Barbara Kay: More Child Support Madness

“I’m goin’ to the railroad track, let the 4:19 scratch my back.”                                               – The Band This Barbara Kay article is excellent (National Post, 11/17/10).  Kay is simmering, just about to boil. Her topic is the insanity of Canadian child support laws which bears a strong resemblance to the insanity of the ones in the United States.  Specifically, she’s on the warpath about the multitude of punishments non-custodial parents are subject to for missing a payment.  As I and many others have said before, those punitive measures make no sense because they prevent what they claim to promote – payment of child support. As I reported just last week, Ontario is about to start impounding the vehicles owned by non-custodial parents who fall behind. 
That measure is added to others like suspending drivers’ licenses and passports, suspending occupational licenses, and of course, jail.  Do any of those help the dad without a job or with reduced hours support his children?  No, they make it harder or in some cases impossible. So Kay tells this story.  Warning, it’ll make your blood boil too.

On Aug. 31 Paul Donovan, age 50, a reliable long-haul trucker, lay down beside train tracks near his home in London, Ont., and rolled himself into the path of an oncoming train. Most people would call it a suicide. Not his common-law partner, Brenda Higgins. Ms. Higgins holds Ontario’s Family Responsibility Office (FRO) liable for his death, and will launch a lawsuit to that effect. Paul’s ex-wife works, owns a home and drives a new car. Neither she nor their children — today adults of 18 and 21 — are, or ever were, impoverished. Paul had been paying regular child support since 1996. But during the trucking industry’s recent hard times, Paul was temporarily unemployed, and missed two support payments.  Although he was soon back at work, Paul’s commercial licence was suspended by the FRO. They refused to reinstate it without payment of $1,500 Paul hadn’t yet earned. Their irrational licence suspension ensured he couldn’t earn it. Ms. Higgins’ scant income is only sufficient to support her three children. According to Ms. Higgins in a telephone interview, several pleas to negotiate the amount and schedule of payments with the FRO by Paul, his MPP and an ombudsman were rebuffed. Bills mounted, but Paul’s livelihood remained blocked. He couldn’t afford a lawyer, and when he acted for himself a judge told him she couldn’t help him. The FRO took him to court, petitioning for $10,000 or 188 days in jail. Appalled, Paul confided to Ms. Higgins he would rather die than serve such a sentence. Famous last words.

Fortunately, his children never suffered.  They’re close to adults themselves and even if they weren’t, two missed payments wouldn’t have done much harm.  After all, their mother works. But the fact that his kids stayed out of harm’s way is just dumb luck.  The FRO didn’t care about their status one way or the other.  Bent on punishing “deadbeat” Paul Donovan, the FRO did the one thing that it could to ensure that he couldn’t pay what he owed and what he had always paid when he could.  What if those kids, instead of being 18 and 21 had been four and seven?  What if, like their dad, their mom had been laid off too?  It doesn’t take much imagination to see them truly suffering in all the ways that real poverty mean – the power shut off, food scarce, maybe even made homeless. It’s not as if the FRO didn’t know the situation.  Donovan and Higgins did everything they could to point out the obvious – that if his license weren’t reinstated, he would be unable to pay, but if it were, he could and would.  No, whoever dealt with his case at the FRO knew the facts, but instead of making things better for everyone, they opted to make them worse. So they ratcheted up the punishments proposing a $10,000 fine and six months in jail.  For what?  For being temporarily laid off, that’s what. FRO’s conduct was disgraceful.  I’m glad to know that Brenda Higgins is suing them for his death.  Kay also goes into the latest publication by Paul Millar that I’ve touched on myself, about the history of child support and its enforcement as a way to keep custodial mothers out of poverty.  That might be a laudable goal if there were actually a serious problem, but, as with so much of family law (and domestic violence law), Canada’s efforts were based on bad research, specifically that of Lenore Weitzman whose simple arithmetical error  changed the course of Canadian and American child support laws. Sanford Braver’s story of how he and others tried to corroborate Weitzman’s research would be funny if it weren’t so serious.  Reputable social scientists share their work with others.  I’ve emailed countless academics who don’t know me from Adam, and 99% of them promptly send me whatever paper, study, etc. I request.  The few that don’t are always fascinating. So it’s interesting to read Braver on how Weitzman crawfished for months and years.  Many times she promised to send her data and just as many times, it never showed up.  As things grew more and more dubious, the data supposedly disappeared into a library at Harvard.  (Interestingly enough, it’s the same library into which Carol Gilligan’s “research” on the plight of girls in secondary schools disappeared a few years later.  I think I’m starting to notice a trend.) Finally, Braver cornered Weitzman (intellectually, not physically) and she admitted her mistake.  Her claim of a 73% drop in the standard of living of custodial mothers was actually a 27% drop. But Weizman had successfully hidden the truth for so long that it had become an article of faith with commentators, legislators and of course the feminists who were ramrodding the process of increasing child support for mothers.  Once the truth came out, no one wanted to hear it and by that time, the laws had been changed. From that flawed beginning, child support laws have become ever more so until now we have non-custodial parents who can’t make their payments treated worse than the worst criminal.  Think that’s hyperbole?  It’s not; it’s the literal truth. That’s because criminals are entitled to due process of law.  They get notice of the charges against them, an opportunity to confront adverse witnesses, the highest burden of proof for the prosecution, a lawyer to represent them, and much, much more.  Apart from knowing what he’s charged with, the noncustodial parent gets none of those things as Kay points out.  He can be fined and jailed, all without even the most minimal of due process. All of that is what killed Paul Donovan.  I guess he must have seen it like having terminal cancer; it’s never going to get better, so he ended it on his own terms.

While out looking for Paul on the afternoon of Aug. 31, Ms. Higgins arrived at the scene of his suicide, not 50 metres from their home. Seeing the police cars and ambulance, she “knew” without asking. The trauma threw her into a suicidal depression resulting in a six-week hospital stay. Tally: A healthy, responsible, productive man is dead, a partner devastated. Two middle-class children have lost a loved father, three children an engaged stepfather. At the time of his death Paul Donovan owed a measly $4,000 in child support. Ms. Higgins can hear the trains go by as she struggles to sleep. Is there a winner in this story? If so, who? 

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