Issues management

Family violence and child support scheme participation

12.4 Appropriate issues management in the child support context should take into account ways in which family violence may affect participation in the child support scheme. As discussed in Chapter 11, a parent who is a victim of family violence may fear continued interaction with the other parent and avoid situations that provide opportunities for continuing control. Additionally, CSA-initiated actions against a person who has used violence may inflame, create or reignite conflicts, and open up possibilities for pressure and coercion.

12.5 In some cases, it will be necessary for victims of family violence to opt out of the child support scheme by obtaining exemptions from the ‘reasonable maintenance action’ requirement, thereby forgoing child support payments.[1] However, the ALRC considers that appropriate issues management may, in many cases, increase the ability of victims to participate in the child support scheme.

12.6 At the time of writing, the Department of Human Services (DHS) is running a pilot program regarding family violence ‘risk identification’ and is also trialling a new service delivery approach called ‘Case Coordination’ to provide integrated and intensive support to customers ‘facing disadvantage or complex challenges’. DHS stated:

The support and assistance offered will vary depending on customers’ needs, from simple referrals to services such as training programs or information about other services, to intensive support involving multiple coordinated appointments with non-government and local community services, such as for homelessness issues associated with family violence.[2]

12.7 As discussed in Chapter 4, the ALRC uses the term ‘issues management’ in this Report to refer to the customer interface of the CSA (and other agencies). However, the ALRC’s recommended reforms may complement, or form part of, DHS Case Coordination service delivery.

Referrals and consultation

12.8 ALRC recommendations aim to improve the safety of family violence victims within the child support scheme through appropriate management of child support cases. There are two key strategies underpinning these reforms. First, the CSA should consult with victims of family violence, and consider their concerns, prior to initiating significant action against the other party. Secondly, the CSA should refer payees to Centrelink social workers, or other expert service providers, when payees have disclosed family violence, and make requests or elections in their child support case that may indicate ongoing pressure or coercion, or fear of the other party. This complements Recommendation 4–3, which provides that customers should be provided with referrals when they disclose family violence to an agency.

12.9 The ALRC considers that this two-pronged approach would improve safety by:

  • facilitating the CSA’s existing policy aim to ‘avoid, as far as possible, actions which could contribute to family violence’;[3] and
  • giving family violence victims opportunities to access supports, through suitable referrals, that assist them to take protective steps, or otherwise address safety concerns.

12.10 A consequent benefit of this two-pronged approach is that, by improving safety, the accessibility of the child support scheme should also be improved. Victims of family violence may be more likely to participate in the scheme if they are aware that they will be consulted, and have time to take necessary protective measures, prior to significant CSA-initiated action against the other party.

12.11 Referrals to expert service providers may also assist a payee to continue to participate in the child support scheme, for example, by assisting to secure protection that enables continued participation. This should improve the financial position of these payees and their children. Centrelink social workers and other expert service providers may provide information and support to enable payees to make informed decisions about their child support case. They may also grant, or assist an application for, exemptions from the reasonable maintenance action requirement, when it is unsafe for victims to receive child support payments.[4]

12.12 Particular intervention points when the CSA should consult customers, provide referrals, or identify safety concerns—for example, through screening or risk identification, are discussed in detail below. The ALRC has ensured that the lists of particular intervention points contained in recommendations are non-exhaustive, so that further intervention points may be added, perhaps informed by the risk identification pilot.[5] Some stakeholders have suggested other possible intervention points.[6] However, in making these recommendations, the ALRC has been mindful that ‘multiple risk assessments could be frustrating for customers and resource intensive for the department’.[7]

12.13 Generally, the ALRC considers that the CSA should consult with customers who have disclosed family violence, and consider their concerns, prior to initiating the following actions against the other party: change of assessment (or ‘departure’) determinations; court actions to recover child support debt; and departure prohibition orders (DPOs).[8] This approach attracted support from most stakeholders who commented on it, including National Legal Aid (NLA), Women’s Information and Referral Exchange (WIRE), and Women Everywhere Advocating Violence Elimination (WEAVE).[9] NLA commented that Legal Aid staff have experienced

clients becoming anxious because they have become aware that some action is occurring but they are not sure of the nature of that action. If victims are notified sufficiently in advance of any intended action, then it might allay any concerns, and also provide an opportunity for them to take any extra precautions in relation to the safety of themselves and their children.[10]

12.14 DHS observed that:

certain actions taken by DHS as part of its administration of the child support scheme can represent family violence trigger points for some customers. The benefit of risk identification and information provision at these points is that the Child Support program may in some cases be able to consider alternative forms of action.[11]

