Kingston Whig Standard

Saturday, October 16, 1999

System called a nightmare

Ian Elliot
The Kingston Whig-Standard

Four parents who describe their experiences with the provincial child-support system as nightmares are organizing to try and change that system.

The four - two men and two women, two payers and two recipients - have had different experiences, but they describe almost identical frustrations in their dealings with the provincial Family Responsibility Office, which administers the child support for more than 100,000 people.

They say their experience has been defined by bureaucratic glitches, heavy-handed enforcement and an almost complete lack of communication.

Their effort has already caught the attention of New Democrat MPP Peter Kormos, an outspoken critic of the office, who will join the group Monday night when they meet at the Gordon Tompkins funeral chapel on Davis Drive at 7 p.m.

"The Family Responsibility Office simply doesn't function," said Jiri Vasa, who had his drivers' licence taken away for not paying support for one of his daughters. His daughter is 28 and married and he said he fought the office for more than a year to convince them of that.

Nancy Boudreau almost lost her house while waiting for the government to get money from her ex-husband. She has had a frustrating run of problems with the office, ranging from support payments arriving irregularly - when she did finally get them - to not keeping up with her ex-husband's wages.

"They messed up," she said.

"I want to know who, so it doesn't happen again."

Jim Gentle made his support payments to his ex-wife faithfully, only to find out the office was depositing them in someone else's bank account and his ex-wife wasn't getting the money. The provincial government eventually fixed the problem, after nearly 100 phone calls, but entered a black mark on his credit report.

"If you have a problem with them, you are in deep trouble," Gentle said of his experience.

"You don't have a chance."

Complaints about the system started almost as soon as the office was reorganized three years ago. It changed the name from the family support plan, laid off about 300 of the 350 staff members and closed eight regional offices, including one on Princess Street, with little warning.

HUNDREDS OF COMPLAINTS

Immediately after that, there were hundreds of complaints from single mothers whose payments were interrupted and fathers whose payments were not being processed.

Kormos was arrested and charged after entering the North York headquarters with two other people and a video camera to prove "chaotic" conditions in the office. He was acquitted of the charge in 1998 and says the office continues to be "dysfunctional."

Premier Mike Harris described the chaos that followed the reorganization of the family support office as his biggest disappointment of 1996.

Three years later, the problems are little better, Kormos said. The most recent high-profile case involved a Smiths Falls woman who, over four years, did not get $7,000 in support from her ex-husband. She wrote off her ex-husband as a deadbeat. The government had been regularly depositing his support in the account of the wrong woman.

"The FRO continually ranks in the top three complaints of my constituents and it is extremely frustrating for my staff," Kormos said.

The difficulty citizens have with the office stem from underfunding, a small and inexperienced staff and a mindset that refuses to recognize there are problems with the system, said Kormos.

"The problems are gross mismanagement and a complete refusal to acknowledge their mistakes," he said.

"These guys couldn't organize a drunk-up in a brewery."

FRUSTRATIONS

The four affected parents are sure others in Kingston are experiencing the same frustrations. They hope to lobby the government for changes to the system to reduce mistakes and make it simpler to correct errors if they do occur. They are also seeking the right to see their own files, which they say they cannot do now, and more efficient means of communication.

"You dial a number 20 times and after you get through you're put on hold for two hours. That's happened to me," Boudreau said.

"Then when you're finally put through to a case worker, they take 10 minutes to read everything that's been written or sent in about your file and then they tell you there's nothing that can be done."

Linda Drew, who has been unsuccessfully pursuing her former husband for child support since November 1998, says the office has "done absolutely nothing in a year."

The parents say what bothers them almost as much as the office's errors is the difficulty of reaching individual case workers. Employees do not provide their last names, making the process seem impersonal.

"Doug 062," Drew said when asked who her worker is.

"Rodney 334, that's my caseworker," Boudreau said.

"You cannot get hold of an individual in that office," Gentle said. "It is almost like a secret society."

Vasa says he wants the same level of accountability in the family benefits office as in there is in the rest of society. "If I take my car to the mechanic and he doesn't fix my car, it's his responsibility," he said.

"Where is the responsibility here?"

Kormos, the NDP's critic of the attorney general, said he planned to ask the Harris government that question when the Ontario Legislature convenes.

Copyright The Kingston Whig-Standard1999