Belfast Telegraph

Childcare accord can help lift our kids out of poverty

Alex Attwood insists a new DSD service will help boost the number and quality of child maintenance arrangements

When parents separate or divorce, it can be a difficult time for families. In all of this turmoil, there is a strong need to be practical, to map out the best outcomes, first and foremost for the children.

It is a stark figure that while people agree with the principle that separated parents have an ongoing responsibility to maintain their children financially, fewer than half of the children living with one parent benefit from effective child maintenance arrangements.

To make things worse, in Northern Ireland today, around 21% of the population is living in poverty, and 27% of them are children. It is unacceptable that any child in Northern Ireland is living in poverty.

But it is the case that children from lone parent households are at the greatest risk.

Relationship breakdown happens in every part and from every background across Northern Ireland. In times of need, mums and dads turn to their parents, relatives and friends for advice and support. Northern Ireland also has a number of effective organisations to help parents through the stress and demands of separation and divorce. That's clearly the right thing to do - support each other when times are tough. And it is work we do through our Child Maintenance and Enforcement Division.

More can still be done. That is why I have set up a clear pathway to help parents choose what is best for them in securing the best financial future for their children. I am therefore launching today Child Maintenance Choices, a free public information and support service to help mums and dads decide the child maintenance arrangement which best suits their needs.

The service, headed up by Department for Social Development's Tracey Teague, is open to anyone, not just mums and dads, but also to those parents, friends and families who are after the first line of support and to anyone who provides help when families need it most.

By establishing this service, I aim to maximise the number of effective child maintenance arrangements in place for all separated families across Northern Ireland, not just the 35,000 families that already have cases with the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Division.

Parents can choose to sit down and work out an arrangement which best suits their family. This is called a private arrangement and no one else needs to be involved, no court or statutory organisation, unless the parents think that involving another party is the best way.

Staff at the service will talk to both parents about how a private arrangement could work.

Private arrangements don't necessarily have to be financial. One parent could choose to pay the mortgage, or family bills, and as long as both parents are happy with, and stick to, the arrangement, there will be no need for anyone else to become involved.

Service staff will also talk to parents about consent orders, which can be obtained through the courts. Staff will not advise parents to choose one option over another, but will lay out all the facts to help mums and dads do what's right for their family.

The service is not only for newly separated parents, but is there for parents who have been separated for a longer time, or for parents who have never been in a formalised relationship.

Child Maintenance Choices can be contacted by Freephone on 0800 028 7439, by texting "Choices" to 66101. For further information check out the website at www.nidirect.gov.uk/choices.

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