By Lea Pachta

Children could be missing out because too many parents don’t know how to sort out child maintenance after separation, according to a major new survey.

In a poll of over 900 separated parents with children aged 18 or below, the overwhelming majority (93%) believe mothers and fathers still have a financial responsibility to their kids even if they don’t live with them. But over a third (36%) say they didn’t know where to go to get impartial information about child maintenance.

None of the parents polled were compelled to use the Child Support Agency, yet over a quarter (27%) were unaware they could make maintenance arrangements privately, without involving third parties. Since October 2008 all parents, including those in receipt of benefits, are free to make their own maintenance arrangements as an alternative to using the statutory service (currently administered by the CSA) or the courts.

The YouGov survey coincides with the launch of a national campaign to promote Child Maintenance Options, the free public information and support service which helps separated parents decide which child maintenance arrangement best suits their circumstances.

The results also showed:
* Over 40% of those questioned say they discussed their separation with friends,
* One in four (25%) spoke to their mothers and the same number say they didn’t talk to anyone at all.
* Over half (52%) believe an impartial, confidential information service would have been helpful during separation.

Janet Paraskeva, Chair of Child Maintenance Options said: “Too many children are missing out, partly because parents — during what is already a very confusing time — are receiving conflicting advice. Child Maintenance Options is here to provide the facts and explain the different types of arrangements everyone can now make. It’s designed to help both parents, as well as family members and friends of people going through separation.”

Not knowing where to get information wasn’t the only issue parents identified. Having to involve third parties was seen by many as a barrier to sorting out child maintenance – 29% said they didn’t want to involve lawyers, and 31% didn’t want to involve the Child Support Agency (CSA).

Emma Dawson, from Stafford, separated from her partner last year and didn’t know where to go for help. She said “We were overwhelmed by all the confusing information on the net about child maintenance. Child Maintenance Options put it in easy to understand, plain terms, setting out all the various choices available. Now we have a private arrangement in place and we are really pleased with it. Instead of my ex buying nappies or baby food, I get regular cash payments. Options was absolutely brilliant.”

Mark Manuel, of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire separated from the mother of his two children in October last year. He said “You have to sit down and work it out with the other parent, or you get a third party making your decisions for you. The information I got from Child Maintenance Options was brilliant – there is nothing else out there which sets it all out so clearly. I really liked the signposting to other information sources, and the maintenance calculator which indicates how much you would have to pay if you used the CSA. Now I pay my maintenance by standing order, and we’ve agreed to have a review of our arrangement early this year (2010).”

Janet Paraskeva added: “Private arrangements can be a good solution for many, offering flexibility and building collaboration. Some parents, of course, will not be able to agree their own arrangements or those arrangements may break down. For them the statutory service, currently the Child Support Agency, is available. A new and much improved statutory maintenance scheme is now being built and will be ready in 2011.”

The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that around 300,000 couples with children separate each year. Child Maintenance Options is there to help them as well as those parents who have already separated and want to review existing arrangements. It is also for relatives, friends, advisors and representatives. The service provides free and impartial information and is completely confidential. Child Maintenance Options also signposts people to other sources of support on issues such as family separation, debt, housing, and employment.

Find out about child maintenance at www.cmoptions.org or call the freephone helpline on 0800 988 0988 (open Monday to Friday 8am – 8pm, and Saturday 9am to 4pm).

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