Park Eun-jeong (not her real name), a single mother of two, suffered a car accident just seven months after her divorce back in 2014. Her husband had agreed to wire 800,000 won ($688) monthly for child support when signing his divorce papers. But he abruptly changed his phone number and stopped paying the funds after learning about Park’s accident.
Severely injured in the spine and unable to work, she relied on the government’s emergency needs allowance for seven months until she was told that she is no longer eligible for the specific benefit.
“I called my ex-husband at work countless times but I was only told by his colleagues that he was ‘unable’ to take my calls,” the 30-year-old mother said at a meeting with reporters on Thursday. “That’s when I decided to seek help at the state-run Child Support Agency.”
Park is one of 2,837 South Korean single parents who have received overdue child support from their ex-spouses or ex-romantic partners, with the support of the Child Support Agency which was established last year.
The agency was established after a government study showed that 83 percent of all single parents in South Korea never received any child support payments from non-custodial parents in 2012. Only 4.6 percent of them filed lawsuits. Even among those who won their cases, 77.34 percent said they never received any money, in spite of court orders.
As of last year, almost 80 percent of all Korean single parents were women.
Since its establishment in March last year, the agency has collected some 3.8 billion won worth of overdue child support payments.
“So many mothers have come to us saying they decided to talk to us as a last resort,” said Lee Seon-hee, the head of the agency. “Many of them told us that they seriously thought of giving up their lives before finding out about us. Child support is every child’s right, not a parent’s or anyone else’s to sign away or waive.”
According to the agency, 86 percent of all single parents who filed a request to collect overdue support from the other parent were female. A total of 76 parents were either foreign-born marriage immigrants or Koreans who married foreign spouses. Twenty-three were grandparents who filed requests to collect support from their grown-up children or children-in-laws. Meanwhile, unwed single parents only accounted for 5.34 percent of all single parents who sought help at the agency.
“For an unwed single parent to receive child support, he or she needs to prove that the child is a biologically linked to his or her ex,” said a lawyer who works at the agency. “But it’s difficult for them to get their ex to take a DNA test at a medical facility, especially when they have lost contact.”
Also, 57.28 percent of the parents who received the overdue payments through the agency were those who lived in the metropolitan Seoul and Gyeonggi Province areas. The agency currently does not have any branches outside of Seoul.
Statistics revealed that of parents who were involved in international marriages, more than 50 percent of those requesting for the agency’s support were Korean- born men. “Many of these fathers were divorced after their ex-spouses ran away from home,” an official said.
The agency said its staff had to convince many non-custodial parents that they have a responsibility to provide support for their children to the extent that they can.
For example, a father who divorced his ex-wife, a female North Korean defector, refused to pay the overdue funds when first contacted by the agency. His wife had filed for divorce citing his constant physical abuse, which the court had approved. With all of her family members in the North, she had no one to rely on in South Korea after the separation.
“He told us that he’s not financially capable of supporting his 12-month-old child, and asked if the government can support the child instead of him,” an official from the agency said. “He was also still upset at the fact that the court ruled in favor of his ex-wife, although he did not want to get divorced in spite of his history of abuse.”
Another father who divorced his Philippine-born ex-wife also refused to pay child support for his five-year-old daughter.
His ex-spouse, who has been living at a shelter for victims of domestic violence after they divorced and has been unable to find a job, visited the agency to file a request for child support.
When contacted by the agency, the man claimed he had “no responsibility” to support his daughter as he had given up custody of the child. It was only when the agency informed him that he could automatically lose a portion of his monthly wages from work that he agreed to pay the support.
For Kim Myung-soon (not her real name), a grandparent in her 70s who is raising her two grandchildren without any support from her adult children, the situation is even more challenging.
Her son has been missing since 2013 and his ex-wife has been refusing to provide any financial support for her children. Kim is currently preparing a lawsuit against her ex-daughter-in-law with support from the agency.
“I can’t afford to send my teenage grandson to a hagwon, a private education institute, so he spends most of his time alone at an Internet-cafe,” she said in a meeting with reporters, sobbing. “He’s been acting increasingly aggressive at home. When he screams at me and my husband, saying not being raised by his parent makes him vulnerable to bullying at school, I don’t know what to do.”
On top of educating non-custodial parents on parental responsibility, lawyers at the agency said such parents also need advice on how to spend time with their children after they divorce.
“We are currently trying to provide meeting sessions and prior advice for non-custodial parents who wish to spend time with their children,” said Bae So-young, a lawyer at the agency.
“What they should never do is to talk negatively of their former spouse to their children, as young kids may find it painful to digest such blame, especially after going through a family separation.”
Another lawyer said she is often concerned for her clients’ children even after the cases are settled.
One of her clients’ ex-husband at first refused to pay his overdue support, claiming he is a credit delinquent and had no income. About a week after, he suddenly announced that he wished to raise his two children himself instead of providing financial support.
“When I asked him how he is going to do that when he is a credit delinquent, he gave us absurd answers such as ‘I don’t have any cash but I still have credit cards to use,’” she said.
In the end, the client agreed to send one of her two children to live with the father so he can raise the child on his own.
“I was against the idea, but couldn’t intervene as my client gave her consent.”
The lawyer said the best way to tackle the nations’ child support issue is to introduce a bill that criminalizes parents’ failure to give legal child support.
“Realistically, though, that could take many years to happen,” she said.
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org