A single mum says she has been let down by the very system designed to support her after fleeing from domestic violence.
Donna Thompson, 34, from Norfolk, is one of several men and women that The Mirror has spoken to who say they have been left unable to pay their bills, struggling with mental health and fighting to keep a roof over their heads as a result of child maintenance failures.
The single mum of three left her partner in 2018 due to domestic abuse.
Her children aged 10, eight, and three, are now in her care full time, but Donna says she is drowning in debt and struggling to keep up with her bills because the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) cannot force her former partner to pay.
To date, he is £6,153 in arrears with the CMS - money he has refused to pay since the government got involved - leaving Donna and her family surviving on food parcels.
The mum has also been told an investigation into her case – which she has been fighting since 2018 - is delayed due to Covid. She's written to the Prime Minister desperately calling for help - but has received no response.
“Several years ago I walked away from a domestic violence relationship,” Donna told The Mirror.
“I tried to make a financial agreement between the two of us but he refused to sign it, despite agreeing to pay it verbally,” she explained.
She claims her former partner paid just 25p before stopping his contributions.
Donna, who has two court orders against her partner for abuse, has full custody over her three young children because of his history of violence.
“I thought my son deserved financial rights, so in March 2018 I opened a CMS case, they proceeded to chase him for a payment.
“They put him on a direct pay plan and I asked for it to be collect and pay, around £200 a month.
"But he only ever paid £160."
Donna filed a request for a financial investigation two years ago, stating her former partner had only ever paid £160, however, the CMS has, to date, been unable to enforce a liability order.
"The investigation is yet to be dealt with," she said.
Donna is now £5,811 in debt and has been told her case will be dealt with this year due to Covid delays.
She said the scheme's inability to force non-residing parents to pay has made her life extremely "difficult".
“In terms of support, the CMS has been useless. The days have been difficult, and my son who is just three years old goes without," she said.
"We’ve never had holidays or days out. Our life is very basic, we just about have enough to cover food and fuel for the school run. We get second-hand clothes from family members who sometimes also give us extra cash to tide us over.”
Donna says she now faces having to return to work because Universal Credit is not enough to support her and all three children.
“I want to return to work so that I can properly support my sons,” she said, but then there is an issue of childcare.
She says it is punishing that the CMS have not taken action against her former partner "who has simply walked away without any responsibilities".
“Every child has a legal right to be financially supported by both parents but sometimes it feels like the system is against you.
“The CMS is emotionally draining, you wait thirty minutes on hold, you don’t get any help, and the staff don’t know what they are doing.”
At the end of Donna's relationship, she was £8,000 in debt because she had taken out a car finance agreement for her partner - which he never repaid.
Unable to keep up with these payments as a single monther, Donna had to apply for a debt relief order.
That means she cannot apply for loans or save money for three years – meaning she’s trapped until 2024. She has been rehoused in council accommodation with her children.
That's on top of the £6,153 she is owed in CMS payments from her non-contributing spouse.
Donna says she's hoping the CMS will grant a liability order to demand a payment plan – this would involve bailiffs that would take away his assets if he does not repay the debt.
But she says she has no hope after the past three years.
“When I told CMS I was desperate for help – they couldn’t offer anything.
“They did try and set up a standing order but he declined that.
"We were surviving on food parcels. It's not fair that innocent children should suffer when there is a system to support them in place."
Earlier this year, The Mirror exclusively revealed the government has written off £1.92billion in child support owed by absent parents.
Officials said some debts were too expensive to chase or computer systems could not cope.
And a ‘reduced level of service’’ at the Department of Work and Pensions in lockdown has made problems worse.
But a report by the House of Commons Library suggests the loss could even be as high as £3.7bn.
Labour MP Rupa Huq, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Single Parent Families, said: “Children are suffering because of the incompetence of Britain’s child support system.”
According to a Commons Library report, 970,000 parents, mostly mums, may have missed out on up to £2.5billion they were owed – an average of £2,577 each.
And the study claims taxpayers covered £1.2billion in benefits for 370,000 cases the Government took responsibility for.
Some of the debt written off dates to 1993, when the disastrous Child Support Agency was set up.
The Child Maintenance Service replaced it in 2012 but arrears collection rates are as low as £1 in every £370, the report found.
By last October, officials had given up collecting outstanding payments below £500 – and up to £1,000 if the money had been owed 10 years or more.
The National Audit Office and single parent charity Gingerbread said the Government is not giving enough resources.
Gingerbread also said not using enforcement powers is “extreme negligence”.
The DWP insisted the figures in the Commons study are “an overestimation from the outdated CSA system” and the debt was £1.92bn, adding: “In the last year nearly £1billion was collected.”