Ottawa Citizen
Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Unhappy client takes on bureaucratic Family Responsibility Office

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

One of the most frequent complaints to this desk continues to be the operation of the Family Responsibility Office, the Ontario government agency founded on the belief that dads are deadbeats who, when separated from their children, can't be trusted to meet their financial obligations.

The agency shows huge numbers of dollars collected for the children of broken homes, but there's no way of knowing how much of that court-ordered support would have been paid anyway. The minority who are determined deadbeats continue to find ways to avoid paying.

But how well is FRO meeting its own obligations?

Catherine St. Louis has volunteered to play unofficial auditor. She's an FRO client and she isn't a happy one. She and her ex get along and although the child support is often in arrears, it isn't his fault. The money is regularly deducted at source in the same amount from his employer's payroll office. What Ms. St. Louis wants to know is why it isn't delivered to her in the same way.

"It's getting impossible to balance my books," she says. "I don't know how much money I'm going to get (from FRO) or when I'll get it."

She says she used to get the same amount from every cheque about a week after it was sent to FRO by the payroll office. "About six months ago, I noticed that I was no longer getting the fixed amount. In the last couple of months things have become ridiculous. At the beginning of November, I received $119; then I received $450 and now (four weeks later) they still owe me $330 and change."

Things were still unsettled when we talked yesterday. She says in discussing her problems with friends she has heard similar stories and complaints. "They (FRO) tell me as long as they get my money to me within 35 days they are within their guidelines. That's not good enough."

FRO reports to Ontario's Ministry of Community, Family and Children's Services and I asked the media office there to find an explanation. The response was bureaucratic. "Each support payer and recipient has a unique situation ... The payroll schedule of the income source affects the timing of support payments as well as its amount. Income sources are required to deduct and send support payment deductions in accordance with their payroll schedules ... The amount that an income source deducts in a given month can be different from the monthly amount set out in the court order."

It goes on, but my ability to translate bureaucratese into anything understandable is limited. The question was: If $500 is deducted at one end, why isn't $500 delivered at the other? If there's an answer in the written response, I can't see it. The answer seems to be if there's anything near a balance in 35 days that's close enough.

That's a mess, says Ms. St. Louis. She can't keep her accounts straight and she can't plan ahead. She doesn't think she's the only one in this situation and is willing to collect details from others. She can be reached at 226-5340.

Unmarried?

"Maybe I should be writing to Dear Abby," John Parry says as he outlines his problem with a bureaucracy reacting to terrorism. His marriage licence is no longer considered valid by authorities. He believes it may mean that, after 36 years of thinking he was married, he's actually been living common-law. He's worried about breaking the news to his kids.

The problem arose when applying to renew a permanent resident card. There's never been a problem getting it renewed in the past, but this time the application was rejected because only information issued by a "provincial authority" is now accepted as proof of identity. The wedding licence that always worked in the past was issued by a church, and that's no longer enough authority.

He says he'll solve the problem eventually, but in the meantime he represents proof that when rules change, glitches pop up in unexpected places.

Dear John:

Tell the kids to worry about their legitimacy. Think wedding. Think about kids now old enough to buy mom and dad wedding presents.

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

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen