Durban - It’s a cat-and-mouse game from the outside. We all know the archetypal characters. Among them the big, bad gold-digging ex-wife who is after money from a “poverty-stricken” ex-husband, whose cash is actually for his villainous new wife and family.

There are those out for revenge, those desperate to see their children and those, too, who simply can’t keep up with bills and need help from a system they believe is failing them.

The scenarios are endless and many good mothers and fathers are caught up in the financial issues of raising a child.

Sadly, in the face of conflict, irrespective of who the good guy or the bad guy is, the children involved often become pawns to those on either side of the battlefield.

A recent survey inadvertently showed that in the Western Cape alone, half of the working population are single parents and half of those single parents do not receive maintenance to assist them with their children.

Figures in KwaZulu-Natal are not likely to be any better.

Life is challenging for the single, working parent. Hard work at a full-time job often means paying for aftercare, a crèche or help at home. There are groceries, bonds, cars, school fees, uniforms, as well as dreams of becoming a ballerina, gymnast or cricketer, that must be financed. Let’s face it, when it comes to our children, working parents don’t want to simply put bread on the table, they want the best for their sons and daughters.

Jane Smith (not her real name) says that when her ex-husband left her, he simply refused to comply with the maintenance terms agreed on by the courts and avoided garnishees by repeatedly moving house.

His employer even refused the garnishee order from the court.

“When I contacted my ex-husband’s employer, he stated that he did not want to get involved ‘with my nonsense’, that he had asked my ex-husband what amount he could afford to pay and that this was the amount he was prepared to pay.” The payments didn’t last long.

Attorney Roger Knowles says fortunately not too many men go this far, but in such cases the employer has no choice but to comply with the law. Her husband should have been prosecuted. Knowles believes few people dodge the law. Yet many people seem to relate to Smith’s story.

So much so, that you can find a page on Facebook aimed at voicing the concerns of single parents.

“My ex-husband keeps moving, so it becomes difficult to serve him with papers. He works on a cash basis to make it difficult to prove his income, and even drives a company vehicle not registered to him so that if he is pulled of at a roadblock officials will not be able to determine that he owes maintenance,” says Smith.

Another woman tells how her ex-husband simply refused to furnish his payslip and eventually quit his job to avoid paying maintenance.

“It only gets more complicated. Now he has a job, working for a friend. How are we to trust that the small amount he claims to be earning is true? The amount my child will be entitled to is minuscule – insulting even.

“Meanwhile, I continue to pay necessary costs – such as school fees – and I'm often broke.”

This mother believes her ex abuses his rights as well.

“When it comes to visitation, he won’t budge. If my daughter is sick he won’t let her stay home with me and take her on another day, it must fit into his schedule. And if she has a party or classes in that time, he refuses to take her – saying it is his time with her.

“I can do nothing about his selfish behaviour. Unless I can prove he is dangerous, or poses a threat to her, he will continue to fetch her on designated weekends.

“He still sends me bitter cellphone messages and tells my child lies about me.”

Knowles says: “Personally, I think it should be seen as a form of child abuse to refuse to pay maintenance, and that there are those who should be made examples of.

“However, the courts are often reluctant to punish maintenance defaulters with prison sentences as they will then to be unable to pay maintenance.

“Be mindful, though. Just because a person cannot pay, or pay enough, does not make them a bad parent. Maintenance and custody are two separate issues – no child should be denied a relationship with their parent based on whether he has money or not.”

While the stories often seem to be vocalised by women, Knowles warns against casting fathers as the bad guys. Many have custody of their children these days, and care for them, and many diligently pay their maintenance.

Smith says whoever you are, when you’re a single parent completing endless forms and ensuring you keep up with the laws and the courts, only to get nowhere, you feel abused and betrayed.

“It has been so easy for my ex-husband to just pack up and go, not caring about or taking responsibility for his child.

“Every month I have to take leave from my employment and use valuable time going to court.

“I spend hours waiting to be helped, only to hear repeatedly that they cannot assist me if I do not have contact details for him.

“I must find contact information and then they will be able to send him another letter, another garnishee order, make another date for him to appear in court, and so the cycle of frustration continues.

“Meanwhile,my ex does exactly as he pleases. There are absolutely no consequences for him. It is exhausting and humiliating.”

Angry single parents who struggle financially believe that the cumbersome systems make life difficult for them, while the absent parent is protected by the state’s apathy and incompetence. While Knowles agrees that the process does not always instil a willingness to comply with the law, he defends state workers.

“It should be said that state workers, in this instance, have a tricky and thankless job, and the approach from angry parents needs to be different.

“Don’t fight them – recruit them. It takes commitment and collaboration between the complainant and state employees to achieve success.” - The Mercury

l Visit the Facebook page, Maintenance Assistance for Single Parents, for more information.