Of lies and money

So. With money running out and less than a third of the child maintenance being paid, the phone calls to CMS began. For each call you make to CMS, you will be on hold for over 20 minutes, guaranteed; I figure it’s deliberate, in the hope that some callers will give up and go away. They told me that Simon would be sent a letter about the missing payments, and would have “until the end of next week” to respond. “The end of next week” became a moveable feast, being cited for over a month while Simon failed to respond and the money still didn’t arrive. The amount owed crept up over £1600, my anxiety levels soaring with it.

Then the excuses started. Simon had apparently told the CMS in a phone call that he was no longer earning as much money. It says a lot that even now, I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt – perhaps he’d been made redundant, or had deliberately reduced his hours in order to free up more time for DIY on his new house. I stressed about what that might mean for us, what our payments would be reduced to, how we would manage. Yet the quiet voice of reason whispered in the back of my mind that if he was genuinely earning less money, the very first thing he would have done would be to contact CMS to reduce his payments. When I checked with CMS a month later, Simon hadn’t even put in an application to reduce his payments, never mind sent in proof – clearly this was another lie.

Next, a letter from CMS stating that they’d “been informed” that Lily was no longer in full time education and could I confirm this or send proof? Otherwise payments would be reduced. I called to let them know that Lily was attending a BTEC course which was classed as full-time. I knew immediately what must have happened; Simon had turned up in our new town the weekend before, taken Lily to dinner and asked her about her course. On finding out that she “only” attended three days a week, he’d assumed that this couldn’t possibly count as full time, and called the CMS to have his payments reduced. As he has no responsibility for the day-to-day lives of our children, he either didn’t realise that the BTEC still counted as full time, or he knew but didn’t care. It’s frustrating that instead of being happy for Lily, who is loving her music course, he’s tried to use her course as an excuse to pay less maintenance, turning it against her.

Normal reaction; I’m so glad you’re enjoying your course. Do you need anything else for it, any textbooks etc?

Abusive father; Tell me more about your course so I can try and use it against you.

Simon had not asked for our new address, nor had I offered it. Lily had talked to him only in terms of the nearest city, making sure not to give him the precise area. Yet he turned up here with Astrid, insisting to Lily that he meet her in our actual town, having managed to find out where we live without being told. It felt sickening, and took away the security that Ivy and I had been feeling, it’s all mind games and intimidation – see, we can find out where you live! But no doubt if you talked to him, he would still insist that I was the one stalking him… He spent less than 3 hours with Lily, but treated the occasion as a weekend away with Astrid, spending two nights in a hotel, meals out etc, while still claiming that he couldn’t afford to pay child maintenance.

Last week another call from CMS; now Simon was claiming that he retained shared care of Lily and had a court order to prove it. The court order was a 2017 relic from Simon trying to force Ivy into reinstating contact (and therefore not having to pay maintenance for her.) While I had been so careful to word the document in such a way as to make sure Ivy wouldn’t be forced into anything, it didn’t occur to me that I should ensure that Lily had a similar, flexible opt-out clause. In the Family Court you evidently need a fortune teller as much as a lawyer. Even though it was Simon’s choice to deviate from the court order, and Simon who had originally informed the CMS of his decision, he was now trying to claim that he had equal shared care of Lily.

At times I agonise over how this must seem to Lily. If it wasn’t bad enough that Simon effectively threw her out with a week’s notice, after having spent 10 months in court battling to force contact with Ivy. If it wasn’t bad enough that he dumped all of her belongings on the street outside her house, including even her bedlinen, making it clear she was no longer welcome. If it wasn’t bad enough that Simon then made Lily tell Ivy that he was happy for Ivy to move back in with him if she didn’t want to relocate – yet never made an offer for Lily to move back in… Now he was claiming she still lived with him for half the time, so that he could stop paying for her. To throw her out and then claim she was still there?

Even though Simon’s claims were ludicrous and outright lies, there is always the fear lingering beneath. What if they actually believe him? What if he’s managed to find a loophole and they have to uphold his claim, even though he’s not adhering to the court order? It’s no wonder I have an anxiety disorder, it’s been my constant companion these past five years. I waited over a week for the official letter to arrive to find out what the precise arguments were that Simon was using so that I’d know how to word my response, but when the letter finally got here it contained no information. Yet another call to CMS, another 20 minutes on hold.

