The trouble with child maintenance

Values & Money , Maintenance

On a dirt road that winds through the aloe dotted hills outside the village of De Rust in the Western Cape, a young man hitches a lift to work after spending the weekend visiting his children.

“I don't see them often,” says the man, who works on an ostrich farm outside of Oudtshoorn about 40 km away.

“Their mother doesn't want me there any more. She wants her maintenance first. Then I can come back.”

The man says he sees no reason to pay maintenance as the children's mother already receives grant money from the government.

“They have enough,” he says. “And I have other children I must take care of too. I don't earn enough.”

It's an attitude that is widespread in South Africa, where magistrate's courts are crowded with cases of fathers - and sometimes mothers - who fail to pay maintenance for their children.

Research by the Institute of Race Relations in 2011 found that single parent households, are the norm in South Africa, with the majority of children growing up with one parent, most likely a mother who relies on a R280 a month per child government grant to get by.

Democratic Alliance MP Helen Lamoela, the party's spokeswoman on social welfare, says the onus is on young men to ensure they do not fall and impregnate a woman when they cannot afford to have a child.

“Children are suffering and living in poverty, living among gangs and drugs while their fathers run businesses and taxis but don’t pay their maintenance. If a man knows he cannot afford to maintain a child, he needs to carefully consider whether he should have sex without protection.”

While there are no clear figures nationally, it is estimated that maintenance defaults run into millions of rands around South Africa.

In the Western Cape alone, “fugitive defaulters” owe around R2.68 million. Family lawyer Bertus Preller says child maintenance defaults are an “enormous problem” that clog up the courts. The main cause of maintenance defaults, he says, is a partner having no money.

“When a couple divorce they start new families. It's a double expense,” he says.

“There's a saying that when two bulls are fighting something will get hurt. In the case of a maintenance order it's the child who is hurt.”

“Fathers shift the responsibility to the mother’s new husband or partner which is an extra burden in the harsh economic climate that we live in.”

Some women, he says, don’t even bother to approach the maintenance court because they feel that it is a pointless exercise.

“Many women would rather avoid a bitter legal fight that could get expensive and make do on their own.”

Petunia Phaka, a Johannesburg based Child Welfare social worker, says the organisation often deals with cases of fathers who love their children and want to see them but can't afford to pay maintenance.

Mothers will go to court to prevent the father from having access until they receive maintenance money.

“In some cases a father has no job and cannot afford to pay maintenance. At Child Welfare we will try to advise the couple to act in the best interests of the child,” she says.

Phaka says young couples will often fight tooth and nail for maintenance money, even if it hurts the child.

“There's a saying that when two bulls are fighting something will get hurt. In the case of a maintenance order it's the child who is hurt.”

It's well raised men and women who are most likely to act in the best interests of the child, she says.

“If a child grows up in a happy home and is well brought up, chances are they will be good ethical people when they reach adulthood.”

* This article is part of a series produced to support the HEARTLINES money and values campaign to encourage South Africans to think about how they earn, spend, save, borrow and give away their money.

This article was first published in The New Age on 16 January 2014.

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