Child support in shambles

While the country has strong regulations with regards to child maintenance, the system is failing needy mothers.

23 February 2018 | Local News

Namibia's robust child maintenance law continues to fail many people because a myriad of flaws undercuts its potential, often leaving single parents and their offspring without support and facing a desperate financial plight.

The failure to implement the sturdy law is linked to a number of reasons, such as insufficient funding and human resources, burdensome and costly payment systems, unhelpful staff and a murky understanding of the law's strengths by public and court officials.

Findings published by the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) in 2013 showed a deluge of complaints by women about their difficulties in securing child support, as well as the inefficient operations of maintenance courts, that were identified as a priority concern, shortly after independence.

“Cases brought to the attention of the LAC in more recent years, indicate that the situation has not changed much since then,” Yolande Engelbrecht of the LAC said.

Findings suggested that, on average, someone registers a maintenance complaint in Namibia every 30 minutes during working hours and that the majority of cases are brought by women.

“However, only approximately two-thirds ever result in an order being made by the court.”

On average, single parents request N$500 in child support and typically, defendants, have a history of refusing to provide financially for their children.



Good law, bad application

Legal practitioner Norman Tjombe underlined that it is “not the law that is bad” but “invariably” the issue can be traced to the “lack of work ethics of officials responsible” for enforcing the law.

“When a person complains that another has stopped making payments, it is such a difficult and cumbersome process to get the person to pay not only the regular maintenance but also the arrears amount,” he said.

In many cases, single parents who approach the court for help are tasked to carry out, in their own capacity, an investigation and provide the courts with the location of absent defendants and their assets.

Tjombe said ultimately the price is paid by children and single parents, mostly women, “who are almost always poor, and who in any event would find it difficult to enforce their rights”.

Engelbrecht confirmed that while the law is purposefully gender neutral, the bulk of claims are by mothers.

“This is because it is usually women who take care of children on a daily basis. Both parents have a legal duty to maintain their child and all children are equal in the eyes of the law.”



Urgent need for overhaul

Last year, the Ombudsman's office announced an investigation into child support will be conducted this year to identify problems and provide answers.

“The legislation we have in place is brilliant, if it works,” Eileen Rakow, the director of the Ombudsman's office, said.

“One of the concerns we have is that there are only certain hours and days that you can pick up your child support payments at the court,” she explained.

This can become a costly and time-consuming problem for parents who live far away, in other towns or farms. Some simply can't afford transport costs, which can deeply cut into the little childcare payment they receive.

“You have to physically go to court, stand in a queue and then get your money, if it was paid into the court's account,” she explained.

Earlier this year, the judiciary announced several legal reforms, including plans that would allow the courts to make direct electronic transfers to beneficiaries using special court-appointed bank accounts.

Rakow noted that the psychological impact on children, who feel abandoned and neglected when one parent refuses to help pay the bills to raise them, can be traumatic and long-lasting.

“For me, this is the saddest part. Many children feel unloved if they realise their dad, or parent, don't pay maintenance. So there is this whole psychological element of feeling unloved and unsupported.”

She added this helps to encourage “a broken society”.



The answers are there

The LAC found that a key weakness undermining the law “is the critical need to hire maintenance investigators”. “Maintenance investigators will allow the maintenance courts to ensure that defendants and witnesses are found and the financial status of the parties is properly investigated, resulting in a higher success rate.”

The LAC also proposed amendments to the law that would incorporate the best interests of the child and the concept of child participation, where appropriate.

Another major concern is that many of the innovative options included in the Maintenance Act “are not being utilised”.

This includes the option of direct deductions from the salary or wages of the defendant and default orders in cases where a defendant, who was summoned, fails to appear in court.

Awareness campaigns to highlight the law's helpful features, training volunteers to assist in cases, and improving ways to ensure the law is well-implemented, are some of the recommendations by the

LAC.

Maintenance officers, moreover, should be encouraged to use their powers of investigation “more assertively” and arrear payments must be handled more quickly and effectively.

JANA-MARI SMITH

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