February 11, 2004
For those families in Northumberland County who are frustrated and sick of dealing with deadbeat parents who do not pay child support, the news last Friday from the provincial government was a mixed blessing.
Community and Social Services Minister Sandra Pupatello announced $40 million will be spent on a new computer system to track parents, both fathers and mothers, who do not pay child support. There are a number of other steps the government announced, like making the system easier to access; and to make enforcement of support orders a priority; and to track down more deadbeat parents.
When couples split, by law, parents must contribute to supporting children according to a federal government formula. The provinces are charged with administering the system and compliance. The Family Responsibility Office, created in 1996, enforces every support order made by a court in Ontario. It has the legal authority to collect support payments and arrears and to take some pretty serious action if the parents fail to cough up the money.
That may sound like it is a really tough system. But it isn’t working.
There are about 184,000 active cases right now. The office gets up to 1,400 new cases each month. Delinquent child support payments are worth $1.3 billion. It cost taxpayers $210.9 million because deadbeat parents don’t pay, leaving the other parent with no other choice but to live on welfare. The ones who do not go on welfare are left to struggle with full or part-time jobs, daycare and the stress of not having enough money.
One of every three parents required to pay child support does not contributing the full amount. In the most extreme cases, the parents pay no support. In other cases, the parents don’t pay only part of the amount or on an irregular basis.
The reasons deadbeat parents don’t pay are pretty complicated. But there is some light now being shed on that subject.
On the same day as the Ontario government was announcing its steps, the federal government released an important study done in Prince Edward Island. It is the first of its kind in Canada, seriously looking at what is taking place between parents.
The federal study found a majority of deadbeat parents had the money to pay child support; they just didn’t want to hand it over.
Often the biggest reason parents did not pay child support was based on the type of agreement reached. For those who had agreements where a residence was shared with the children, the compliance was very high. When contact with children was harder or irregular, then compliance dropped significantly.
Notably when parents could sort out arrangements on their own or through a mediator, payments were made. But when a court order was issued, compliance dropped. In cases where one parent left without any discussion about shared parenting or child support, the compliance rate was lowest.
Surprisingly, larger child support amounts are more likely to be paid than lower support amounts, the study found.
When the parent receiving the payments entered in to a new relationship, compliance decreased.
Finally, parents with concerns about the child’s environment or disagreements over parenting (what children should or should not do) were clearly linked meant a drop in compliance.
If blame for the current system is to be placed anywhere, it should begin with the former Tory government. Since the Progressive Conservatives came to power in 1995, there was a 20 per cent drop in staff at the Family Responsibility Office, while the number of cases over the same period rose by 45 per cent.
There are no official numbers for Northumberland County. But that should not diminish our concern. There are many ways we pay as a community.
We pay through our taxes to support parents forced on welfare because of deadbeat parents. We also pay through our provincial taxes to run the enforcement programs.
But we also pay the social costs. The families, who are left to struggle, are relegated to the sidelines because of the unwarranted financial stress. Often they cannot find decent housing, cannot afford good food for the children and struggle to provide other necessities.
The Liberals have taken a small step in the right direction. But more must be done. There is plenty of lost ground to make up. Time is of the essence. The longer it takes for full enforcement of child support payments, then the more unnecessary suffering takes place.
But it also means substantial change to the way divorces and separations take place. Social policy reforms are also necessary to assist parents in coming to mutual agreements either on their own or through mediators. It appears the courts can’t guarantee a resolution as the federal study discovered (and it is more expensive for taxpayers).
Finally, as a community, we cannot condone deadbeat parents. Those who fail to speak out against parents who brag or joke about not making support payments must face harsh condemnation from peers and family members. Our silence is compliance.