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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1999  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/06/1999   
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Contents >> Family >> Living Arrangements: Caring for children after parents separate

Living Arrangements: Caring for children after parents separate

In April 1997, there were 978,000 Australian children who were living with one natural parent and who had a natural parent living elsewhere. The vast majority (88%) lived with their natural mother in either one-parent families (68%) or in step or blended families (20%).

The family is the fundamental social unit for the care and nurture of children. However the capacity to care for children can come under extreme stress when the parents' relationship breaks down and the family unit is split due to separation or divorce. A key objective of family law and government social policy in Australia is to ensure the ongoing care and wellbeing of children after their parents separate. The Child Support Agency was set up in 1988 to ensure that children of separated parents receive adequate financial support, and that both parents share the cost of supporting their children according to their capacity to pay.1 Family law reforms introduced in 1996 reinforce the rights of children to have regular contact with both parents and emphasise joint parental responsibility for children following separation.2


Family Characteristics Survey

The statistics on living arrangements, parental care arrangements and child support payments presented in this article are derived from the ABS Family Characteristics Survey, 1997. They relate to children with a natural parent living elsewhere.

Children with a natural parent living elsewhere refers to children under 18 years of age who live with one natural parent, either in a one-parent family, a step-family or blended family, and have another natural parent who is not usually resident in the same household.

Natural parent/child refers to a parent/child, each of whom is related to the other by either birth or adoption.

Usual resident refers to a person who has lived, or intends to live, with the household for a total of six months or more and regards it as his or her own (or main) household.

Step-family refers to a couple family with one or more children, at least one of whom is the natural child of either partner but not of the other (step child), and none of whom is the natural child of both partners.

Blended family refers to a couple family with two or more children, of whom at least one is the natural child of both partners, and at least one is the step-child of either partner.



Children with a natural parent living elsewhere
When parents separate, the children generally live with one parent, usually their mother, but may continue to have contact with the other parent on a more or less regular basis. In April 1997, there were 978,000 Australian children who were living with one natural parent and who had a natural parent living elsewhere. The vast majority (88%) lived with their mother in either one-parent families (68%) or in step or blended families (20%).

Children of all ages were more likely to live with their mother than their father, and this was particularly so for younger children. In 1997, 96% of 0-4 year olds, 89% of 5-11 year olds and 82% of 12-17 year olds whose parents had separated were living with their mother. Boys aged 12-17 were more likely to live with their natural father than girls of the same age (21% compared to 15%). In the younger age groups, there was little difference in the proportions of boys and girls who lived with their father.

CHILDREN WITH A NATURAL PARENT LIVING ELSEWHERE, APRIL 1997

Age of child (years)

0-4
5-11
12-17
Total
%
%
%
%

Living with natural mother
95.9
89.2
81.8
87.9
    One-parent family
88.7
69.7
54.6
68.2
    Step-family
5.6
10.7
15.3
11.3
    Blended family
1.5*
8.8
11.9
8.4
Living with natural father
4.1
10.8
18.2
12.1
    One-parent family
3.7
8.7
12.6
9.1
    Step-family
* *
* *
3.7
2.0
    Blended family
* *
* *
1.9
1.1
Total with a natural parent living elsewhere
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0

'000
'000
'000
'000
Total with a natural parent living elsewhere
207.9
409.8
360.8
978.4

Source: Unpublished data, Family Characteristics Survey, April 1997.


Contact with natural parent living elsewhere
It is generally agreed that, in most cases, children are better off when they have an ongoing relationship with both their parents, even after their parents have separated. A recent report3 by the Family Law Council concluded that ‘Most children want and need contact with both parents. Their long term development, education, capacity to adjust and self esteem can be detrimentally affected by the long-term or permanent absence of a parent from their lives. The wellbeing of children is generally advanced by their maintaining links with both parents as much as possible.’

In 1997, 3% of children whose parents had separated were in a shared care arrangement, (i.e. each natural parent cared for the child for at least 30% of the time). The vast majority (97%) were in a sole care arrangement (i.e. the natural parent with whom they lived cared for them for more than 70% of the time). Of those children in a sole care arrangement, 42% spent time with their other natural parent fortnightly or more frequently. However, over one third (36%) saw their other natural parent rarely (once a year or less) or never. Of those children (aged two years or older) who saw their other natural parent rarely or never, 33% had some contact by telephone or letter.

As children get older they are less likely to see their other natural parent on a frequent basis. In 1997, more than half of 0-4 year olds in a sole care arrangement visited their other natural parent fortnightly or more often. The proportion declined with age to about a third of 12-17 year olds. This may be due to a number of factors which can come into play as time passes after separation, including the increasing independence of children, conflicting commitments of children and the non-resident parent, a change in locality of either household, or the repartnering of either parent. Older children (with a natural parent living elsewhere) are more likely than their younger counterparts to be living in step or blended families. In 1997, 33% of those aged 12-17 years were living in step or blended families compared to 8% of 0-4 year olds.

