Evaluation of the B.C. Family Maintenance Enforcement Program’s Pilot Outreach Project

2.1 Background and History

In May 1997 the federal government proclaimed amendments to the Divorce Act and Income Tax Act and introduced Child Support Guidelines for the determination of child support. In April 1998 the British Columbia Family Relations Act introduced Child Support Guidelines for use under provincial legislation.

To support the implementation of the guidelines and various enforcement measures, the federal government, in 1996-97 entered into a five-year funding arrangement with the provinces and territories. Both an enforcement component and an implementation component (for activities related to Child Support Guidelines) were established under program funding. In February 2000 the federal government extended the provincial and territorial funding to the end of 2002/03 for family justice services and programs to separating parents. The Pilot Outreach Project, which provides information, education and support to payors and recipients, (as well as to others working in the area of family justice) is an example of such a program.

Prior to the passing of the Child Support Guidelines, the British Columbia Family Justice Reform Pilot Project (1993-94) provided support for the improvement of services to parents and children and for increased coordination and liaison between the FMEP and others working in the family justice system. This early initiative, which involved meetings between FMEP staff and clients of the Family Justice Centres to provide support and information, preceded the more formal Client Meetings now coordinated by the Pilot Outreach Project.

The two primary partners in the delivery of services to FMEP clients are the Family Justice Centres and the Ministry of Human Resources Family Maintenance Program (FMP). Family Justice Centres provide alternative dispute resolution services for families involved in maintenance, custody, access, and guardianship and support issues. Family Justice Counsellors use mediation and other assistance to help families to avoid litigation. Family Justice Counsellors are the main referral source for Client Meetings.

The Ministry of Human Resources (MHR) provides British Columbia Employment and Assistance (formerly B.C. Benefits) payments to those who require them. It is a mandatory requirement for recipients of assistance to enroll in the FMEP if child and spousal support is due. A division within the MHR, the Family Maintenance Program (FMP), helps clients establish or vary their maintenance orders. Because it is not within the mandate and expertise of the FMP to provide information and advice about maintenance enforcement, the FMEP has, in the past, provided direct information to some clients on these topics.

2.2 Underlying Principles and Philosophy of the Pilot Outreach Project

Over the past several years, the FMEP has been enhancing its customer focus so that its clients (both recipients and payors) feel better served. Although the primary way of dealing with clients is, and will continue to be, by telephone, the FMEP has recognized that client service can be improved by adding a supplementary form of direct access as demonstrated by the Pilot Outreach Project.

The Pilot Outreach Project was developed to provide limited face-to-face access for some clients in specific situations, recognizing that this personal contact might help clients to better understand how the Program operates and to resolve difficult issues.

Some of the specific factors that led to the development of the Pilot Outreach Project were:

  • Awareness by the FMEP that payors, as well as recipients, are clients of the program, and that their characteristics and needs should also be appreciated, assessed, considered and incorporated into service delivery decisions;
  • Awareness that the current service delivery model has not completely addressed the characteristics and needs of payors who are not meeting the terms of their maintenance order. Payor characteristics should be related to specific payment resolution strategies that will both achieve results and make the payor feel respectfully treated. For example, one of the identified payor “types” is the individual who is suddenly having difficulty paying because of a short term financial problem (e.g. a few weeks lay-off). In these cases the appropriate program response is to try and negotiate a plan for current and future payments based on the duration of the problem (e.g. development of a Voluntary Payment Arrangement);
  • Awareness that some kind of assistance is needed for those payors who are willing to pay but who have become overwhelmed by debt or payment problems. These payors may have difficulties resolving their issues through telephone contact alone;
  • A need to build coordination, integration and positive partnerships with other service providers into the program, particularly with others working in the family justice system;
  • Awareness that payors have legitimate concerns about structural difficulties within the justice system which make it difficult, for example, to vary a maintenance order if the payor’s situation changes. These demands and concerns helped clarify the need for a more personal approach by the FMEP;
  • Awareness that payment enforcement occurs within a family context where there are partners and children who are affected, not only by payment requirements, but also by the methods and approaches used to obtain payments. While the goal of obtaining payments is always paramount, the enforcement approach has the potential of increasing or reducing harm to relationships. Ultimately, approaches made by an enforcement agency could affect the well-being of children.

There has been some dissatisfaction with the handling of client calls by the FMEP, which has led to client complaints. Skills training have now been developed for Enquiry Representatives and Enforcement Officers to improve telephone outreach and build more effective relationships with clients.

2.3 Objectives of the Pilot Outreach Project

Six objectives were originally developed by the FMEP for the Pilot Outreach Project.[1] These objectives were incorporated into the Evaluation Framework (Section 3.0). The Pilot Outreach Project objectives are:

  1. To increase awareness and knowledge about the FMEP within the justice community;

  2. To integrate the services of the FMEP with other services provided to mutual clients at the Family Justice Centres;

  3. To work together with other programs in the family justice community to provide information to the public and other stakeholders;

  4. To pilot the Payment Conference provisions of the Family Maintenance and Enforcement Act;

  5. To provide a forum for, and achieve an understanding of, the dynamics of face to face contact with clients;

  6. (Secondary objective) To provide a developmental opportunity for both FMEP staff and the Family Justice Centres.

2.4 Structure and Staffing of the Pilot Outreach Project

The Pilot Outreach Project consists of one primary staff person (Outreach Officer), who is an Enforcement Officer, and one alternate Enforcement Officer. The Outreach Officer plans, coordinates and schedules the Payment Conference and Client Meeting components of the Project. She is coordinated by an Enforcement Manager who designs work processes, implements training for the Outreach Officer and alternate Enforcement Officers and coordinates internal communications. Another FMEP Enforcement Manager coordinates the team that provides the FMEP information sessions for recipients of B.C. Employment and Assistance.

2.5 Components of the Pilot Outreach Project

The Pilot Outreach Project consists of three components. A fourth component, Payor Information Workshops, is not currently being implemented and was not included in the evaluation design or implementation. The three components addressed in this evaluation are:

  • Client Information Meetings—held to provide maintenance enforcement information to clients of Family Justice Centres;
  • MHR (Social Assistance) Recipient Information Meetings—held with recipients of B.C. Benefits to provide information about the FMEP and maintenance enforcement. The structure and outreach of these meetings is being redesigned and is documented in this report. No meetings were held during the Evaluation Implementation Phase;
  • Payment Conferences—enforcement mechanisms held to establish Voluntary Payment Arrangements with payors in order to avoid a Default Hearing.

Until 1999 the FMEP also participated in Payor Information Workshops coordinated by the Family Justice Services Division. The intent of these workshops was to provide payors with information about the Child Support Guidelines, the processes for varying a maintenance order, the role of the FMEP and ways of addressing debt. Although these workshops are not being held at the present time they may be started again in the future.

The three components included in the evaluation are described in detail below.

2.5.1 Client Meetings

2.5.1.1 Description

Family Justice Counsellors (FJCs), located at Family Justice Centres, provide alternative dispute resolution for families involved in maintenance, custody, access or guardianship issues, through mediation and other mechanisms. Frequently FJC clients also require information about the FMEP or assistance with maintenance enforcement issues.

The first Client Meetings were initiated by the FMEP in 1994 as part of the Justice Reform Pilot Project established by the Ministry of Attorney General in cooperation with the Ministries of Social Services and Women’s Equality. This initiative established a stand-alone service delivery model (including the development of Family Justice Centres) for the delivery of family justice services. The first Client Meetings were not held on a regular basis and were less formal in structure.

2.5.1.2 Location of Client Meetings

Client Meetings consist of face to face meetings held between Pilot Outreach Project staff and clients referred primarily by the Family Justice Counsellors at eight Family Justice Centres in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. The Centres include two locations in Vancouver (Court House and 1st and Commercial), Burnaby, West Fraser (Surrey), East Fraser (Abbotsford), Port Coquitlam (includes Coquitlam), Maple Ridge and North Vancouver. Clients referred from other communities (e.g. Richmond, Langley and New Westminster) attend Client Meetings at one of these eight Family Justice Centres. The Pilot Outreach Project Officer visits the centres one to two times per month. Most referrals are made to the FMEP Pilot Outreach Project worker by the Family Justice Counsellors. Client appointments are normally made in advance. Clients are not required to be enrolled in the FMEP at the point of referral.

The Pilot Outreach Project worker also receives referrals from the Court Registry, the Court Duty Counsel, Ministry of Human Resources staff, the Parenting After Separation Program and FMEP Enforcement Officers. There are also a number of clients who require brief drop-in service or counter service. None of these brief service referrals are formally tracked, although the Outreach Officer estimates these contacts to reach 10 to 20 per month.

2.5.1.3 Objectives of Client Meetings

Client Meetings provide specific information about the FMEP and maintenance enforcement to clients and Family Justice Centre staff. In doing so, they support the integration of family justice services. The specific objectives of the Client Meetings are:

  • To distribute informational material and provide education directly to FJC clients about the FMEP and maintenance rights and responsibilities of payors and recipients;
  • To provide helpful, client-oriented, personal and professional services in face to face meetings with clients who are referred by Family Justice Counsellors;
  • To increase the awareness and knowledge of the role of the FMEP and basic maintenance/enforcement program policies and procedures among Family Justice Counsellors, one of the FMEP’s key partners in the family justice system;
  • (Through the provision of these services) to increase the comprehensiveness of services provided by the Family Justice Centres.
2.5.1.4 Number of Referrals to Client Meetings

Not all referrals to Client Meetings are formally tracked. The level of brief service or walk-in clients is estimated to be 10 to 20 clients per month. Data recorded by the FMEP indicate that 314 payors and recipients attended Client Meetings in 2002. Referral sites are described in Table 1 below (data for the two Vancouver sites are aggregated).

Table 1 Referrals per Site

Time Period Sites
Vancouver (Robson & Commercial sites ) Tri-Cities (Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody) Burnaby North Vancouver West Fraser
(Surrey)
East Fraser
(Abbots-ford)
Total
January – March 2002 28 2 16 -- 19 11 76
April – June 2002 21 12 10 4 27 15 89
July – September 2002 19 12 8 -- 23 9 71
October – December 2002 28 14 12 -- 19 5 78
Total 96 40 46 4 88 40 314

2.6 MHR Information Sessions

2.6.1 General Description of MHR Information Sessions

The MHR Information Sessions are general information sessions held with recipients of B.C. Employment and Assistance who are already or will be enrolled in the FMEP and are in receipt of maintenance payments. The meetings were originally organized by the Ministry of Human Resources Family Maintenance Program in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia in 1999 to provide general information to new recipients of British Columbia Employment and Assistance. The FMEP originally participated by observing meetings prior to making presentations in conjunction with the Family Maintenance Program (FMP) of the Ministry of Human Resources (MHR).

The FMEP component of the presentations was usually 20 minutes long. Meetings were held once a month. Topics presented at the Ministry of Human Resources Information Sessions were:

  • The role of the FMEP;
  • How to obtain an order;
  • Payor and recipient obligations;
  • Enrollment procedures;
  • How to get payments;
  • Reasons why payments aren’t arriving.

Attendance at past sessions has varied (1-10 participants) but the turnout has frequently been low (1-3). A significant proportion of participants did not have or require maintenance orders. Because the meetings did not target those with maintenance orders, facilitators and the Enforcement Officer coordinating the sessions had concerns about their relevance.

The last information session was held in July 2002. Subsequent sessions were cancelled by mutual consent of the Ministry of Human Resources and the FMEP. A new structure for the dissemination of information about the FMEP and maintenance enforcement has been developed (see Section 2.6.2).

2.6.2 New Structure and Outreach for MHR Information Sessions

In order to increase attendance at the MHR Information Sessions and target information to the most appropriate clients, a new structure and plan for these meetings has been developed by the FMEP in consultation with the MHR.

Under this new plan, only MHR clients who have or are just about to receive maintenance orders will be required to attend the information sessions. Clients will be drawn from Region 3, which covers the area between New Westminster and Hope. The sessions will be held once a month in Coquitlam and will focus only on issues related to maintenance enforcement. At the time of writing, a draft client contact letter had been completed and the development of protocols and processes for the MHR and the FMEP was underway. The meetings are expected to be mandatory for all clients with new maintenance orders.

The first meeting in this new series was scheduled for early February 2003, after this evaluation was to be completed. Although the MHR meetings cannot be assessed within this evaluation, the client feedback questionnaire developed for the evaluation (see Appendix: FMEP Information Session Feedback Form) could be adapted for future use.

2.7 Payment Conferences

2.7.1 General Description of Payment Conferences

A Payment Conference is an enforcement mechanism used by the FMEP that attempts to reach a Voluntary Payment Arrangement (VPA) with payors owing substantial maintenance arrears in order to avoid a Default Hearing.

All referrals to Payment Conferences are made by FMEP Enforcement Officers. Although no specific written referral criteria exists, the types of payors who are likely to be referred include those payors who are not paying any of their arrears, payors who are uncommunicative and payors who appear unwilling to pay.

Payment Conferences are the last enforcement process prior to the case being referred to a Default Hearing.

The first Payment Conference was held in July 2001. Payment Conferences are held at two Family Justice Centre Rule 5 sites: Vancouver (Courthouse) and Surrey. Rule 5 sites are offices where clients are required to see a Family Justice Counsellor prior to proceeding to Provincial Court. To date, Pilot Outreach Payment Conferences have only been held at Rule 5 sites.

2.7.2 Objectives and Outcomes of the Payment Conference

The principle objective of the Payment Conference is to establish a Voluntary Payment Arrangement in order to reduce payor arrears and avoid a Default Hearing. Other outcomes may also result from a Payment Conference. These include:

  • The provision of new financial or asset information to the FMEP which may ultimately assist in the collection of arrears;
  • The establishment of the payor’s financial status and/or ability to pay;
  • The establishment of the need and time frame for the payor to vary his/her maintenance order;
  • Information on new or self-employment;
  • The referral of the payor to other services and resources;
  • The development of a more communicative and on-going relationship with the payor.

2.7.3 Number of Clients Referred to Payment Conferences, 2001-2002

Forty-seven payors were referred to Payment Conferences during 2002. This is somewhat higher than the total number referred in 2001 (44 cases).

Table 2 Number of Referrals to and Attendance at Payment Conferences, January 2002—December 2002 (FMEP Data)

Jan—Dec 2002 *
Number Referred 47
Total Attended 16 (34%)
Total No Show 26 (55%)
No Data 4 (8%)
Other 1 (2%)

* These data cannot be completely verified. Other data compiled by the consultant indicate a higher percentage of no‑shows.

The data indicate that only 34 percent (16/47) of payors who were required to attend Payment Conferences attended. The number of no-shows in 2002 was higher than in 2001 (42 percent).

In June 2002, four recommendations were made by the Enforcement Manager of the Pilot Outreach Project to help increase the attendance of payors at Payment Conferences. A plan was initiated to notify all payors about the Payment Conferences by registered, rather than by regular, mail. A second recommendation was that the Outreach Officer include more detail about the results of the Payment Conference on the computer record in order to provide a more detailed case history and improve follow-up and tracking. Two other recommendations are still under consideration. One is that payors who are required to attend Payment Conferences be identified at an earlier stage in their arrears history and the other is that those with a different type of payment history be included. A final recommendation is that a letter be generated by the electronic case management system to remind payors to attend the conference.

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