a modern computer system is not without risk, and the Agency is currently unable to say how it could return a clerically processed application to the computer-managed system"

As the Independent says: "The Government has tried to improve the performance of the CSA, dogged by controversy since it was set up in 1993. It has been criticised for hounding absentee fathers and wrongly assessing the level of individual maintenance payments. It has also been under fire for revealing confidential information and amassing a backlog of cases".

5th July 2004

Child ruling favours father denied contact

Here is a sign that things can be done properly. But even this case needed a lot of provocation before the judge made the ruling.

There was constant litigation since the year 2000, which has involved 17 court orders and directions and 16 judges. Eventually, Mrs Justice Bracewell, a senior High Court judge has ordered two children to be taken from their divorced mother and sent to live with their father after she persistently flouted contact orders.

The judge said:

"... the courts did not have the tools they needed when faced with "the unreasonable mother or sometimes the unreasonable father who can flout or frustrate orders with impunity unless they are sent to prison". Prison was unsatisfactory: a child might have to go into foster care and perhaps blame one parent for having the other locked up. A fine was rarely possible because the child's welfare might suffer. Transferring residence to the other parent was not always possible because he or she might not be in a position to provide full-time care."

However, the assumption there appears to be that this would happen every time. First, of course, the other parent should be asked if they can provide full-time care, instead of assuming they can't. But if the policy were to impose severe sanctions, such as imprisonment for contempt of court, then perhaps the word would get around! It is only because parents "know" that they will get away with it that they keep doing it.

This needs a policy change so that contact denial is seen to be dangerous, to act as a deterrent. Perhaps this will become apparent in the consultation on the topic.

17th July 2004

"From Here to Paternity" - BBC1, Tuesday 20th July, 22:35

The BBC is running a hour-long programme about "concealed paternity". This is a topic that has been covered a lot on this web site.

In Britain a shockingly high proportion of children are raised by fathers (sic) who are unaware they are caring for another man's progeny. 

Radio Times

"If you are a dad, how do you know for certain that your child is definitely yours? The brutal truth is that you don't, unless you're one of the growing number of fathers who have their children DNA tested. And for quite a few, the results can be shocking. This programme investigates the alarming number of women who are falling short of the truth when it comes to who's fathering their children, and hears some incredible stories from parents and children alike.

"From Here to Paternity raises some uncomfortable questions. Should a woman always tell her man if she knows her baby has been fathered by someone else? What happens when the man who thinks he's dad finds out the truth? And how do people feel when they find out their dad isn't their real dad after all?

"Mixing real life stories and dramatised sequences based on authentic taped interviews, this film reaches into one of the great taboos and reveals the heartache that lies at the bottom of concealed paternity, which research suggests has touched a family in almost every street in Britain."

19th July 2004

Some news reports about consultation on parental access

They are not going to provide a legal presumption of shared parenting and unless you have got that balance, that equality within the system, then you can't mediate because there is a gun against your head as the non-resident parent. 

Gary Birch of Fathers 4 Justice

There should be a "strong presumption" in favour of equal rights for parents to have an influence on the upbringing of their children. 

Conservative party leader Michael Howard

The proposals now being considered have the support of the leading family court judges. 

BBC's Graham Satchell

The BBC appears to have caught up with proposals to consider changes to the way parental access is determined.

"The government is planning to change the family court system to give both parents more access to their children after divorce, the BBC has learned. A new green paper will propose giving both parents "frequent and continuous contact" with their children.

But fathers' rights campaigners have complained that the changes would not enshrine "shared parenting" in law.

On 19th March 2004 the DfES made available the results of a survey commissioned by the then Lord Chancellor's Department from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to assess the levels of contact between children and non-resident parents. The survey provided baseline data for future comparisons and was carried out as part of the ONS Omnibus Survey. The Omnibus Survey is a multi-purpose survey based on a representative sample of adults aged 16 or over. The report is based on 935 adults. 649 were resident parents 312 were non-resident parents and 26 respondents were both (so are counted in both categories).

21st July 2004

"From here to Paternity" - conclusions from the BBC programme

In psychological terms, the truth, on the whole, however painful and uncomfortable, works better for the human psyche. Deception erodes confidence in our own judgments and our relationships with other people, and that always has destructive consequences to larger or smaller degrees. Generally, human beings cope better with the truth. 

Petruska Clarkson, Consultant Psychologist.

This programme had no surprises for anyone who has studied this issue. Articles and papers on this web site have already covered most of the ground. On average, perhaps up to 10% of paternities are "misattributed", and would be unexpected by those who thought they were the fathers. (That is perhaps 2 or 3 children in each class). But it was useful to give the issue wider publicity.

Before the broadcast, Times Online said:

"Many children have not been fathered by the person they call Dad - a conservative estimate puts the figure at one child in 20. The dilemma facing the mother is whether to come clean, especially in an age of cheap DNA testing. From Here to Paternity looks at a number of different case studies (including that of the Fretwell brothers), but offers no easy answers. A clinical psychologist suggests that people generally cope better with the truth, especially since secrets have a tendency not to stay secret. On the other hand, one mother who told the truth said that nothing good came of it. Heads you lose, tails you lose."

