By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The release of 10% of Chilean citizens’ pension funds early to help withstand the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has sparked an unexpected flurry of legal petitions for child support from the country’s army of indebted “baby daddies.”
Half a million petitions have been lodged for child support payments to be made by the four out of five absent parents - largely fathers – who are in default, according to the Ministry of Justice and prosecution service figures.
Pedro Maldonado, head of one of Santiago’s four family courts, said the avalanche of cases highlighted a problem in need of a solution.
"People think that child support is not an imperative like a bank loan," he told reporters. "The large number of debtors are men because it remains the case that it falls on women to take care of their children."
The issue of absent fathers is far from new in Chile, where they even have a nickname: "Papitos Corazon," or "Daddies of the Heart."
Figures from Chile’s National Institute of Statistics show 42% of households are headed by a woman, above the regional 35% average estimated by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Despite Chile being advanced regionally terms in making child support obligatory, latency has become the norm.
"It is one of the greatest moral dramas there is in this country," Carmen Dominguez, director of the Family Centre at Santiago’s Catholic University, told Reuters.
"Thousands of children have grown up with fathers who just could not care less. It is a completely naturalized reality."
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Under Chilean law, child support is at the bottom of the debt hierarchy and attracts no automatic interest or adjustments, meaning people are more likely to stop paying it than another debt like a mortgage, said Dominguez.
The issue burst into the public domain this month after irate single mothers saw an opportunity with the release of $9.654 billion so far to 7.2 million people from the country’s private pension funds after a law proposing it swept through Congress and onto the statute books on July 24.
Since then, the prosecution service, which is responsible for mediating child support agreements between separated couples, has received 500,000 petitions relating to 300,000 old and new cases of child support debts in the hope they can be settled using the pension payouts, which average $1,350.
Dominguez said those who came forward to seek payments were "the tip of the iceberg," with many mothers simply accepting they had to shoulder the childcare burden alone.
Among those seeking the pension payout of her former partner is Daneri Plaza, 40, who has been trying to obtain overdue alimony from her daughter`s father since 2005.
Over the years, the judiciary has attempted to help her claw back an estimated $11,250 of support owed using measures that included an attempt to arrest the father. But he was never home during the attempts and has not held a steady job for his earnings to be tapped.
Plaza´s daughter is now 20 and studying. Given the uncertain future of Chile´s students amid persistent lockdowns and weak job market, she could still use the money, her mother said.
"My daughter has the right to receive contributions from her father," Plaza told Reuters.
Chile’s Congress, invigorated by the widespread positive reception of the pensions bill, has passed more legislation in record time in recent weeks, including one last Wednesday to allow the pensions funds of parents who owe child support to be redirected to their children instead.
A move is also afoot to add defaulting fathers to the National Debt Registry.
However, with Chile`s unemployment rate at 11 percent and the economy projected by the Central Bank to contract between 5.5% and 7.5% in 2020, there are warnings that latent child support will only get worse if the government does not implement extensive reform.
Patricia Nuñez, early child development officer for Unicef in Chile, said the move to seize released pensions was a good first step.
She added: "The problem is that this ends up being treated as an individual situation, between private parties, but we must open the discussion on the role of the state as guarantor."
(This story corrects to change Spanish word from Papitas de Corazon to Papitos Corazon in fifth paragraph)
(Reporting by Natalia Ramos; Writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Dan Grebler)