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Problems plague Family Responsibility Office, forcing families onto welfare

National Post, Canadian Press Keith Leslie, June 17, 2004

TORONTO -- Failures by Ontario's Family Responsibility Office to properly enforce court-ordered support payments are pushing some single parents and their children onto welfare, Ombudsman Clare Lewis reported Thursday.

''A good many spouses and children are not receiving money they need, and they are vulnerable,'' Lewis said as he released his annual report.

''I have great concerns about the impact on single parents with children who often float into poverty.''

Lewis said there are $1.3 billion in support arrears, unchanged from last year, that remain unpaid to families through the office.

''A significant amount of that is owed to the government of Ontario because they've had to hand out social assistance to cover it,'' said Lewis. The Ontario government will claw back welfare payments made to the families once they finally get the money they are owed by the FRO.

However, Lewis said the FRO runs ''an equal opportunity error-prone program,'' noting many men who've been meeting their court-ordered obligations have trouble getting the FRO to stop taking payments when it's supposed to.

''They can't stop the tap,'' said Lewis.

''There's been a failure to enforce and a failure to stop enforcement.''

Lewis blames most of the problems at the FRO on the fact the agency still doesn't have a computer system able to support the payment program and case management, a problem he said the government promised to fix as far back as 2001.

''Well, that's then and this is now and it hasn't yet occurred,'' said Lewis.

''There's human error and there's also technological inadequacy.''

Lewis said last month's provincial budget committed $40 million over four years to the FRO to open bids for a new computer system, which is expected to be in place by 2007.

''One of my greatest disappointments in my term of office is that after almost five years, I'm still unable to report to the public that the FRO has implemented a more efficient computer system and improved its service delivery.''

''I'm encouraged that it finally appears some positive movement has been made in this significantly underserviced area,'' said Lewis.

''However, I have no doubt that my successor will be reporting here next year and the year after on matters to deal with the Family Responsibility Office.''

Lewis said the Ombudsman's office received 1,467 complaints against the problem-plagued FRO last year, second only to corrections, which had 7,727 complaints, most from jail inmates.

''We have upheld a great many complaints over the FRO,'' he said.

However, Lewis said the problem-plagued agency ''is less of a mess than it was five years ago.''

The Ombudsman also released an addendum to his annual report on his investigation into waiting lists and delays in providing intensive early intervention therapy for children with autism.

Lewis said even though the program started in the fall of 2000, it took the government more than two years to develop a strategy to hire and retain professionals that provide the therapy and to develop university curricula to train them.

''I believe it is unconscionable that hundreds of autistic children 'aged out' of the program without ever receiving services, many after waiting over 18 months,'' said Lewis.

The government has agreed to provide the expensive therapy only for autistic children under the age of six, believing that is when it is most effective.

Some parents have launched a court challenge to force the province to provide the therapy beyond age six.