But the mother would say that, wouldn't she? The truth had an adverse immediate impact on her. But she was not the only one involved, and perhaps part of the trouble was the delay before the truth came out. The consequence is called "narrative wreckage" - the destruction of the life-assumptions that men and children have built up over the years. It is painful for both of them, and some of the people who appeared on the programme illustrated just how devastating it can be not to have a reliable father-child link.

What the programme didn't do was suggest any solutions. Like many commentators on this topic, it was concerned with later consequences, not with how to reduce the problem over (say) the next generation despite the increasing availability of paternity testing. Some people short-sightedly think the problem is with the availability of paternity tests! No - it starts long before the paternity test.

Adultery is unlikely to stop! But this matter is a bit like the problem of drink-driving - you won't stop either drinking or driving, but you don't have to mix them. And so a way forward is to reduce the incidence of the mixing of affairs and offspring. Whatever one's views about adultery, it is surely far worse to have a child as a result, with a potential blight on the lives of both the child and the purported-father. It should be seen as socially unacceptable as drink-driving.

Within years, there will be a new generation of male contraceptives. Unobtrusive, reliable, safe, and reversible. The next generation of people who will be having those children are still at school. Perhaps they need to learn "if you can't be faithful, at least be careful".

Although the following is not about "concealed paternity", it shows just how much paternity matters to some men. (And it has the same title!)

The paternity testing company mentioned on the programme has long been included in this web site's list of companies providing various types of paternity testing services:

22nd July 2004

"Parental Separation: Children's Needs and Parents' Responsibilities" - consultation starts

Speak now, or forever hold your peace!

Quote from the consultation section of the web site for the Department of Constitutional Affairs:

"The Green Paper, published by the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Department for Trade and Industry, sets out a series of proposals designed to improve outcomes for children who experience the separation of their parents. The proposals focus strongly on what children need and how parents can be better assisted to meet those needs during and after relationship breakdown.

"Parental Separation: Children's Needs and Parents Responsibilities" was issued for a 3-month public consultation on 21 July 2004. Comments on the the Government's proposals are welcomed and they must reach us by 1 November 2004. Please send your comments to:

Parental Relationship Breakdown Consultation Team
Department for Constitutional Affairs
4th Floor Selborne House
54 Victoria Street
London
WC1E 6QW

Or e-mail: consult.childrensneeds@dca.gsi.gov.uk

Documents can be obtained in the following formats from the two links above:

  • PDF - 384 kilobytes
  • Word - 1.51 megabytes
  • Word, summary of proposals and questions - 44 kilobytes

I'll publish more here later. I have already published some reactions to the proposals. I have experience of responding to consultation documents, and I will publish guidelines if I believe that my experience is applicable to this case. My initial view is that this is not a genuine consultation, it is a provisional proposal. Instead of seeking views in order to develop proposals, it has come to fairly firm decisions and has no intention of seeking a structured response to them.

Here are some news items about this consultation document:

There is another related consultation currently running (as reported here on May 28th). This consultation paper seeks views on whether the United Kingdom should sign and ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Contact Concerning Children. The consultation is aimed at those with an interest in cross-border contact issues.

23rd July 2004

Ombudsman annual report criticises the CSA - yet again

The problem is how to make this interesting. It is so predictable - it gives the CSA a bad report every year!

Ann Abraham, Parliamentary Ombudsman, says:

"Today public bodies are being put under unprecedented pressure to improve and modernise. We demand a lot from them and sometimes they do not deliver. This is not surprising. But when it happens, people expect to have their concerns addressed appropriately and promptly by the body concerned. They expect government bodies to learn from mistakes and it is right that they should do so. But too often, as I show in this report, this is simply not the case. Time and again I have seen examples of complaints which would never have come to me if they had been dealt with properly in the first place. Too often, complaints are not dealt with speedily, even when investigations are initiated by my Office....

I am particularly disappointed this year to see large scale changes in government services, underpinned by significant IT projects, introduced yet again without abiding by the principles of good administration. Too little preparation time, not enough planning and no piloting has resulted in many people suffering stress and hardship. Criticism of government's approach to handling major changes with significant IT implications has already been made elsewhere and many of the complaints we received this year reveal the human cost. Importantly, when systems do go wrong, as in the introduction of New Tax Credits and at the Child Support Agency, robust plans should be put in place to ensure that redress is available where appropriate....

We received 222 complaints about the Agency during 2003-04, an increase of 5% on the previous year. The complex nature of child support complaints means that we are more likely to initiate statutory investigations into complaints about the Agency than about other agencies and departments. We completed 21 statutory investigations during the year....

As in previous years, common themes from complaints included failure to pursue effective enforcement, delay and mishandling, failure to keep customers informed and compensation issues. Such problems can have a serious impact on the Agency's customers: one or both parents may feel that they have been unfairly treated and that the system has failed them and their families."

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