FREQUENCY OF VISITS(a), APRIL 1997

%

Daily
4.4
Weekly
22.2
Fortnightly
15.6
Monthly
7.6
Once every three months
8.7
Once every six months
5.3
Once a year
5.4
Less than once a year/never
30.5
Total(b)
100.0

(a) With natural parent living elsewhere.
(b) Children in sole care arrangement.

Source: Family Characteristics, Australia (cat. no. 4442.0).


Shared parental responsibility

The Family Law Reform Act 1995, which came into effect in June 1996, made significant changes to the concepts used in the Family Law Act in relation to caring for children after the separation of their parents. In order to better reflect its focus on the needs and rights of the children, rather than the rights of parents, the traditional concepts of custody, access and guardianship were replaced by a broader concept of parental responsibility.4

The new principles now set out in section 60B(2) of the Family Law Act are that, except where it is or would be contrary to a child's best interests:
  • children have a right to know and be cared for by both parents;
  • children have a right of contact, on a regular basis, with both parents and any other person significant to the care, welfare and development of the child;
  • parents share the duties and responsibilities concerning the care, welfare and development of the child; and
  • parents should agree about the future parenting of the child.4

FORTNIGHTLY OR MORE VISITS(a)(b), APRIL 1997

(a) With natural parent living elsewhere.
(b) Children in sole care arrangement.

Source: Family Characteristics, Australia (cat. no. 4442.0).

Child support
In 1997, 42% of all families (with at least one child with a natural parent living elsewhere) were receiving cash child support payments. Over half (54%) of these families were paid directly by the liable parent while over one third (38%) were paid through the Child Support Agency. The remainder used either a combination of the above two methods (3%) or some other method (4%) such as through a solicitor. Most families (82%) received child support payments on a monthly basis while others received less frequent payments. Cash payments ranged from under $50 to over $600, on average, per child per month, with over half (60%) of families receiving $200 or less. Almost one third of families received an average of $100 or less per child per month.

In 1997, one in three families (with at least one child with a natural parent living elsewhere) were receiving in-kind child support (i.e. payment in the form of goods or services used by the children and/or their families). Families who received cash child support were more likely to receive payment in kind (40%) than those who did not receive cash payments (28%). For most families who received in-kind support, the in-kind payments were limited to clothes, pocket money or other personal expenses for the child. However, families who received both cash and in-kind support were more likely to receive in-kind payment in the form of other expenses such as school fees, health insurance or mortgage payments (46%) than those families who received in-kind payments only (33%).


Child Support Agency

The Child Support Agency (CSA) commenced operations in June 1988 and is responsible for administering the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act 1988 and the Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989.5 The primary purpose of the CSA is to ensure adequate financial support for children of separated parents, and that both parents share the cost of supporting their children according to their capacity to pay. While the CSA has the authority to collect child support through the taxation system, liable parents are encouraged to make payments directly to the parent with whom their children live.1

Parents are also encouraged to make their own arrangements about the amount and frequency of child support payments.6 However, in cases where parents are unable to reach a satisfactory agreement, the CSA also has the role of assessing the amount of child support regularly payable by a liable parent. Parents who separated after 1 October 1989, or who had a child born after that date, no longer have to go to court to get child support (if unable to reach a private agreement) though this option is still available.5


CASH CHILD SUPPORT, APRIL 1997

Average monthly payment per child
%

$1-50
13.3
$51-100
17.7
$101-150
14.2
$151-200
15.2
$201-250
6.9
$251-300
8.8
$301-350
4.8
$351-400
5.1
$401-600
6.8
$601 and over
2.8
Total families receiving cash child support(a)
100.0

(a) Includes a small number of ‘not stated’ responses.

Source: Family Characteristics, Australia (cat. no. 4442.0).


Endnotes

1 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, Family Characteristics, Australia, cat. no. 4442.0, ABS, Canberra.

2 Carberry, F. 1998, Parents sharing care of children - family law and income support, paper presented at AIFS Conference, Melbourne, November 1998.

3 Family Law Council 1992, Patterns of Parenting after Separation, AGPS, Canberra.

4 Commonwealth of Australia 1997, Family Law Council Annual Report 1996-97, AGPS, Canberra.

5 Commonwealth of Australia 1990, Annual Report of the Commissioner of Taxation 1989-90, AGPS, Canberra.

6 Commonwealth of Australia 1996, Annual Report of the Commissioner of Taxation 1995-96, AGPS, Canberra.




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