Kingston Whig Standard

Saturday, October 30, 1999

Father says he's treated like criminal

Annette Phillips
The Kingston Whig-Standard

NAPANEE - Dan Stinson is not a deadbeat dad.

The Napanee man has half-time custody of his two children and until recently he made a monthly child support payment to his ex-wife through the province's Family Responsibility Office.

Looking at Stinson's file, agency representative Patricia Longlade agrees. "It seems to appear he is honouring his obligation."

Why then, was Stinson continually threatened with driver's licence suspension and a poor credit rating? Why were his wages under garnishee for nearly two years? Why was the office unable to fix the accounting errors that led them to pursue Stinson for back payments he didn't owe?

LOOK LIKE DEADBEAT

"The FRO was making me look like a deadbeat dad," Stinson told The Whig-Standard. "They act like I'm a criminal and I have done nothing wrong."

Stinson's government file shows payments have been made regularly, with the exception of a three-month period after he was laid off from his job.

An agency-generated computer printout shows Stinson has overpaid his account, yet the agency has been chasing the man for payments on an account they say is in arrears.

NOT EASY TO DEAL WITH

The office has not been easy to deal with. Stinson was told to limit his calls to one per month. He has never been able to speak with the same client services representative more than once.

Longlade, who agreed to review Stinson's file after receiving permission from Stinson to do so, could not explain the irregularities in Stinson's account.

Stinson's story raises serious questions about the practices and accountability of the Family Responsibility Office, the government agency that serves as a collection and remittance depot for 159,000 parents paying and receiving child support payments each year.

ANTI-FATHER SENTIMENT

It's also, in Stinson's opinion, an example of the anti-father sentiment sweeping Ontario's bureaucracy and its family court system.

When Stinson's seven-year marriage failed, he tried to negotiate a shared custody agreement with his former wife, calling for him to pay approximately $200 per month in child support.

Appearing in court in September 1996, his former spouse asked the judge for double that amount.

Stinson, a construction worker, was shocked when the judge set his payments at $860 a month. Stinson was denied an appeal.

Before the ink was dry on his custody agreement, Stinson ran into trouble with the Family Responsibility Office.

Staggered by the weight of his support payments, Stinson decided the best way for him to make ends meet would be to pay child support weekly. Within days of the court order, FRO cashed the first in a series of $215 cheques Stinson submitted.

Also within days of the court order, and without notifying Stinson, the agency slapped a garnishment order on his wages, taking $860 directly from his paycheque, while continuing to cash the weekly $215 cheques.

"I had to go to the bank and stop payment on the cheques," said Stinson. "I was struggling to keep up with the payments and keeping my head just barely above water. Here they were cashing the cheques and garnisheeing my wages at the same time."

Garnishment proceedings are immediate if a court order so dictates, explains Longlade. The Family Responsibility Office cannot deviate from the court's instructions, even though Stinson may have made other payment arrangements.

In September 1998, Stinson was laid off from his job. He appealed to the court and was granted a three-and-a-half month suspension in his support payments.

The office refused to credit his account, suspending payment for only three months. "They told me their system was not set up to handle parts of months," said Stinson.

Stinson's government records show that during the layoff, any time he managed a few days' work, he made a partial support payment.

Again, said Longlade, her office acts on information provided by the court, which may have inadvertently changed the accrual date of Stinson's account, causing him to be billed for an extra month, or part of a month.

"That's why we say it is so important to avoid ambiguous language [in the court order]," said Longlade. "If the client is obtaining a variation order the client may have to make two payments in the same month."

On Dec. 14, 1998, Stinson was hired by SNC Lavalin. Within a month, the Family Responsibility Office was sending garnishment notices, but the garnishment notice was sent to Procter & Gamble, an SNC Lavalin associate.

The garnishment notice contains personal information, such as Stinson's Social Insurance number and birth date; his agency file number and details of his child support payments. With Stinson's file number, anyone has access to details of his account by telephone.

"I'm trying to establish myself with a brand new employer and these people are firing papers out all over the place, saying things like I could lose my driver's licence," said Stinson.

"Who's to say that my personal information isn't floating around somewhere else out there?"

The legislation that created the agency allows it to send garnishment notices without confirming a client's employment status and without notifying the client. The onus is on the company receiving the notice to alert the office if its client is not an employee . The onus is on Stinson to make sure the office has correct information.

"In some cases, we can't contact the payer," said Longlade. "In some cases, the payers are trying to hide and won't disclose their place of employment."

Companies are bound not to disclose personal information received on garnishment orders and they are not allowed to discriminate against employees based on support deductions.

Eight weeks after he started his new job, amid threats on his drivers' licence and a wage garnishment, Stinson went to former MPP Gary Fox's office for help. The staff there, he said, "were great."

Fox's staff struck a deal between Stinson and FRO: Stinson was to repay the balance of his account that accrued while he was unemployed, $1,160, and set up a telephone banking payment plan. In return, the office agreed to withdraw the wage garnishment.

Stinson paid the full balance Feb. 26, 1999, and set up telebanking payments at Fox's office. Since February, he has made his full payment, $860, at the beginning of every month.

But that didn't end his problems:

- May 14, 1999: three months after paying his account in full, Stinson is advised his account is $1,718.87 in arrears.

- July 27, 1999: Procter & Gamble gets a second notice of garnishment; the office says Stinson's account is $858.87 in arrears.

- Aug. 16, 1999: FRO issues a third garnishment notice, this time to SNC Lavalin. Stinson's arrears balance, it says, has ballooned to $1,718.87.

- Sept. 8, 1999: Though he has made no extra payments, Stinson receives notice that the garnishment is being removed, but a copy is not received by SNC Lavalin for several weeks.

"I have been thoroughly humiliated by this," Stinson said. "I have never experienced anything like it in my life."

Last month, Stinson and his former wife reached a new agreement that allows them to circumvent FRO. Stinson will make support payments directly to his former wife.

That is always the best way to arrange support payments, says Longlade.

Copyright The Kingston Whig-Standard1999