Child support too low a priority

December 11, 2010

Children have a right to be financially supported by both their parents, even after the most bitter of separations. But single mothers often have to resort to welfare to raise their children because the government agency that is supposed to enforce court-ordered child support payments is failing them so badly.

Ontario’s Auditor General Jim McCarter has found that the Family Responsibility Office works actively on less than one-quarter of its total cases each year. Even if a person is lucky enough to have her case make it to the top of the pile, there is no guarantee she will get timely help. The office waits four months after a case goes into arrears before it even starts enforcement action. Remarkably, more than 80 per cent of the calls to the FRO call centre never get answered.

These concerns, outlined in McCarter’s annual report this week, are some of the same problems the auditor raised in a 2003 report.

How can an office responsible for the well-being of such a vulnerable population not have dramatically improved the way it operates in the last seven years? Parents who are raising their children in trying circumstances deserve better.

McCarter notes that the average caseload is unsupportable: each enforcement officer has nearly 1,400 cases, and the computer system is completely inadequate. (A much delayed new system is expected to be in operation in 2012.) As well, it is a tough job. People who are determined to avoid paying child or spousal support can be difficult to track down, let alone be compelled to meet their obligations.

The fact that FRO is so understaffed and its computer system so outdated suggests the government has not given this troubled agency the attention it warrants. Parents in need of this office’s help ought not to have to wait any longer. Queen’s Park needs to meet its own obligations, so that the next report on this agency is a catalogue of improvements and not a retelling of the same ineptitude.