12.15 The ALRC also considers that CSA staff should refer payees who have disclosed family violence to Centrelink social workers or other expert service providers when the payee makes an election or request that may indicate family violence-related safety concerns, including where a payee elects or requests: to end a child support assessment (case); to end CSA collection of child support or arrears; or that the CSA terminate, or not commence, enforcement action or DPOs. These intervention points should be in addition to the provision of referrals when customers disclose family violence-related safety concerns.[12] Referrals at the point of disclosure are provided for in the DHS internal procedural resource, Common Module—Family Violence.[13] In Chapter 4 of this Report, it is recommended that The Guide: CSA’s Online Guide to the Administration of the New Child Support Scheme (Child Support Guide)set out the procedure regarding referrals upon disclosure of safety concerns.[14]

12.16 In Family Violence and Commonwealth Laws,Discussion Paper 76 (2011) (Discussion Paper), the ALRC proposed that referrals of CSA customers who disclose family violence-related safety concerns should be to Centrelink social workers.[15] This approach was supported by a number of stakeholders.[16] WIRE submitted that the customer should not be obligated to receive services.[17] The Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse (ADFVC) considered that referrals should be made with the customers’ agreement.[18] The ALRC agrees that customers should be encouraged, but not obliged, to receive services from expert service providers to whom they are referred, and this appears consistent with current CSA practice in relation to referrals.

12.17 Some stakeholders stressed the importance of referrals to service providers other than Centrelink social workers. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Legal Services NQ (ATSIWLSNQ) considered that Indigenous women should ‘be given the benefit of culturally appropriate referrals including referral to legal support where appropriate’.[19] NLA stated that:

in such circumstances customers should also be referred for legal advice to ensure that they are able to understand their options and make informed choices; including in relation to obtaining protective orders and other measures that may be appropriate in the particular circumstances.[20]

12.18 DHS stressed the importance of referrals to professional or highly skilled workers, stating that the role of unqualified staff should be ‘limited to containment and immediate referral’.[21] It also submitted that referrals should not be confined to Centrelink social workers:

It is not correct to presume that every customer who presents with or identifies a family violence issue requires a higher level of intervention through a social worker. In some circumstances lower level responses, such as information provision, may be appropriate, and in some situations customers may be receiving suitable assistance through other organisations in the family violence sector and only financial assistance is sought from DHS.[22]

12.19 DHS also stated that, whatever the referral option, ‘risk identification’ (that is, screening, or a screening-like procedure) should be ‘accompanied by the immediate availability of someone qualified to carry out a more complex screening and assessment, and to provide support and advocacy’. In the child support context, DHS stated that customers are offered immediate referral to an ‘expert service, including external professional counsellors’.[23]

12.20 The ALRC considers that it is appropriate to refer customers who have disclosed family violence at the identified intervention points to expert service providers—including, but not limited to, Centrelink social workers.[24] Customers should, however, be referred to Centrelink social workers when they take certain actions—including actions that constitute intervention points—that may affect their compliance with the reasonable maintenance action requirement and their Family Tax Benefit (FTB) Part A.[25] This appears to be existing practice—as discussed below, certain Procedural Instructions and sections of the Child Support Guide provide that the CSA should refer customers to Centrelink social workers in such circumstances.

Identifying safety concerns

12.21 In order for the CSA to act on family violence-related safety concerns, such concerns must first be identified. Recommended reforms regarding referral and pre-action consultation therefore require complementary measures. In Chapter 4, the ALRC recommends that the CSA and other agencies should take steps to identify customers’ safety concerns upon or following applications for child support, social security or family assistance. As discussed in that chapter, steps to identify safety concerns may take the form of, for example, screening, ‘risk identification’ (a screening or screening-like procedure currently being piloted by DHS), or other methods to prompt or promote disclosure. Chapter 4 provides more information about methods for identifying safety concerns and the DHS Risk Identification Pilot.[26]

12.22 The ALRC considers that the CSA should identify safety concerns about family violence at other points in child support cases, as well as at the initial application for child support. These intervention points can generally be characterised as: upon payee actions that may indicate family violence-related safety concerns; and prior to significant action initiated by the CSA. Identifying safety concerns at these intervention points directly facilitates the recommended approach in relation to referrals and pre-action consultation.

12.23 Events that may indicate family violence-related safety concerns are when a payee requests to: end a child support assessment (child support case); or end CSA collection of child support or arrears. Significant CSA-initiated actions which may prompt family violence-related safety concerns include: change of assessment determinations, court actions to recover child support debt and DPOs.

12.24 Stakeholders supported screening at these points.[27] DHS also considered that screening should be part of a risk assessment framework that considers:

  • ‘customer responses or behaviour which might indicate family and domestic violence’; and
  • ‘screening questions at certain key administrative events linked to greater risk of family and domestic violence’.[28]

12.25 This approach corresponds with the intervention points for safety concern identification recommended by the ALRC in this chapter.

