Raising children without support is a struggle for millions of single parents. Picture: Tracey Adams

Cape Town - Today the wait outside court has been eight hours. But after four years of fighting and not a single cent of maintenance paid, this mother is used to enduring long waits for the 5-year-old she calls her “princess”.

Her daughter is one of nine million children in South Africa who grow up with a father who although alive, is absent from their lives.

That’s over a sixth of the country’s population, and just under half of all children.

And although this mother didn’t want to give her name, her struggle for child support money is shared by millions of single parents trying to raise children their ex-partners abandoned.

“She’s the best blessing I could ask for,” the mother said. “The only reason I’m doing this is because of school fees and medical bills.”

She is asking for R800 a month.

“I don’t ask much of him, and I want nothing for myself – it’s just the things my daughter needs.”

The man on a mission to bring bad parents to book is Hishaam Mohamed, regional head of the Department of Justice.

His Operation Isondlo saw police units tracking down defaulters and bringing them before court during Women’s Month last year – and the operation has continued this year.

In Mohamed’s sights were 296 warrants for arrest for defaulters with outstanding payments to the tune of R2.7 million. Of those, 78 were arrested by February. Police arrested a further 37 on routine maintenance warrant rounds.

The Western Cape’s worst defaulter owed R223 848 in outstanding payments. Under threat of arrest, he voluntarily appeared in court, and has been paying off the amount ever since. He has around R30 000 still to pay.

It’s not just deadbeat dads that fall foul of the system though. There were 149 maintenance payments made to trusts at the court and never collected, amounting to R76 767 in unclaimed payments.

“(Our department) receives more than 200 000 new applications annually which is tragically indicative of the growing trend of child neglect in our country,” Mohamed said.

“Today the responsibility of financially maintaining children rests primarily on the shoulders of single mothers who in many instances do not receive financial support from the biological father.

“These single mothers then face laborious court applications to bring the fathers to book.”

Mohamed said the number of maintenance orders granted rose by 56 percent from 2011/12 to 2012/13.

Last Thursday, at the family court in Plein Street, the waiting rooms were packed by 7.30am. There were about 25 cases on the roll, and every half hour or so, the maintenance officer called one to his office.

By 3pm, those waiting were fewer, but far more frustrated.

Two twin girls in matching pink hoodies and pink shoelaces dived into a box of toys, coming up disappointed with an odd puzzle piece and a tattered guide on how to make balloon animals.

Their parents sat slumped in their chairs. Their father had been waiting all day simply to change the date on which he is supposed to appear before the court to settle a maintenance claim lodged by his ex-girlfriend.

They split up eight years ago, before his son was born. He used to pick his boy up every second weekend for a visit, until mother and son disappeared one day without leaving a number or address.

Then one night last week, police knocked on his door with a court summons for a maintenance order.

“Last night was the first I heard about this,” he said. “I used to give her money and get things for the child. Then she just moved without telling me. And the amount that she’s asking is ridiculous – R1 500 per month.”

Before ordering maintenance payments, the court investigates what a child’s financial needs are, and how much the absent parent can afford to contribute. The maintenance amount will not be more than the parent can pay, and if his or her financial circumstances change, the court can change the order accordingly.

So defaulters are not unable to pay their maintenance –they are simply unwilling.

East London-based maintenance law specialist Tamazin Coutts said the system was failing to protect children’s rights.

In her thesis dissertation, she wrote: “As a direct result of the failing system, in many instances complainants find themselves dissatisfied with the results, discouraged by the process and financially worse off than when they started as a result of necessary legal fees, transport costs and income lost while waiting at court.

“For many complainants the maintenance court system is more of a hindrance than a help… “

Coutts said that while the maintenance system was supposed to be user-friendly and easy to navigate without legal help, this was far from the practical reality.

The system was “fraught” with problems such as under-staffing, poorly trained staff, overcrowded courts and badly-drafted forms that were difficult for uneducated people to fill in.

The process of setting up a maintenance order was lengthy, and even once granted, often brought no relief to the overstretched parent.

“Economic abuse of women and children is extremely devastating, and is commonly overlooked as a form of domestic violence,” Coutts wrote.

“Failure to pay maintenance by respondents is an ongoing form of such abuse.”

Coutts said her client base knew no distinction in terms of race or income level, although most of her clients were women.

She rarely encountered defaulters who were financially unable to pay. Rather, they decided not to pay because of a view that the money was not really needed, or that the mother would use it for her own needs instead of the child’s.

“Ordinarily there is also a grudge and bitterness and very seldom is maintenance viewed by either party as the child’s right – rather it is something to be argued about and a ‘weapon’ to be used against either party,” she said.

Even when a repeat offender was eventually brought to court and found guilty, the likely sentences were too kind to deter other parents from committing the same crime.

This was the finding of a study by Coutts’s colleague, University of KwaZulu-Natal professor Marita Carnelly.

She assessed recent judgments in criminal cases of repeat defaulters, and found that instead of using the heavier sentences available, such as jail time or correctional supervision, courts were likely to suspend sentences or let offenders off easily.

But National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Nathi Mncube said that while a jail sentence might seem like a fittingly harsh punishment for neglectful parents, it ended up being detrimental to the child.

“The priority is always going to be, if you are in arrears, you must pay.

“The first thing is to recoup what is owed,” Mncube said.

“You don’t want to put the person in jail and then there’s nothing for the child at the end.”

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Cape Argus