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Australian Centre for stepfamily Research, Resources & Education

Research

Stepfamilies Australia is committed to the development of information, education, support and training resources for stepfamilies and those who work to support them. We undertake research and evaluation of stepfamilies’ needs to discover what programs are effective and what service gaps exist.

Stepfamilies Australia works with stepfamily organisations in other states, community organisations, government and research institutes to better understand and meet stepfamilies’ needs.

Here is a collection of some research articles you may find useful, if you have specific queries please contact us.

Research findings for single fathers and single mothers by Bronwyn Harman

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Stepfamilies and the child support system – things to be aware of

Research conducted by drummond street as part of Child Support Policy series for the Department of Social Services (2012-2014) highlighted the difficulties the child support system has in responding to the needs of the wide range of circumstances that exist for stepfamilies.

By definition stepfamilies are made up of two adults at least one of whom has children from a previous relationship. It may be that each adult has children, and it may be that ex-partners have also re-partnered. The new partnership may also have an ‘ours child’. The child support agency makes a clear distinction between parents and step-parents in terms of who has financial responsibility for a child. A child is considered the responsibility of its primary parents. A child is not considered the financial responsibility of its step-parent. Step children and spouses are, in nearly all cases, not considered in cases of child support – for either the paying parent or the receiving parent. This is the case even where an ex-partner is not paying child support, and where a step-parent is contributing substantially to their step-child’s care costs. So, in a nutshell, child support payments are decided on the incomes of the two primary parents, and the amount of time the child lives with each parent. This might seem straightforward, but imagine this scenario:

The child lives primarily with a parent A who thus receives child support payments from parent B. Parent A is re-partnered with person X who has no children, earns a very high income, they live in a big house, drive a nice car, and live very comfortably. Parent B has a low-mid level income and has re-partnered with person Y who has three children, they live in a small house, share one car and struggle to pay bills (with the ex-partner of Y paying minimal child support). Parent B is required to pay a significant portion of their income to Parent A for the care of the child. No consideration is currently able to be given by the Child Support Agency (CSA) to step-parenting responsibilities.

This is a scenario that shows that regardless of the make-up of a household, or the household income, child support payments are made from the one family to the other based solely on the two parents’ income and percentage of time the child is with each parent. Although the theory that the duty to support a child lies with the primary parents of the child makes sense, in reality the facts are that many step-parents do financially support their step-children and their spouses. This can lead to a great deal of financial pressure being placed on many stepfamilies.

It should be noted that there are opportunities within the current system to contest amounts of child support paid based on being financially responsible for a new spouse or step child in ‘special circumstances’. An example of this might be where the disability of the child, or the spouse, means that the spouse is not able to be in the paid workforce and therefore the step-parent has an obligation to contribute to their care financially.

Keeping this in mind, we can imagine a second scenario where a paying parent, parent A, has been able to reduce their payments based on their step-parenting responsibilities. In this case let’s say that the receiving parent, parent B, has not re-partnered, and is living on a low income. Now having CSA payments reduced, parent B has increased financial hardship as a result of the CSA recognising parent A’s step-parenting responsibilities. Clearly for some families the levels of financial distress are high, and the system is not working for them. It would be interesting to discover how many families are in the various situations described above.

The difficulty with altering the system to make things easier for some families is that of course, things become harder, or seem unfair, to other families. There are no easy answers in the area of stepfamilies and the child support system. In our paper, we highlight the need for the CSA to take into account the relative income of each household, and perhaps more importantly, the level of financial hardship being experienced by either parent in their decision-making rather than taking a one-size fits all approach. This may help make the system fairer for step-families, while at the same time not disadvantaging other groups like single parents.

The CSA does not currently collect data about family structures, ‘household’ incomes or levels of financial hardship, having this information available would also assist the CSA in their policy decisions.

How the Child Support System Works for Stepfamilies

Our research suggests that stepfamilies are beginning to be recognised as a unique and important contemporary family form, however social policy development in Australia does not yet adequately address or support stepfamilies’ unique needs relates to stepfamilies, in order to ensure the laws, policies and processes are relevant and effective for this significant family type and the variety of circumstances which may relate to this family type. We hope that this paper will contribute to stimulating discussion and consideration of reform of current legislation and procedures within the CSA.

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Schools supporting families through change and transition

Schools are often the first place to recognise changes in a child’s conduct.

More often than not they are in the frontline as one in three families with school age children undergo transitions ranging from death, separation or divorce to repartnering.

New Perspectives on Stepfamilies: Step is Not a Four Letter Word

This is a great article about couples taking the reins and designing the kind of family they want and has some interesting ideas about step parenting of teenagers. It’s from 1994 – but has some classic messages and remains an interesting perspective.

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Links to Other Articles

The Australian Institute of Family Studies has some great articles to browse:

Read an interesting article about stepfamily challenges and tips for managing: