Auditor General of Ontario
2012 Annual Report Follow-up of Family Responsibility Office FRO of 2010
Chapter 4 Follow-up Section 4.03, page 333
Ministry of Community and Social Services
Family Responsibility Office
Follow-up to VFM Section 3.03, FRO 2010 Annual Report
All court orders for child and spousal support related to divorce or separation proceedings are automatically filed with the Family Responsibility Office (Office), whose job it is to enforce family-support obligationsâ€”aggressively if necessaryâ€”and remit support payments to their intended recipients on a timely basis.
The Office's clients are among society's most vulnerable; many of those who have their support orders enforced by the Office also collect social assistance, often because their former partners failed to pay spousal or child support.
Enforcing court orders for spousal and child support can be difficult, and while many willingly meet their support obligations, many others go to great lengths to avoid making their required payments. While acknowledging this, our 2010 audit found that the Office was still not successful in achieving its mandate of collecting unpaid child and spousal support payments. We had a similar conclusion the last time we audited this program. We concluded in our 2010 Annual Report that the Office must take more aggressive enforcement action, enhance its case-management process, and improve its information technology and communications systems. As well, management needed to work to instill a culture of achievement to make the needed changes. Some of our other observations at that time included:
- The Office was slow in following up, where necessary, and in registering completed court orders for family support. Such delays make cases in arrears much more difficult to enforce and can result in undue hardship on recipients awaiting support payments.
- Although the Office assigned responsibility for each case to an individual enforcement services officer, this case-ownership model continued to have significant shortcomings, including that payers and recipients did not have direct access to their assigned officer.
- Call volumes at the Office's toll-free call centre were so high that nearly 80% of calls never got through. Of those that did, one in seven callers hung up before the call was answered.
- The status of almost one-third of outstanding bring-forward notesâ€”intended to trigger specific action on a case within one monthâ€”was â€œopen,â€ indicating either that the notes had been read but not acted upon, or that they had not been read at all.
- For ongoing cases, the Office took almost four months from the time the case went into arrears before taking its first enforcement action. For newly registered cases that went straight into arrears, the delay was seven months from the issue of the court order
- The Office acted in only one in four or one in five cases each year to, for example, take enforcement action, update case information, or track down delinquent payers.
- The Office had no quality control process or effective managerial oversight to assess whether enforcement staff have made reasonable efforts to collect outstanding amounts.
- The Office could not provide us with a detailed listing by individual account that added up to $1.6 billion, which was the figure provided to us as the total outstanding arrears as of December 31, 2009.
- The statistical information supplied monthly to the Ministry of Community and Social Services did not provide a useful summary of the Office's successes and failures in collecting outstanding support payments or in achieving its other key operational objectives.
- Security weaknesses in the Office's information technology system put sensitive personal client information at risk of unauthorized access.
- On a positive note, accounting controls covering payments from support payers and the subsequent disbursement to intended recipients were generally satisfactory, and most support payments received were disbursed to clients within 48 hours of receipt.
We made a number of recommendations for improvement and received commitments from the Office that it would take action to address our concerns.
STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
The Standing Committee on Public Accounts held a hearing on this audit in March 2011. In May 2011, the Committee tabled a report in the Legislature resulting from this hearing. The report contained 16 recommendations and requested that the Office report back to the Committee with respect to the following:
- the results of its review of a pilot project in which a clerk employed by the Ministry of the Attorney General had been loaned to the Office to process documents passing between certain court districts and the Office and so reduce backlogs, the impact of the project on the Office's enforcement of family-support court orders, and whether the project will be expanded to other Ontario court districts;
- recent monthly statistics on calls to the call centre (calls answered, abandoned and blocked, broken down by local versus 1-800 calls) and the Office's efforts to report them quarterly on its website;
- recent monthly statistics on office staff absen-teeism and attendance trends by branch;â€¢t he Office's progress in obtaining suggestions for improvement from MPP constituency office caseworkers;â€¢t he current status of outstanding bring-forward notes (notes requiring follow-up action on a case to be taken within a month's time), the date by which the Office is to finish revising its policies and procedures for the proper use of these notes, and the Office's plan to routinely check and ensure that staff are issuing the notes appropriately;
- how other jurisdictions approach the enforce-ment of support orders to payers whose financial circumstances have temporarily and/or unexpectedly declined;
- any steps the Office will take to determine whether enforcement officers are taking the most effective and appropriate enforcement actions, including using its new management system technology to proactively flag recom-mended enforcement actions;
- the Office's progress in negotiating with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to have OHIP provide it with up-to-date payer contact information to help the Office enforce support orders;
- the best option for a caseload management model as determined by the Office's review 335Family Responsibility OfficeChapter4â€¢Follow-upSection4.03of caseload management models in other jurisdictions;
- whether the Office is using its capability of determining at the end of each month if a payer has made his or her support payment, and if it is, whether the Office is sending a letter informing payers who have not paid that they are in arrears and have 15 days to respond or face further enforcement action, and if it is not, its reasons for not doing so;
- the results of the Office's analysis of support payments in arrears, including the amount the Office believes is recoverable and whether other jurisdictions can â€œwrite offâ€ amounts deemed unrecoverable;
- highlights of the Office's expected September 2011 report on operational performance measures and its progress on instilling a more results-oriented culture in its workforce;
- whether the implementation of the Office's new case-management system is on schedule for spring 2012 and the timeline for the system's key phases;
- whether the case-management system will be able to search other ministries' databasesâ€”within the bounds of privacy lawsâ€”for contact information on support payers in arrears; and
- the Office's strategy for training its workforce on each phase of the case-management system and its plans for evaluating whether the system meets its business needs.
The Committee also recommended that the Minister of Community and Social Services request early in the next Parliament that a government motion be introduced to establish a Select Committee under Standing Order 112(a) to undertake a comprehen-sive and comparative review of the Office.
The Office formally responded to the Committee in September 2011. A number of issues raised by the Committee were similar to our observations. Where the Committee's recommendations are similar to ours, this follow-up includes the recent actions reported by the Office to address the concerns raised by both the Committee and our 2010 audit.
Status of Actions Taken on Recommendations
On the basis of information provided by the Office, we concluded that it had made some progress on all of our recommendations, with significant progress being made on several of them. Signifi-cant improvements have been made in registering support obligations and in introducing a case-management client-service model, and further improvements are expected once implementation of the new case-management technology system is completed. Efforts to reduce payments in arrears and suspense account balances and to improve performance measurement are ongoing.
The status of action taken on each of our recommendations was as follows.
REGISTRATION OF SUPPORT OBLIGATIONS FOR ENFORCEMENT
To maximize the likelihood of successfully collecting support obligations, and to help minimize hardships for recipients awaiting their support payments, the Family Responsibility Office should:
- work proactively with family courts in Ontario to encourage them to provide complete and accurate information on a more timely basis so that family-support obligations can be registered and enforced more promptly; and
- register and begin to administer new cases requiring no additional information within the Office's internal target of 30 days of receipt of the court order.
In our 2010 Annual Report we noted that the Office received court orders, on average, 48 days after they had been issued by the courts, and there were no ongoing initiatives to encourage the courts to forward all support orders or separation agreements in a timely manner. We also found that on