Ottawa Citizen
Tuesday 30 May 2000

Driving a man into poverty

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

A middle-aged man is having trouble figuring the thinking that put him out of work and parked in poverty on his mother's sofa.

He's another victim of our drive to make certain everybody pays their court-ordered child support -- no excuses.

He's a long-haul trucker, and his driving permit was suspended by Ontario's Family Responsibility Office (FRO) some six months ago. He admits he was in arrears and wanted to straighten things out.

He says he just drives a truck and doesn't pay much attention to paperwork, and the loss of driving privileges was a kick that made him pay attention.

He disputed the amount being claimed, and hired a lawyer to straighten things out. Nothing happened. He frequently called this desk, raging at the stupidity that wouldn't allow him to work so he could pay support. Last week I suggested his problem appeared to be his lawyer. It was further suggested he make a trip to the Legal Aid Plan office to sort things out.

Because children are involved, parents' names are kept confidential in these stories.

He says mention of the lawyer's name at the legal aid office resulted in immediate approval for a new lawyer. He wasn't the only person who found the lawyer inefficient. Now he's left wondering how much deeper those delays have put him into a financial hole, and if he'll ever work his way out.

This man should have been able to pick up a telephone and discuss his problems with an agent at the FRO. That problem-plagued bureaucracy is still struggling after more than 10 years of trying to get its act together. Its new executive director, Sharon von Son, appeared in this column last week promising a smooth-running machine in six months. When the numbers are translated to individuals, they show a world of pain like the truck driver's.

Ms. von Son was in Ottawa trying to calm troubled waters. She was armed with facts and figures. That meeting was organized by Judy Poulin, founder of SCOPE, Support for Children and Organizations for Public Education. She presented a package of painful people stories. A few samples:

Sharon: The payer lives in the U.S. and has been shocked into paying by having his passport cancelled. Then he renewed the passport and stopped paying. She reports she has been unable to get the action repeated and has found FRO agents unhelpful, and adding to her stress.

Russ: He reported he was willing to pay and had provided FRO with information for pre-authorized payments in March of 1999. In April 2000, the processing had still not been done.

Stan: As a result of an error at FRO, he was reported as a non payer and a credit risk. He had actually overpayed, but failure to correct has blocked his credit and is making life difficult.

Bob: His support payments were credited to somebody else's account, and to adjust FRO seized $2,300 too much. That was in 1998. He still doesn't have the overpayment back.

Some parents have found themselves in even deeper trouble by trying to work around the FRO. That can be dangerous.

One man claims he made a deal with his children's mother after she complained she couldn't manage money. He would reduce his support payments, and buy items like clothing, bikes and extra school costs. He kept receipts. He thought it was working well, until FRO yanked his driver's licence for being in arrears.

That was 14 months ago. He now fears losing his job.

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