February 17, 2000
MPPs attack plan to catch deadbeats
Thousands more children won't get support, they sayBy Patricia Orwen
Toronto Star Social Policy Reporter
The Ontario government's proposed reform of the beleaguered child-support system will create more - not fewer - deadbeat parents, opposition MPPs charge.
``It's a trick . . . a shell game,'' fumed Liberal MPP Michael Bryant yesterday during a break in a four-hour grilling of officials with the province's Family Responsibility Office at Queen's Park.
Attorney-General Jim Flaherty told The Star last week he is considering closing the books on one-quarter of the 172,000 cases the office handles. Flaherty said dropping those cases, in which court-ordered child support payments are being made regularly, could free staff to rigorously collect the $1.2 billion in support that hasn't been paid.
But Bryant (St. Paul's) and New Democratic MPP Shelley Martel (Nickel Belt) argued if the Conservative government moves people off the system, the majority of those cases will wind up in default.
``We'd have thousands more children not getting support payments,'' said Martel, one of eight members of the Legislature's standing committee on public accounts.
``It's a trick with the numbers so that the caseload goes down . . . the big losers will be the children,'' Bryant said.
In Ontario, all court judgments involving child and spousal support are automatically enforced by the Family Responsibility Office, operated by the attorney-general's ministry. Right now, parents can opt out of the system only if both parties make a written request to the ministry.
To date, parents in 12,000 cases have opted out. But Deputy Attorney-General Andromache Karakatsanis told the committee two-thirds of those cases have opted back in because they needed government enforcement.
Martel was also critical of a government plan to introduce use fees into the system. Starting this spring, anyone paying support and sending the government post-dated cheques will have to fork over another $35 to process each cheque. The office will also charge $25 for a written statement of their accounts.
`It's a trick with the numbers so that the caseload goes down . . . the big losers will be the children.' - Michael Bryant
``It's ridiculous for the province to be introducing user fees to parents who are already complying with court orders,'' Martel said.
The committee also heard from provincial auditor Erik Peters.
In a report last year, Peters found that three private collection agencies hired by the government in October, 1998 to get payments in 23,000 of the toughest cases collected only $1 million in six months.
Yesterday, Peters said the government made massive changes to the collection system but has made ``not very much progress'' in enforcing support orders.
Compliance has been a problem since before the Tories took over.
In 1987, when then attorney-general Ian Scott brought in the province's first child-support collection system, known as the Support and Custody Enforcement Program, about 85 per cent of the 61,000 support orders were in default.
Compliance has improved somewhat since then, but there are larger numbers of children going without support and the system is costing taxpayers a bundle.
As of March, 1999, $347 million was owed to the government for welfare paid to people whose spouses failed to pay support. In 1987, that number was $17 million.
When the Conservatives took over in 1995, they were determined to deal with the problem. A new law was drafted to allow suspension of driver's licences and reporting to credit bureaus for those who failed to pay.
In 1996, the Tories closed eight regional support offices and laid off 290 of 352 staff. The system now operates out of one office in Downsview and the staff have increased to 442.
Karakatsanis said yesterday the amount of child support collected annually by the government has risen by 45 per cent since 1995, while the case volume has increased by 27.5 per cent.
``This trend demonstrates that FRO is succeeding in getting more money to children and families. It tells us very clearly that we are on the right track,'' she said.
The changes proposed by Flaherty last week were in reaction to a Star investigation which inspired hundreds of phone calls, letters and e-mails from parents at their wits' end after years of frustration with the Family Responsibility Office.
The Star stories recounted how two reporters found a deadbeat dad in less than a week after the government said nothing more could be done to collect the more than $100,000 he owes his former wife and daughter.
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