Monday, June 08, 2009

Deadbeat Politicians

Last week the Justice sponsored a press conference to announce a "new, improved" deadbeat dad rat line - just in time for Fathers Day. I was disguisted by it. This response in the Calgary Herald captures my distemper perfectly.

'Deadbeat dad' site overreaches

By Peter Bowal,

For The Calgary Herald

June 8, 2009

Last week Justice Minister Alison Redford was merry as a grig when she rolled out a new power tool just in time for Father's Day. An enhanced government website seeks Albertans to turn in child and spousal support defaulters.

The website supplements a suite of other maintenance enforcement measures, including mandatory court hearings, intercepting wages and bank accounts, liening and seizing assets, attacking credit records, and withholding drivers' licences and vehicle registrations. Federal payments such as tax refunds, EI benefits and Canada Pension can be diverted to satisfy maintenance debts. The government possesses extraordinary powers to search government records across Canada and to obtain payment in many other countries, in pursuit of its debtor quarry. A considerable staff for surveillance and investigations is employed to provide 24-hour multilingual service, even texting capability, in the cause.

Modelled as a hybrid of the RCMP Most Wanted list and Child Find, the website contains a photo, birth date, height, weight, other physical traits, and last known occupation, employer and address of its targets. These subjects all owe at least six months of arrears, and are now in hiding and suspected of depriving former partners and children of income to live on. The worst few enjoy special shaming in a gallery of their own.

With the Maintenance Enforcement bureaucracy managing 48,000 files, including almost 64,000 children, who would object to harsher methods to flush out these contemptible absconders and get them to pay their debts?After all, better they pay for their children than the rest of us pay for their children.

While I don't support these shirkers, this government website is not the answer. It does not deal with the related problem of custodial parents denying access to their children.

This website will not be more effective. Who will volunteer to find and scroll through this website? The people who most care about the arrears already know that papa is gone.

We are told that, since 2000, Albertans have helped locate more than 200 defaulting debtors. I would guess most of these helpful Albertans were claimants, their families and friends.

The government's Maintenance Enforcement Program is itself a dubious exercise of public authority. Spousal and child support are largely viewed as private debts. The government does not help to collect other private debts.

It is rare to train the full force of government power on defaulters of a civil obligation, where the charter does not apply. The minister called the website "aggressive action." It is an unprecedented violation of individual privacy, designed to stir mob instincts. What is next, a government website to shame bankrupt individuals and companies, tax debtors, or those who are losing their homes to foreclosure? Debtors' prisons and bounty hunters anyone?

We don't have equivalent government websites on the worst violent criminals.

No two maintenance cases are the same, but some defaulters may not be the monsters portrayed. Only for the government Maintenance Enforcement Program is every case black and white.

Maintenance remains a highly sensitive matter to many people living in the real world. Claimants have government assistance to make and enforce their claims, but defendants rarely can tap into similar assistance. Only maintenance is rigorously enforced. Access to children, which is also backed up by court order and is often the underlying emotional reason for withholding maintenance, is not enforced in like manner. Will the province also set up a website to shame those who deny lawful child access?

Men are increasingly disenfranchised by affiliation law. Their control over reproduction, adoption and visitation are subordinate to the mother's will, but their support obligations rank supreme.

We removed the notion of fault from family breakup law, but we will never expunge it in real life. De facto custody usually goes to the mother. Spousal and child support proceedings are still often seen as one-sided, even punitive. Her own financial support, and her use of child support may be perceived as manipulative. Debtors distinguish between the child and the ex-spouse and, if money is short, they would pay child support first.

Once maintenance orders are made, they are difficult and expensive to amend in court. With interest and penalties accumulating, many debtors see no alternative except to flee. Some of these men suffer addictions, health problems, loss of work and some start new families that they try to support. None of these nuances of human experience will be reflected on the website. This is not an excuse for irresponsible fathers, and there are too many of those, but life plays out in many shades of grey that the Help Us Find website cannot appreciate. In other contexts, we would cut the debtor some slack. General Motors comes to mind. Every government has itself messed up badly on some decisions, with no corresponding personal liability.

All 147 of the individuals targeted by this website are men, another sensitivity at play in maintenance obligations. In any other scenario, this would be seen as a sexist initiative. By comparison, a government enforcement program targeted to one specific ethnic or religious group would invite outrage.

"At the end of the day, it's about the well-being and quality of life of the child," concludes Redford . "Children deserve love, attention and financial support --divorce and separation do not change that. Paying child and spousal support on time, and in full, leads to stronger, happier homes and safer communities."

It is a stretch that this website will itself divert more timely money into the accounts of needy Alberta children. Rigorously enforcing access rights will produce more maintenance money. The website will not itself lead to the "stronger, happier homes and safer communities" promised by the minister, because the public bullying will cancel any gains. Rather, keeping loving parents together, raising their own children, is the best hope in the long term for this promise. That power tool has not yet been invented.

Peter Bowal is a Professor of law at the University of Calgary .

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald

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