Report

LITIGATION

April 15, 2002

Legal bloodletting

Maintenance enforcement programs are ruining too many lives

By Candis McLean
The Report Newsmagazine

Rick Fowler remembers the "gut-wrenching" case that made him vow to commit every spare minute to helping people known contemptuously as "deadbeat parents."

The case concerned "Edward Cooper" (not his real name), an Albertan formerly married to a doctor. She had employed him during their marriage and, since the wages were a write off, paid him extremely well for his labour. Yet upon their divorce, although he had lost that job and was now earning only $8 an hour, the judge inexplicably based Mr. Cooper's support payments upon the wages he had been earning while in the employ of his ex-wife. Months later, in a presentation to the Alberta government's Maintenance Enforcement Program (MEP), Mr. Cooper's girlfriend revealed the man's merciless, behind the scenes struggle while his ex-wife lived in a luxury home and drove the children to music lessons in her SUV.

"When I first met him in 1997," the girlfriend explained, "he was living in a little room in Chinatown. At that time he had no car- really, he had nothing materially. Financially I wondered how he even survived. When he started as an apprentice cabinetmaker for $8 an hour, the only thing that I saw happen was that he worked very long, hard days and still had nothing to show for it. Legal bills grew as he tried to get a maintenance order to reflect his actual income.

Edward didn't even get the opportunity to see his kids, yet not once did I hear him complain of having to pay child support.

"He lived on nothing. He never had food in his house. And yet, somehow, maintenance enforcement was able to garnishee wages on five occasions. After the deductions, he took home less than he was paying for maintenance on an order that was out of date. He had obtained a new order for significantly less payments per month, yet somehow MEP enforced the old one that was based on a significantly higher income. I believe it was due to pressure placed on MEP staff by a relentless, demanding ex-wife, who used her position as a doctor to influence the action that was taken. "Falling behind in his rent, Mr. Cooper was evicted and unable even to afford a bus pass. "Then his parents gave him $200 to buy an old car; it took a lot of gas and it had no heat. For a little while, Edward had hopes that this vehicle would allow him to seek employment in the field for which he was trained, and thus get a chance to try to build a life. He literally was trying, so very hard, to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Then the car died, and once again things went down hill. "I remember one month that Edward was two days late making his maintenance payment. His ex-wife had him into court and she wanted him put in jail. Of course, even before that case was heard, the payment had been made. Edward fainted in the courtroom, the pressure was just so great. The judge commented, "What are you trying to do? Destroy this man?' Obviously, that was [the exwife's] objective. Unfortunately, MEP helped her in doing so."

Finally Mr. Cooper was forced to live in his car, and eventually, in 1999, he died in his car, using the exhaust to end his life. "Edward actually died of a broken heart," his bereaved girlfriend maintained. "It was unjust, just plain wrong, what this system allowed. I blame [the exwife], but she only did what the system let her do. In the end, Edward was destroyed. His life literally hung in the balance, and when he needed Alberta justice to support his case, it failed him, setting him on a slippery slope on which, unfortunately, he never regained his footing.

"He gave everything financially, emotionally every way to get back a relationship with his children. That's not a crime. All he was asking for was fairness. Justice. He never received it. The impact and sphere of influence of the family laws governing such circumstances cannot be measured. And there are many other children and dads that need to have relationships protected by the law, not allowed to die. God gave every child two parents for a very simple reason: every child needs influence and a relationship with both parents. Anything less is robbing our children of the emotional wholeness that they so definitely deserve."

In the two years since listening, "heartbroken," to this woman's story, Mr. Fowler, a journeyman painter and a director of the Equitable Child Maintenance and Access Society in Edmonton (ecmas@geocities.com), has lived up to his vow, helping over 140 people through a myriad of problems associated with maintenance enforcement. As well as dealing with individual cases, his committee meets with MEP management every 60 days to discuss sorely needed changes to the system, which deals with "deadbeat parents." These are the divorced parents who are denied primary custody of their children following a divorce, and who therefore must make payments toward their support, but for various reasons usually poverty are not able to do so. These are handled by collection programs run by provincial justice or social service departments; Mr. Fowler believes Alberta MEP is a leader, one of the few willing to work with non-custodial groups such as his, to improve services. According to MEP director Manuel da Costa, "We're an in your face organization, but we also use counselling, mediation and dialoguing with groups like ECMAS." Of all files with the collection program, 25% never have problems, 65% have occasional problems and 10% are actively pursued the true "deadbeats" who seek to escape by constantly moving and joining the underground economy, dealing strictly in cash and leaving no paper trail. MEP special investigators perform yeoman service in running many of them to the ground. The problem occurs, however, when maintenance enforcement services utilize similar collection techniques on the 90% of parents who want nothing more than to provide for their children and meet their payments.

One of Mr. Cooper's distraught friends wrote to ECMAS: "We have enclosed a copy of a death announcement for Edward Cooper. Why are we doing this? To illustrate another death that may be attributed to the pressure Gestapo tactics of the Alberta maintenance enforcement ...Yes, maintenance is also after me. My employer has threatened to fire me even though maintenance enforcement says they can't. What a joke. They phone up the employer and reveal my whole life's history, hence my employer thinks I am the worst father in the world. Perhaps I will do the same a rope and a stool just like the Shawshank Redemption movie."

Copyright, 2002 The Report, http://report.ca