© 2005  Karen Selick
Demonizing "Deadbeat" Dads
An edited version of this article first appeared in the February, 2005 issue of Canadian Lawyer under the title "The politics of child support".  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Demonizing "Deadbeat" Dads

I’m still trying to figure out why Ontario announced in December that it was beefing up its child support enforcement laws.  So far, it appears that the only purpose was to score points with voters by appearing to do something—anything—to benefit children.  However, the benefits are nebulous.

            Among other things, the province plans to double the maximum jail penalty from 90 days to 180, suspend defaulters’ hunting and fishing licences, and post notices identifying “deadbeats” on public websites. 

            The bill was introduced with a “Backgrounder” press release, spewing out statistics apparently intended to justify the new measures.  Unfortunately, the statistics bear no discernable connection to the proposals.  For instance, we’re told that the Family Responsibility Office (FRO) has 185,574 active cases, up 45 percent from 1994.  We’re also told what percentage of cases are in full compliance (34 percent) or partial compliance (another 34 percent).  We’re even told how many telephone calls the FRO answered (and didn’t answer!) in six months.  However, none of these figures has any significance, policy-wise.

            The statistics that might really have been useful were missing: for instance, whether case loads and compliance have been affected by the major policy changes of May, 1997—i.e., the introduction of the child support guidelines and the abolition of tax deductions for support payments.  As a family law practitioner, I believe these changes greatly increased the net cost for most payers.  Is this more onerous burden reflected in higher default rates? 

            Ontario could readily instruct the FRO to segregate its support orders into pre- and post-change categories, then compute the rates of compliance.  It seems like an obvious calculation to perform.  However, my guess is that it will never be done.  There’s an ideological interest in ensuring that the inferences that might be drawn—namely, that support payments are being set at unrealistic and unsustainable levels (some might even say punitive levels)—are never drawn. 

            Also strangely absent from the Backgrounder’s statistics is any reference to the results that the province has achieved to date by sending defaulters to jail.  What percentage of “deadbeats” have been paying up after spending 30 days in the slammer?  After 60 days?  After 90 days?  Could the FRO have drawn a graph showing that the more days someone spends in jail, the more likely he is to pay?  

            On the contrary, it seems intuitively obvious that there would be an inverse relationship between length of sentence and subsequent compliance.  Sitting in jail tends to prevent most people—except maybe drug dealers—from earning an income.  The only purpose longer sentences might conceivably serve would be as stronger deterrents.  But realistically, is there anyone who’d be deterred by 180 days who isn’t already deterred by 90?

            Then there’s the “deadbeat” website proposal.  One year after the implementation of federal legislation forcing every last pushcart and lemonade stand to adopt policies to safeguard personal information, the Ontario government now proposes to publish the most intimate and embarrassing of personal information to the whole planet.  Has it not occurred to them that this might prove humiliating not only to the defaulters but also to the children who bear their surnames?  And with Ontario’s outstanding record on personal privacy, how many innocent parents can expect to see their names erroneously posted on the web? 

            Has anyone in the Ontario government actually looked into the factors that are known to correlate to good payment history?  Two of the most important seem to be the parent’s ability to have some input into his children’s upbringing and his right to maintain regular contact with them. 

            According to an October, 2000 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 83 percent of custodial parents received some or all of their required child support when the other parent had joint custody.  Seventy-three percent received some or all of their support when there were visiting rights but not joint custody.  Only 35 percent received some or all of their required support when the other parent had neither joint custody nor visitation. 

            Ontario could confirm this hypothesis using the FRO’s own data.  It could categorize existing child support orders according to the payer’s degree of involvement with his children and see whether the U.S. statistics are corroborated.  Again, I suspect there may be ideological reasons why this fairly obvious analysis has not been undertaken. 

            The logical conclusion from the U.S. data would seem to be that if the province wants to ensure the flow of money to kids from broken homes, it should try doing something to ensure that their parents are guaranteed meaningful access to them.  Amendments to the Children’s Law Reform Act were passed by Ontario many years ago to give non-custodial parents greater access rights, but have sat unproclaimed all this time, waiting (apparently) for hell to freeze over. 

            Then there was the 1998 report “For the Sake of the Children” produced by the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access.  It recommended abolishing the inflammatory terms “custody” and “access” in favour of a system of shared parenting.  The federal government hastily shelved the report (ideology again?), but there’s nothing preventing Ontario from implementing changes along those lines. 

            If Ontario really wanted to do something for families, it should quit the ineffectual posturing and start looking at the measures that might really help. 



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February 20,, 2005