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Family Responsibility Office (FRO) still in a mess

Ottawa Citizen

Ontario agency admits to overbilling on child support payments

The Ottawa Citizen, January 14, 2012, by Lee Greenberg

TORONTO — Ontario’s controversial Family Responsibility Office has been overbilling 1,700 parents, mostly fathers, for as long as 13 years, the province admitted Friday.

The 1,700 parents were overbilled by an average $75 each month, after the agency wrongly applied a cost of living adjustment that was eliminated in 1997.

Those who were overpaid will not be forced to give the money back.

Instead, taxpayers will foot the $5.3 million bill for the agency’s mistake.

“This error’s been found and it’s being corrected,” said Liberal cabinet minister John Milloy. “We’re going to be reaching out to those individuals (who were overbilled) and talking to them about their situation, formally alerting them.”

The Family Responsibility Office, or FRO, is responsible for ensuring court-ordered child support payments are made. More than 97 per cent of all payers overseen by the office are male.

Milloy said the agency discovered the problem at some point in 2011. No one will be fired for the mistakes, he added.

“I see this as something very serious,” he said in an interview. “I’m not trying to minimize it, but … there’s been lots of action taken to reform FRO, to update computer systems, to update customer relations and it’s on a much firmer footing.”

The billing mistake is only the latest controversy to engulf FRO.

The office has come under repeated criticism for more than a decade, particularly for a flawed computer system that has still not been fully replaced.

In 2006, the agency abandoned a new IT system, despite spending $21 million and three-and-a-half years developing it.

That same year, the provincial Ombudsman criticized the office for a “lackadaisical” attitude toward collections, resulting in a “free ride” for many deadbeat parents.

In 2010, Auditor General Jim McCarter ripped the agency for its general ineffectiveness, saying enforcement was slow, taking on average two years between enforcement actions.

Family Responsibility Office - Ontario (FRO) 2010 Report by the Auditor General of Ontario

Despite moving to a new case-management system, McCarter said 80 per cent of people who phoned the agency never got through. He also said there was virtually no quality control at the agency, which employs roughly 430 people and deals with 190,000 cases annually.

Monique Taylor, a New Democrat MPP said the latest news from the Family Responsibility Office is “another reminder about the need for oversight.”

“Undoubtedly the work of the Family Responsibility Office is complex, but issues like these lead one to ask how many other problems exist.”

Milloy, who, as minister of community and social services, is responsible for FRO, said the agency has lately shown improvement.

“I will not shy away from the fact that FRO has had its difficulties over the years,” he said. “(But) if you take a look at FRO today versus FRO a number of years ago it’s like night and day. There’s a new computer system being put in place, there’s new protocols around customer relations. I’m starting to hear some very positive things.

Conservative MPP Toby Barrett wasn’t buying Milloy’s rosy take on the troubled agency.

“The Liberals have had warning after warning about issues at the Family Responsibility Office,” he said. “Every time the Liberals promise to fix these, but every time they fail. This is just one more sign of how incompetent and out of touch this government has become.”

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