Safety concern flags

12.26 Recommendation 4–4, regarding interagency information sharing about ‘safety concern flags’, also complements recommendations contained in this chapter. The existence of a safety concern flag should inform the CSA of whether a customer has previously disclosed family violence to an agency. Safety concern flags thereby facilitate recommendations in this chapter about providing referrals, and pre-action consultation, to victims of family violence.[29]

Targeting recommendations

12.27 In the Discussion Paper, the ALRC framed its proposals about safety concern identification, referrals and pre-action consultation with reference to the Child Support Guide,rather than the DHS Procedural Instructions, an internal electronic resource for CSA staff. In part this was because Procedural Instructions are not publicly available. In its submission, DHS responded that the Procedural Instructions

already include information and consideration of family violence trigger points, which will be revised as appropriate to reflect the changes in the definition of family violence and new practices around family violence. Procedural instructions and training are considered effective tools to outline these requirements rather than the Child Support Guide.[30]

12.28 While information may be more easily updated and is perhaps more usefully situated for staff in Procedural Instructions, in the ALRC’s view these matters affect the personal safety of family violence victims. Such significant information should be contained in publicly-articulated policy—that is, the Child Support Guide—rather than contained in one or more Procedural Instructions.

12.29 The ALRC also considers that including this information in the Child Support Guide would improve transparency about CSA management of issues and cases with respect to family violence. It should also improve general awareness, among customers and their advocates, about measures in place to protect the safety of victims of family violence, including existing measures within the child support scheme. Improving awareness of these measures is an important component of increasing the overall accessibility of the child support scheme for victims.

12.30 However, the ALRC does not consider it necessary for the Child Support Guide to contain detailed procedural information about these matters. Detailed procedural information may be more appropriately situated in Procedural Instructions and other internal resources, which may complement more general information contained in the Child Support Guide.

[1] As discussed in Chs 11 and 13.

[2] DHS, Submission CFV 155. More information about these programs is provided in Ch 4.

[3] Child Support Agency, The Guide: CSA’s Online Guide to the Administration of the New Child Support Scheme <> at 1 November 2011, [6.10.1].

[4] See Chs 11 and 13 regarding the reasonable maintenance action requirement and exemptions from this requirement.

[5] DHS has stated that this pilot may help identify such points: DHS, Submission CFV 155.

[6] For example, Women’s Information and Referral Exchange, Submission CFV 94; National Legal Aid, Submission CFV 81; Commonwealth Ombudsman, Submission CFV 54.

[7] DHS, Submission CFV 155.

[8] This reflects Proposal 9–5 of the Discussion Paper, which proposed that this practice should be articulated in the Child Support Guide.

[9] National Legal Aid, Submission CFV 164; Women’s Information and Referral Exchange, Submission CFV 94; Confidential, Submission CFV 89, WEAVE, Submission CFV 85. ADFVC stated that ‘expert case managers should be brought in to assist when family violence is disclosed’: ADFVC, Submission CFV 104 The Lone Fathers Association stated that this approach, and others the ALRC has made regarding issues management, ‘require careful safeguards’: Lone Fathers Association Australia, Submission CFV 109.

[10] National Legal Aid, Submission CFV 81.

[11] DHS, Submission CFV 155.

[12] Rec 4–3.

[13] DHS, Common Module—Family Violence, 7 June 2011.

[14] Rec 4–3.

[15] Discussion Paper, Proposal 9–3.

[16] National Legal Aid, Submission CFV 164; ADFVC, Submission CFV 104; Women’s Information and Referral Exchange, Submission CFV 94; WEAVE, Submission CFV 85.

[17] Women’s Information and Referral Exchange, Submission CFV 94.

[18] ADFVC, Submission CFV 104.

[19] Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Women’s Legal Service North Queensland, Submission CFV 99.

[20] National Legal Aid, Submission CFV 164.

[21] DHS, Submission CFV 155.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] This issue is also discussed in Ch 4.

[25] See Chs 11 and 13 for discussion of the reasonable maintenance action requirement and the interaction of child support and Family Tax Benefit Part A. Ch 13 describes the role of Centrelink social workers in this context.

[26] As discussed in Ch 4, although the ALRC proposed ‘screening’ at these points, DHS has submitted that it would not define the model proposed by the ALRC as ‘screening’, as it did not include questioning customers regarding the existence of family violence. The ALRC does not make a recommendation regarding the precise form of safety concern identification.

[27] Including National Legal Aid, Submission CFV 164; Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Women’s Legal Service North Queensland, Submission CFV 99; Women’s Information and Referral Exchange, Submission CFV 94; WEAVE, Submission CFV 85.

[28] DHS, Submission CFV 155.

[29] The CSA’s existing Sensitive Issues Indicators—described in Ch 4—may also fulfil this role. Sensitive Issues Indicators are more limited than the recommended safety concern flag, insofar as they record disclosures made to the CSA only. The ALRC has recommended that DHS should consider implementing information sharing regarding the safety concern flag between DHS programs and agencies: Rec 4–4.

[30] DHS, Submission CFV 155.