Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, March 16, 2002

The booming return of debtors' prisons

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Debtors' prisons are back in fashion in Ontario and the pleas for help landing on this desk are increasing.

These are men who are charged with no crime, convicted of no crime, but are being jailed. It happens at "default hearings" in which they are called on to explain themselves. Why have they allowed their court-ordered child support payments to fall into arrears?

An Ottawa Valley man who admits he's in arrears in his support payments to his first family says he tried to make his case to Family Responsibility Office (FRO) enforcers in Toronto but didn't find sympathy or understanding. His driver's license was revoked causing a serious reduction in his income. He's remarried with three children to support. If he goes to jail taxpayers will support his new family indefinitely on welfare. He wants to know who wins.

A Kitchener man faces a family court judge at a default hearing next week and says his reason for not paying is that he went through a divorce in the Maritimes and when his ex moved to Kitchener with the children, he followed to maintain contact with his kids. He was unable to find employment to match the level he had been earning when support payments were set. As he fell behind, pressure from FRO increased and he had to forfeit his passport and driving permit.

A Toronto man, a self-employed consultant, went to a default hearing with his financial records and no lawyer. He wanted to show how the economic downturn made it impossible to meet the level of payments set when he was riding high. The judge had him arrested on the spot and hauled off to a 90-day stretch.

He says it was an odd experience, being a non-convict in a prison. Since he wasn't convicted of anything he didn't have the same rights as a convict, such as work assignments to help kill the boredom.

This booming return to debtor's prison has happened quietly. It's a response to zero tolerance and the knee-jerk reaction that any man who isn't meeting court-ordered support is a deadbeat. Every one of them is different and in different circumstances, but once pegged with that description, they're prison-bait.

For the best look at how this system got rolling and how it's operating, we go back to February 2000 when it was explained at a hearing at Queen's Park. The speaker was Andromache Karakatsanis, deputy attorney general, and one of the most powerful bureaucrats in the province. She praised the work of the FRO as one of the most aggressive enforcement forces in Canada, "and we are constantly making improvements."

That was the same FRO that MP Peter Kormos and friends raided and found chaos, including 90,000 pieces of "unfinished business" and unopened correspondence lying around. He would later shout in the legislature that FRO was "non-functioning, in total disarray, total chaos, and it's no wonder that women and children aren't getting their money." The agency was moved from under the control of community and social services to attorney general.

Back to Ms. Karakatsanis.

She boasted to the assembled politicos that FRO was now fixed. It had by then adopted a new approach to default hearings. "Too often in the past FRO acted only when somebody complained." A man and woman can no longer discuss and adjust their situations. They have become state-run ex-families.

She reported FRO had seized 5,200 driving permits but gave no indication how many of those men lost all ability to pay because of that.

Then she dropped in the business about using default hearings to send men to prison. Men would be sent to jail through non-criminal courts for unpaid debts. According to those who sat in, not a single elected eyebrow was raised.

That may change when they realize they are building a sizeable constituency of angry voters. There are currently 130,000 men in the province designated as deadbeats. They range from a minority of determined refusers to men who are in arrears because of job loss or can't meet the standards set by courts, which are now using "imputed" incomes. (The amount the man should be earning if he made more effort.)

Searching for an answer to how many men are going to prison as debtors, not convicts, a formal inquiry was fed into the attorney general's department. The answer came from Sharon van Son, director of FRO.

"FRO issues on average 100 new default notices per week, and attends an average of 350 court matters per week. We do not keep official statistics on how many go to jail, but we believe this figure to be approximately 10 per month."

Scared yet? A government agency is feeding debtors into the prison system and not keeping a head count. It's going to get worse.

FRO has 11 lawyers of its own and contracts out to another 117. It operates out of an unmarked building north of the 401 and doesn't give its address.

If you don't hear jackboots you're not paying attention. They're coming to get you -- or somebody you know.

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

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