October 9, 1999
Critics slam Tory efforts to make `deadbeats' pay
Do job yourselves, don't contract out, parents group saysBy Patricia Orwen
Toronto Star Social Policy Reporter
The Ontario government has failed the province's children and made a mess of a plan to collect millions of dollars in arrears from deadbeat parents, critics charge.
``The family responsibility office is the Titanic and the children are going down with the ship,'' said Liberal MPP and justice critic Michael Bryant.
This week, the government quietly ended the much-touted plan, which was using three private collection agencies to try to recover $450 million that 23,000 deadbeat parents, mostly fathers, had failed to pay under existing court orders. Over the course of a year, only $4.4 million - less than 1 per cent - was recovered.
``The Harris government promised to hunt down deadbeat dads, but it doesn't sound like they can shoot fish in a barrel. The 1 per cent collection rate is a disgrace,'' said Bryant (St. Paul's).
Bryant says Ontario should follow the lead of governments in Sweden and New Zealand. There, the government pays families up front and recovers the payments from the parent later. ``We need wholesale changes,'' he said.
New Democratic Party MPP Shelly Martel demanded to know what Mike Harris' Progressive Conservative government has planned to help children who go without support payments.
``If the work of the private collection agencies hasn't been effective, what will the government do next to get women and children their money?'' said Martel (Nickel Belt).
Brendan Crawley, a spokesperson for the attorney-general's ministry, says the government is taking back all the cases it assigned to collection agencies and is ``in the process of re-evaluating the project.''
One critic says Ontario shouldn't have contracted out child-support collection in the first place.
``The government needs to get its house in order, hire the manpower and do the job themselves,'' said Judy Poulin of SCOPE (Support for Children, an Organization for Public Education), a 2000-member lobby group of parents.
`The Harris government promised to hunt down deadbeat dads, but it doesn't sound like they can shoot fish in a barrel. The 1 per cent collection rate is a disgrace.'
- Liberal MPP Michael Bryant
In October, 1998, the government authorized three collection agencies to track down non-custodial parents who continued to refuse to make child support payments after conventional punishments - including suspension of driver's licences - had fallen short.
All had been in arrears for at least three years, the ministry said at the time.
All three companies that were awarded the contract - Allied International Credit Corp., with offices in Markham, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Ottawa; Toronto-based Collect Corp. Inc.; and the Brantford office of Financial Collection Agencies - have declined to discuss the project.
``Our contract does not allow us to make any statement or comment about the project,'' said Tim Rankin of Financial Collection Agencies.
The agencies, which collectively employ nearly 2,000 people worldwide, were to do the fine detective work that the ministry wasn't able to provide. Their other advantage, said the ministry, was that they could work internationally.
The agencies were supposed to track down deadbeat parents and mail them a letter demanding payment. If no payments were made, an agency collection fee of 25 per cent would be added to the defaulter's bill. If that measure failed, the collection agency was to pass the information on to the ministry for enforcement.
Several U.S. states, including Idaho, Kansas, Texas and Virginia, had success in recovering child support arrears through collection agencies, the ministry says.
Ontario's ombudsman, Roberta Jamieson, says the family responsibility office is the most common source of complaints from the public. The office's biggest problem is lack of staff, she says.
More than 1,500 parents who hadn't received their court-ordered child support called her office last year to complain.
Jamieson has concluded that the office has not been fulfilling its mandate to compel support payments to some of the province's most vulnerable women and children.
``They tell you how many millions of dollars went out last week,'' Jamieson says. ``The problem is, they don't tell you how much money didn't go out.''
An Internet site, maintained by the 400-member organization Families Against Deadbeats, is attempting to succeed where the collection agencies failed.
The site - http://www.wantedposters.com - displays photos of dozens of parents who owe as much as $100,000 each, and asks the public to e-mail information regarding their whereabouts and activities.
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