Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, January 11, 2003

Family office must be accountable

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Even when trying to polish its image, Ontario's wonky Family Responsibility Office (FRO) can't seem to get it straight.

On Dec. 17, Catherine St. Louis appeared in this column volunteering to co-ordinate complaints against the agency charged with collecting support payments after marital meltdowns.

The agency has been through a series of born-again changes and been constantly under pressure from MPPs, whose constituency offices also pick up complaints. There's no effective complaint process inside the FRO.

Ms. St. Louis volunteered to be an agent for change because the support in her case was deducted and sent to FRO every second week at a fixed amount, but the agency sends it on to her in dribs and drabs several weeks late. Her last payment was $123, less than a third of the father's deduction.

Since her story appeared, with her telephone number, she says she has found it difficult to keep up with the calls. "Feedback has been greater than I expected." Although she will still accept calls at 226-5340, she asks that those with computers contact her by e-mail at catstlouis@rogers.com.

One of the first callers to give feedback was from the FRO. "She (the FRO agent) said there was no need for me to go this route; that if I was having trouble I could be connected to one person (on FRO staff) who I could deal with as my account manager. She said that system has been in effect for more than a year.

"I asked why I, or anybody I know, hasn't heard of that system. If they're going to set up a better system, they should tell us about it. I told her to add another communications problem to the list."

Inability to deal by telephone with the same person on the same file has been one of the unresolved complaints. Agents answer calls on a next-in-line basis.

Ms. St. Louis says many of her callers had the same complaint as she: Money was arriving late and in unpredictable amounts, making it difficult or impossible to plan. Among the more memorable problems Ms. St. Louis heard was one from a man who has custody of the children, but is paying spousal support. There's a court order saying his ex has to pay child support. The spousal support is going out, but the child support isn't coming back.

In another case, a mother reports $1,000 sitting in her FRO account that she can't get released to her because the agency can't track how it got there. "She has been told to get a court order to get it released. But she doesn't qualify for legal aid and if she goes to court she needs a lawyer. Who benefits?"

There has also been feedback from other media and Ms. St. Louis will be spreading her message in Toronto, having accepted and invitation to take part in a radio talk show.

"I'm convinced we already have a core group of people with the right skills to set up a committee that can have some kind of input." She doesn't believe there's enough accountability in a system that reaches so deeply into the lives of so many children.

Grass or Gas

Rick Reimer, a former lawyer and current pot-smoker living in Wilno, made national news this week when acquitted of driving while impaired. He was charged while openly smoking marijuana while driving and police said they stopped him because his car was weaving. He suffers from multiple sclerosis and has a prescription giving him the right to legally use grass.

This touches on ground plowed up in past Brown's Beat columns in interviews with Emile Therien, president of the Canada Safety Council. It was about the responsibility of doctors to report a patient's disability if it was believed to affect the person's driving. Thousands of those recommendations weren't being acted on. In Mr. Therien's view, that was tantamount to leaving too many medically impaired drivers at the controls.

Apply that thinking to the Reimer case. Impaired driving falls under the Criminal Code of Canada, which for a conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This required proof that it was the use of marijuana that caused erratic driving.

The Highway Traffic Act can be used to charge in such cases and a traffic court can order a driving test. If it's his medical condition causing erratic driving -- is his doctor in trouble?

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca

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