“Yes, we get calls about this a lot,” the woman explained. “Unfortunately the letters are generated by the system, so they don’t have much information.” Then why don’t you change the letters? I wondered, given that it would save everybody more time if they just took five minutes to add a few details before sending it. If I hadn’t been told on an earlier call, I would have received the letter but have no idea what Simon was claiming. But yes, despite the fact that he saw Lily for 2 hours a month on average, and she hadn’t stayed overnight with him for almost 2 years, he was claiming that he retained equal shared care of her. Half term was rapidly approaching but with no invite for Lily to go and stay with him. It’s still difficult to believe that he could be making such an outrageous claim, that his lies have become this bold. It’s even harder to try and understand how he could do this while still apparently claiming that he is the innocent victim in all of this. But because he’s got away with it so far; lying to his solicitor, to his lawyer, to the judge, to social services, to school, to CAFCASS, to the police, never mind to me and the children, and no one has stopped it, he’s become further empowered. Because there has been no consequence for his lies, they’ve got worse.

“If you’re looking at my case on screen, you should be able to see that he gave you false information before,” I tell the woman. “He gave you false information in 2018 when he claimed that he retained equal care of Ivy, and you found in my favour. He’s given you false information this month, claiming he was earning less money, claiming that Lily was no longer in full time education. He’s lying now about this, Lily lives with me full time, he hardly sees her. It says on the letters you send out that if we send you false or misleading information then you’ll take further action, so I’m begging you, please take action. Because otherwise he’s going to keep doing this because there’s no consequence and it’s getting worse and worse. You’re failing to protect me and the kids, you’re allowing abuse to continue.”

Generally the staff at the CMS are very friendly and helpful, even if they have to stick to a fairly limited script. “I understand where you’re coming from,” is about as far as they’re allowed to go, rather than “Yes, we understand that he’s being a total bastard about this.” They have the power to take people to court, to seize driving licenses, to take payments directly from wages (although unbelievably, the receiving parent effectively pays a fine for this, losing 4% of the ongoing payments, even though it’s only possible to switch to direct collection if it’s been proven that the paying parent has been failing to pay.) Yet over £2 billion is owed in unpaid arrears, the vast majority of it owed by fathers to mothers. Because Simon paid up his arrears a couple of days before the deadline, the CMS wouldn’t switch our payments over to the Direct Collection service. The stress and anxiety he’d caused me simply don’t have a cost, nor would he be liable for any fines I’d accrued if I’d gone overdrawn or defaulted on a payment due to him not paying. What remains unsaid is the cost of all these lies, the fresh pain and confusion each lie causes; How can he do this to us? Do the kids mean nothing to him?

The realisation that it’s not over brings me crashing down again. That the abuse is set to continue, no matter what I do to free myself of it. That by taking the ultimate action in trying to free myself – relocating – all I’ve done is trigger a fresh cycle. Yet again the confusion over why is he doing this, how can he possibly think that this is okay? Part of the abuse endured several years of Simon and Astrid telling me to Get over it and to Move on – but it seems that they’re the ones who aren’t prepared to let me go.

A fresh start

Despite the challenges of moving from the House in the Sky to the Tiny Terrace, I clung to the belief that it was a fresh start. With the divorce and court over, I could take as long as I needed to settle in and rebuild my life, create a new home for my kids. However the abuse didn’t stop; now that Simon was openly living with his new partner it ranked up a level, resulting in our youngest deciding she didn’t want to see him any more. Cue another court case as he attempted to force Ivy into maintaining contact, at which point it became clear that he would stop at nothing to destroy me.

The fresh start disappeared under the burden of legal documents, reports and lies that I was left defending myself against. Rather than creating a new home, I was struggling to survive. Boxes remained unpacked, furniture that didn’t fit up the narrow stairs stood mouldering outside on the patio. When I look back, I’m amazed I managed to get anything done at all, never mind setting up a home! After almost ten months of legal battles, it became clear that Simon was not going to get his way; Ivy could not be forced into seeing him. A month later, he kicked Lily out with only a week’s notice, insisting she came to live with me full time, her belongings dumped on the street outside our house.

The Tiny Terrace had never been intended for the three of us to live full time in. Less than half the size of the House in the Sky, no parking, and not on the school bus route; these were manageable compromises when I bought it in the belief that the kids would only be there for half of the time. It was the only property I’d seen that was remotely suitable while Simon was ramping up the pressure to get us out of the family home. One year on, that compromise had been stretched to its limits.

Single-parenting is hard, even harder when you’re living in fear that everything you do is being judged. Everything was on me, all of the time, spinning all of the plates single-handedly with the added fear that Simon would exact some form of overblown retribution if I stumbled. My own life had ceased to exist, I no longer worked nor socialised. I didn’t go out without the children, I lost touch with nearly all of my friends. When my own mental health challenges became unbearable, it was clear that things needed to change; move now, or stay put for at least another two years until Ivy had finished her GCSEs, knowing that our struggles were set to continue. It was time to move, and this time I would make sure that it really was a fresh start for all of us.

Although we would be bringing some of our challenges with us – autism doesn’t go away – by relocating we’d be leaving some of our problems behind. No more panic attacks in the supermarket, scared that I’d bump into Simon or Astrid. Being able to attend local events without anxiously scanning the crowd. Simon not knowing our new address meant he couldn’t spy on my home. There were positives too; a school for Ivy that had better pastoral care and was within walking distance. The chance for Lily to attend her dream college course. My family within an hour’s drive. Hopefully the fresh start would also give me the chance to not so much rebuild but create a new life for myself and begin to put the past behind me. It felt like the end of a long struggle, and I was certain that the abuse would be consigned to history, there was simply nothing else that Simon could do to me now.

Or so I thought.

Money was tight, especially as we squeezed in a last minute holiday before the move, our first in years and an important symbol marking the end of one way of life, the start of another. I overstretched myself as the first house fell through, and ended up having to borrow money from my parents to pay the removals firm. I started keeping a money diary, but as I was in the process of switching banks it was more difficult to keep track of my finances; all I knew was that there wasn’t enough money in my account and I blamed myself for overspending. However, the new banking app on my phone soon revealed the issue – Simon had not been paying the full amount of maintenance. When the statements from my old bank arrived, it showed he owed me over £1500 – no wonder I’d been struggling. The next payment date rolled around, and less than half of the set amount was paid. Simon had evidently decided to pay what he saw fit, rather than the legally-mandated figure.

Financial abuse is one of the earliest markers of domestic abuse, and withholding child maintenance falls into this category. It’s no coincidence that this happened just as I moved away from Simon – this was retaliation, an attempt to regain the control that he had lost. For the victim, it creates constant anxiety and a high level of stress – money is an inescapable reality. It has meant having to constantly check my bank balance, buying only the bare minimum, putting off the purchases that we need for the new house. Each time that I fretted over money, Simon was forefront in my mind as a constant, intrusive thought. Of course, there was no warning that the money wouldn’t be paid into my account, no time to readjust or budget for the difference. “Sorry, my ex hasn’t paid the child maintenance” isn’t an excuse that goes down well with utility companies or the supermarket cashier. If I was overdrawn, I would have to pay charges, even though it was Simon’s fault – even if I managed to get him to pay the arrears, there wouldn’t be any financial penalty for him, no compensation for the difficulties or fines that he had caused. To have this happen right when my expenditure was necessarily at its greatest – moving house – was cynical and deliberate. Depressingly, our fresh start rapidly deteriorated into more of the same.

Simon doesn’t know how much money I have coming in or going out, what financial commitments I have, whether I’ll be plunged into debt without that money. He seems not to care about the impact it has on our children, from missing out on opportunities, school trips, clubs etc. to struggling to cover the cost of the basics such as clothes, transport to school and college, even what food we eat, as well as the kids worrying about money and feeling stressed. Such issues are the permanent price of poverty; what’s frustrating is when you are plunged into poverty purely because your ex is deliberately not fulfilling his legal obligations to his children. Getting a job isn’t so easy for a single mother with a large career gap and a kid with special needs – Lily had an epileptic seizure at college last week, necessitating a panicked 90 minute drive to get to her, then a three hour stint in A&E, not something that fits in well with a 9-5 job.

The hidden cost of financial abuse is the impact it has on your ability to parent – the children have a mother who is constantly anxious and stressed rather than happy and fully present with them. The fresh start we’d hoped for, the chance to make sure that the last years of their childhood were happy, has been sabotaged yet again by Simon’s abuse. By attempting to punish and control me, he’s hurt his children. And that for me is the most painful part, having to accept that the love he once had for his kids has been suffocated by the hate he now holds for me. It’s hard to reconcile the husband and father he once was to the monster he has become. Financially I’m losing out – but ultimately, he has lost so much more.