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The FRO under scrutiny

The Women's Post, by Leslie Whatmough, July 7th, 2005

Leslie Whatmough

On June 9, 2005 the McGuinty government announced the passage of Bill 155, legislation that promised to "increase enforcement, improve fairness and enhance efficiency at the Family Responsibility Office (FRO)." However, the legislation did not address the problem of accountability and, as things now stand, the FRO is a threat to every Canadian affected by a government-regulated support and custody arrangement system. Think of George Orwell's 1984 and you'll have a good picture of how issues are handled at the FRO.

They have legal power to extort money from Canadians, but are not responsible or accountable for their actions. Last year an FRO staff member decided not to wait for a court date to review the financial status of an out-of-work truck driver and took it upon themselves to suspend his license because he was, understandably, behind on his payments, having lost his job earlier in the year. Although he was looking for work, the FRO cut off the only way he knew of to earn a living. His suicide note explained how he'd lost all hope. Is this what we want FRO to be doing? It is one thing to chase after "dead-beat dads" (this philosophy is an integrated part of the FRO mandate), but what of the majority of people who pay regularly and lose their job or run into tough times? Should they too be stripped of their civil rights?

The FRO is a government agency and thus immune to extortion laws governing Canada.

The title, Family Responsibility Office, is misleading. Families are made up of connected individuals with complicated histories. To have a responsibility to a family is to have a responsibility to each individual member within the unit. Theoretically, the FRO should be an impartial third party in divorce and custody settlements introduced solely for the purpose of enforcing judgment, much like a collection agency.

According to the official FRO website, "This mandate requires FRO to be neutral in any dispute between a payor and a recipient." The FRO has the power to enforce court orders for the benefit of the recipient, but if its system is neutral then shouldn't enforcement be based on court decisions and none taken if the payor no longer has a source of income and is in the process of having it reviewed by the courts?

Instead, the structure of the system is adversarial and automatically assumes that the payor is irresponsible and deceptive. For the sake of comparison, note the tone in this letter sent from the National Student Loans Centre to all loan recipients: "If at any time during the repayment of your loan you experience financial difficulty causing you to have trouble in meeting your monthly payment obligations, please call us. There are options available to help you." These options are not available to FRO payors. In fact the website states "If a payor no longer has an income source or stops working, the payor must continue to make support payments to the Family Responsibility Office." Exactly how they are to do this with no income is a mystery.

The payor is expected to return to court to have his support obligation amended to accurately reflect his current situation. But the FRO can, and often does, decide that the court process is taking too long and will take enforcement action against the payor, without a trial or hearing.

Enforcement action can include seizing a bank account, suspending a driver's license, reporting the payor to professional licensing bodies, seizing and selling a payor's assets, suspending a passport, reporting a payor to the credit bureau, collecting funds from any federal benefits, jail time of up to 180 days, and identifying information about the payor can be posted on a public website. Also, there are fees associated with every enforcement actions, for example a fee of $400 is charged to the payor if the FRO suspends their driver's license. Is it any wonder they don't want to wait for the courts when they have such a lucrative administration structure in place? The fee structure takes money out of the hands of the children the office was set up to protect, especially when they charge a parent who has lost their job and their income. If it weren't a government organization these actions would be viewed as extortion.

According to Statistics Canada, there were 70,828 divorces in Canada in 2003. For every divorce involving children there had to be a legal proceeding to determine custody and support arrangements. This is an expensive process. The Canadian government is capitalizing on this system with an agency that ensures that parents paying support will be forced to revisit the courts every few years as their financial status changes. Those who try to challenge the system are punished with huge administration fees (payable to the FRO) and even jail time.

At the time of separation, unsuspecting Canadians are encouraged to enroll with the FRO, the agency empowered by the Ministry of Community, Family and Children's Services, because it is supposed to simplify the support payment process. The reality is that once families have enrolled, all money is channeled through this agency, which profits from the interest earned while the funds sit in the coffers for weeks, even months, during the administrative process. The children and parents the FRO are supposed to be helping do not get any of the interest earned.

There are also some very real concerns about the civil rights of Canadians with respect to some of the FRO enforcement powers. Prominent Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby expressed his concern about posting payors' identifying information on a public website: "Canada does not usually allow public humiliation of its citizens. I worry about that."

In a press release dated June 17, 2004, Ontario Ombudsman Clare Lewis reported that after years of neglect, positive changes are coming to Ontario's Family Responsibility Office: "positive movement has finally been made towards acquiring new technology that will better serve clients...we are finally on the right track." Families dealing with the combined pressures of financial distress and the loss of the family unit do not need more technology; they need intervention, mediation and affordable legal action.

There is no question that if a payor is in a financial position to pay, but trying to avoid the responsibility, then enforcement action is necessary. But the assumption that payors who get into arrears do so willfully falls into the same line of thinking as guilty until proved innocent. Penalizing payors who are struggling financially and threatening their livelihood by taking away their driver's license, putting them in prison, or destroying their reputation will not help the children who are at stake in a divorce. The FRO was originally set up to solve the problem of deadbeat dads. It was politically charged and thus untouchable, but at what point do we say: stop? At what point will its power have gone too far?