Toronto Star

February 12, 2000

Crackdown on deadbeats promised

Flaherty wants overhaul of child support system

By Patricia Orwenand Dale Brazao
Toronto Star Staff Reporters

Attorney-General Jim Flaherty wants to overhaul the province's beleaguered child-support system to allow more of its investigators to deal with the worst of the 128,000 deadbeats.

In an interview, Flaherty said he would suspend more driver's licences and may close the books on 42,000 cases in which payments are being made regularly.

``The goal is to collect as much money as we can, as quickly as we can and as efficiently as we can. . . . I'm open to all options,'' Flaherty said this week.

The interview came in the wake of a Star series profiling several of the province's most scandalous child-support default cases. Ontario's delinquent parents now owe $1.2 billion - nearly half the $2.5 billion in arrears that's owed in all of Canada.

``It's about time they do something more than shuffle papers. . . . Those are good ideas,'' said Renate Diorio, head of the 500-member Brampton-based Families Against Deadbeats.

Diorio said her organization would also like the province to set up a special investigative unit to track down the most elusive deadbeat parents.

Nearly three quarters of Ontario's 172,000 support payers are in default and 23,000 of those haven't made any payments in more than three years.

The Star tracked down one of these deadbeats, Mark Suddick, 38, of Markham. who owes more than $100,000 to his former wife and 12-year-old daughter.

In October, 1998, the province sent his file along with 23,000 others to three private collection agencies. Only $1 million was collected by those agencies in the first six months of the project, according to a report by provincial auditor Erik Peters. The province informed Suddick's former wife, Harriet Levesque of Barrie, that it couldn't locate Suddick, or his assets.

Peters, who has blasted the government for failing to use its many enforcement tools to ensure that delinquent parents pay, says such issues will be discussed in more detail at Queen's Park on Wednesday.

The eight-member standing committee on public accounts, chaired by Liberal MPP John Gerretsen (Kingston and the Islands), will question officials from the ministry of the attorney-general and its Family Responsibility Office about how they are improving the system. The committee will then report to the Legislature.

``I hope they can come up with some ways to improve service delivery . . . and they need far more effective enforcement action,'' Peters said in an interview last week.

All jurisdictions have difficulty collecting child support, said Flaherty, who added that his ministry officials have compared collection rates in Ontario, British Columbia, New York, Maine, Kentucky, Georgia, Connecticut and Texas. British Columbia reports the best rate of collection.

The major difference between Ontario and these other jurisdictions is how they select their cases. In Ontario, all court judgments involving child and spousal support are enforced by the Family Responsibility Office in the ministry of the attorney-general. If both parties make a written request to the ministry, they may opt out of the system. More than 6,000 cases already have been voluntarily withdrawn in this way. This year, the office is channeling $532 million from payers, mostly fathers, to spouses and kids.

Most support-collection systems in other parts of North America do the opposite of what Ontario does, Flaherty said. They have opting-in rather than opting-out provisions.

``The government doesn't need to be in the middle of two former spouses who are honouring their obligations,'' Flaherty said. ``We don't need to broker that relationship and take a cheque from A and run it through a bank account and do some paper work and give it to B. All that causes delay and to some extent some administrative expense.''

Flaherty said one move that might make Ontario more competitive with British Columbia would be to switch to an opt-in system, which is what that province uses. In an opt-in system, any custodial parent who is on public assistance is automatically enrolled. Otherwise, a parent who is not receiving court-ordered support is able to enter the collection system at any time. It does not require the agreement of the payer.

The idea was met with general approval at a Canadian Bar Association meeting Tuesday.

``They expressed some support for the idea as long as people would be able to opt back in,'' Flaherty said.

The province is also considering suspending the driver's licences of more defaulters. Since the fall of 1997, there have been 12,600 notices of suspension sent out and 5,200 actual suspensions.

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