It looks like change is finally coming to the Family Responsibility Office (TVO)

It looks like change is finally coming to the Family Responsibility Office (TVO)

June 27, 2017

27 June 2017

Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé’s latest report includes the usual litany of problems at the agency that’s supposed to enforce child support payments. Still, Dubé says things are getting better.

John Michael McGrath

June 27, 2017

The Family Responsibility Office is one of the perennial nightmare cases in the provincial government. The agency responsible for enforcing child- and spousal-support payments is never going to be the soil out of which good-news stories grow. Still, it’s been a consistent provider of terrible headlines for the government.

There might be some good news coming to the FRO, however, and more importantly to the people who are owed money the agency is supposed to be collecting on their behalf.

This year’s annual report from provincial ombudsman, Paul Dubé, contains the usual litany of horror stories from the FRO, including most notoriously the agency garnishing a pensioner’s income to pay his ex-wife $143,000 — even though she’d been dead for 13 years. The FRO was responsible for the second most complaints of any government agency, behind only the province’s correctional centres. But speaking with reporters Tuesday morning, Dubé said he sees signs of positive change at the agency.

“We’ve seen new leadership, new processes put in place,” Dubé said. “This is the first year of their three-year plan. What we’re noticing is that complaints are at their consistent level, we’re getting much faster resolutions. That’s a result of the work we’ve been doing with FRO and the pressure we’ve kept on.”

If the ombudsman is seeing better results from the FRO, one could say it’s about time. The Auditor General has investigated the agency in 1994, 1999, 2003, and 2010 and has repeatedly found that the agency has failed to take aggressive action with spouses (statistically, most often it’s husbands) who are behind on their payments.

The 2010 audit repeated some of the criticisms of audits past: bad IT management, failure to implement reforms that have been tested in other provinces, and insufficient resources to monitor cases effectively. The AG noted then that nearly 80 per cent of calls to the agency’s toll-free phone number went unanswered because call volumes were so high. Then there was 2012’s revelation that the agency had been over-billing 1,700 parents for 13 years.

In 2014, Minister of Community and Social Services Helena Jaczek appeared on TVO’s The Agenda to explain the government’s plans to reform the FRO. Last year, the government announced a three-year plan to make major changes to the office — the same plan the ombudsman praised for bringing more energy to the agency’s reforms.

According to Jaczek’s office, some of the results the government is already seeing include a much more accessible call centre (busy signals have been entirely eliminated at FRO, and call wait times have been reduced to less than two minutes) and improved collection of support payments. The agency collected $714 million in the 2015–16 fiscal year, the most in the FRO’s history.

Those are all worthy changes, and many of them are long overdue. For example, the terrible call centre service was specifically cited by the Auditor General in 1999. Children who were born in that year will be old enough to vote in the next election. The wheels of government grind slowly, and families who’ve been subjected to the not-so-tender mercies of the FRO could reasonably ask why even common-sense changes take so long.

Dubé says, as with most agencies he’s investigated in his years on the job, the explanation for these kinds of foul-ups usually has to do with policy — not malice or even incompetence.

“It’s more often some procedure they have to follow, they don’t have the authority to depart from,” he says. “Rules applied universally lead to unfairness, and even absurdity.” Like six-figure payments to a dead woman.