Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday 24 May 2000

Frustrated parents hear still more promises

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

When an Ontario government bureaucracy discovered clients were getting ugly over its incompetence, a quick and easy solution was found.

It installed bulletproof glass. Problem solved. Agency staff were safe from frustrated and angry clients.

Thursday night, 10 years later, the latest director of that agency, Sharon von Son, told a gathering of still angry clients that those days are over. She's the latest director of the Family Responsibility Office. That's the agency set up in the late '80s to collect court-ordered support payments for the children of Ontario. It was then called the Support and Custody Office of Enforcement, and had regional offices.

"I know you've all heard this before," she told the gathering at regional headquarters. "But things are improving. We are working things out."

I heard them before. Ten years ago, Robert Ducharme managed the Eastern Ontario support and custody office, at the Elgin Street courthouse. The office was with dizzying regularity fouling up the communications between parents who needed the money, and support payers willing to pay. Angry and desperate people were showing up at the office, and that resulted in bulletproof glass and locked doors.

As the agency evolved, regional offices were shut and the operation was centralized in Toronto. The bulletproof glass was gone, to be replaced by something more effective -- electronic distancing. One no longer visits the office, and contact is by phone. Agents don't give their names.

From the 20 women and three men who made the trip to the meeting at the Family Responsibility Office came stories of agents who had angered callers by being anything from remote to rude. They complained of long telephone waits just to get an agent on the line, and being told too many times the agent would have to look something up and call back. They don't call back.

The numbers tell the story. A staff of 442 are trying to juggle 172,000 files. It could mean each front-line agent has between 500 and 600 active files, but the fact is they have none. There is no case management. Callers can't request a specific agent.

Ms. von Son said attempts will be made to establish case management. She also fielded complaints that material from her agency was confusing, irritating or insulting. "Bang on." she said. "Our literature would make me angry."

A career bureaucrat with a success track through half-a-dozen departments, she took over the post in January and says more time is needed to work out the kinks in the system.

One critic was regional councillor Wendy Byrne, a support payer. Her advice to the Family Responsibility Office: "You've got the tools. Use them."

"No more excuses," was the title organizers used to announce the meeting. Ms. von Son honoured that, and didn't make excuses. She made promises. They sounded familiar to veteran clients. After two hours, there was agreement that patience would be extended for another six months to give time to keep the latest promises.

Soon after the Support and Custody Office of Enforcement opened, Judy Poulin formed a watchdog group called SCOPE, Support for Children and Organizations for Public Education. She set up last week's meeting.

Through this column she asked for written complaints, and they were impressive. She's still collecting them. Write to her at Box 381, Cumberland, K4C 1E7. Even better, join SCOPE.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. His e-mail address is dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca . Read previous Dave Brown columns at www.ottawacitizen.com

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen