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

2004-FCY-4E

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This report presents the findings of an evaluation of the British Columbia Family Maintenance Enforcement Program’s (FMEP) Pilot Outreach Project. The Pilot Outreach Project (POP) consists of three educational/outreach and enforcement components that involve payors and recipients of maintenance payments.

The three program components include:

  • Client Meetings—face to face meetings held with clients referred by Family Justice Counsellors (FJCs). The meetings provide general information about the FMEP and maintenance enforcement to payors and recipients.
  • MHR Information Sessions—regular information meetings held in collaboration with B.C. Ministry of Human Resources staff to provide information about the FMEP and maintenance enforcement to recipients of social assistance. Due to a change in program design this component was not addressed in the evaluation.
  • Payment Conferences—enforcement mechanisms used with payors in arrears to help establish a Voluntary Payment Arrangement (VPA) in order to avoid a Default Hearing.

The purpose of the evaluation was to address the following questions:

  • Are the information needs of Family Justice Centre clients and staff being met through the Client Meetings?
  • Are the services provided by the Pilot Outreach Project helpful, client-oriented, personal and accessible?
  • Do Client Meetings lead to an increased awareness of the FMEP and the integration of family justice services?
  • Do Payment Conferences result in access to new payor financial information, help establish the payor’s ability to pay or lead to a Voluntary Payment Arrangement?
  • Do Payment Conferences result in the avoidance of a Default Hearing?
  • What barriers do payors experience that affect their ability to pay?
  • Is the Pilot Outreach Project perceived as a skills development opportunity for staff?

Seven methodologies were used in the evaluation. A telephone survey was conducted with 24 Family Justice Counsellors/Intake Workers at 10 Family Justice Centres to determine screening criteria, barriers to payment and the utility of the meetings to clients and the Family Justice Centres. A written questionnaire was distributed to all clients attending the Client Meetings between September and December 2002. The survey assessed client needs, previous FMEP contact and the quality and usefulness of the service. Fifty-one (75 percent) of the clients referred to the meetings during the study responded.

Two methodologies were used to assess the outcomes of the Payment Conferences: 1) a detailed review of demographic case data and Payment Conference outcomes based on three sources of data (including FMEP case records), and 2) telephone survey of payors. Twenty-five cases were assessed. This included all the cases seen at Payment Conferences between August 2001 and August 2002. Return rates for the payor telephone survey were low (40 percent), primarily due to an inability to locate payors or their unwillingness to participate.

The evaluation also included a document and statistical review and interviews with key respondents. A Ministry of Human Resources Information Survey was not implemented because no information sessions were held during the study period.

Several data collection problems arose during the implementation of this research. There was a lack of data or incomplete data available on the FMEP forms that record referrals and outcomes for Payment Conferences. Data on the FMEP electronic case management system was also sometimes inconsistent or incomplete. In all cases, information on Payment Conferences was verified using the running record, which is a narrative account of case history.

The evaluation concluded that:

  • There is a strong consensus among Family Justice Counsellors, payors and recipients that the personal contact format of Client Meetings is effective and leads to better results (than telephone contact) and increased cooperation between clients and service providers.
  • The Pilot Outreach Project is regarded very positively by Family Justice Counsellors who consider it to be a high quality, reliable and client centered service. The interpersonal qualities and expertise of the Outreach Officer are a significant part of the Project’s success.
  • An expansion of Client Meetings to increase client access at high volume sites, expand the number of Centres involved and open up limited access to other referral sources (e.g. FMEP Enforcement Officers) is recommended by Family Justice Counsellors and other key respondents.
  • Direct, personal access to the FMEP provides Family Justice Counsellors with a valuable source of information and education, which is used to provide improved and more comprehensive services to family justice clients.
  • The regular presence of FMEP representatives at the Family Justice Centres has significantly improved the reputation of the FMEP among other family justice partners. Family Justice Counsellors stated that one of the impacts of the Pilot Outreach Project is they no longer only see the FMEP as a “collection agency” but as a full partner in the family justice system.
  • Most clients surveyed have specific case related problems they wish to resolve with the FMEP but many have been frustrated by the lack of what they perceive to be a compassionate and respectful response (provided through telephone contact). Clients described their meetings with the Outreach Officer as being humane, respectful and considerate, as well as practical and results oriented. There was 86 percent congruence between the assistance clients hoped to receive and actually received at the Client Meetings.
  • Many of the payors attending Client Meetings have a history of irregular payments. Unlike the Payment Conferences, however, Client Meetings are oriented towards voluntary, early stage problem solving. For these reasons, the Client Meetings may be a useful preventative approach to payment problems.
  • The most frequent outcome of the Payment Conferences was the establishment of the payor’s inability to pay and a recommendation to the payor to take steps to vary his/her order.
  • Payment Conferences provided only limited new financial/asset information to the FMEP. Only five out of 25 cases concluded in Voluntary or Interim Payment Arrangements. Of these, only three resulted in payments. Three other payors made voluntary lump sum payments to help reduce arrears.
  • The Payment Conferences resulted in improved communication and cooperation with most payors, however, this only translated into limited action or information in about half of the cases.
  • There is consensus that the Outreach Officer position provides an excellent skills development opportunity for staff. However, due to the small size of the program (one Outreach Worker and one alternate) this opportunity is limited. There are also problems utilizing the expertise gained in this role beyond this position in the organization.

The findings suggest that there is a need to consider an expanded role for the Client Meeting component of the Pilot Outreach Project. This could include expansion of the Client Meetings to more sites—increasing the presence of the Outreach Officer at higher volume sites (such as Surrey and Vancouver) and expanding referral sources to include FMEP Enforcement Officers as well as Family Justice Counsellors. Consideration could be given to expanding the purpose of Client Meetings so they are considered part of an arrears “prevention” approach for payors rather than simply providing an opportunity for information exchange and problem solving.

The FMEP has always been concerned about establishing an alternative service delivery model that cannot be sustained. Referral sources to Client Meetings, however, have already been expanded and now may include the Ministry of Human Resources, Duty Counsel, Enforcement Officers and walk-in clients. It will be important to clarify these sources and referral protocols so that expectations around any expanded use are clear.

The value of the Payment Conferences in achieving payment agreements, producing useful financial information and arrears payments is limited. Some consideration has been given by the FMEP to referring payors with other kinds of backgrounds and payment histories to the Payment Conferences. However, results from this analysis suggest that the majority of the payors now attending Payment Conferences appear to have legitimate issues regarding their ability to pay. A more fruitful approach may be to intervene much earlier in the payment breakdown process. Again, specific criteria need to be developed to identify those payors who might then be more effectively addressed through a voluntary mechanism such as Client Meetings.

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