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



5.4 Payment Conference Telephone Survey

5.4.1 Description and Participation Rates

A telephone survey of payors who had attended Payment Conferences was carried out in order to assess the outcomes, impacts and effectiveness of the Payment Conference. The telephone interviews collected data on:

Response rates for the telephone survey were low. Only 8/23 payors (representing 40 percent or 10/25 of the cases) responded, despite extensive contact efforts on the part of the researcher. The lack of response was due to Not in Service telephone numbers (4), direct refusals (4), payors not returning calls (3), payors denying attendance at the Payment Conference (2) or denial from the person answering the telephone that s/he was the payor (2).

5.4.2 Contact with the FMEP Prior to Payment Conference

Surprisingly, of the eight respondents to the survey only two said that they had had any prior telephone contact with the FMEP. Only one of these payors said that this contact had been regular. One payor rated this contact as not helpful; the other payor said telephone assistance was moderately helpful because a consistent worker was involved with his case.

“I worked with the same worker who always called me back. It was very helpful once a single worker was handling my case.”

The payor who described the telephone contact as not helpful said that this was because case information had not been passed on.

“I explained to them that my son was very ill so I could not be in court. The FMEP did not even bother to pass the information along, so I was arrested.”

The reasons cited for past telephone contacts with the FMEP were:

5.4.3 Previous Payment Issues

Five of the eight payors described job loss as a major factor in not being able to make the required payments. In two other cases, payors described themselves as not making enough money to make payments and survive. In another case, a payor had a custody issue related to the children that he felt affected payments. In a case where the payor had lost his employment, the eligibility of an older child was questioned.

Despite the fact that many payors felt they were unable to pay, only 3/8 said that, prior to the Payment Conference, they realized that they needed to vary their maintenance orders.

5.4.4 Issues Discussed at the Payment Conference

Despite the fact that many payors did not identify the need to vary their orders, this was one of the issues most frequently discussed at the Payment Conference. The limited data suggest that a significant number of payors in arrears may need information on this option.

“I was unable to pay—lost my employment. I was unaware of being able to vary my order, so the arrears mounted up.”

Four of the eight payors wanted information on enforcement mechanisms, some of which had affected their employment (e.g. Driver’s License).

Table 30 Issues Dealt with at the Payment Conference

Issue Number*
(N = 8)
Payor's ability to pay. 7
Need to vary the maintenance order. 6
Information about enforcement mechanisms. 4
Change in financial status. 3
Asset and financial information. 2
Eligibility issues. 2
New employment information. 1
Arrears. 1
How the FMEP works. 1
Legal issues. 1

* Respondents provided more than response.

5.4.5 Payor Assessment of the Quality of the Payment Conference

Five aspects of the quality of the Payment Conference were rated by payors using a seven-point scale.

The convenience and accessibility of the meeting location were given the lowest rating by payors. This may reflect the fact that the conferences are held at only two sites, necessitating a long drive for some. The convenience of the meeting time was given only a moderate rating by most. Payors may have to take time off work to attend the meetings.

Table 31 Payor Rating of the Quality of the Payment Conference N=8

Quality Aspects of Payment Conference Ratings
1 2 3
4 5
6 7

Accessibility and convenience of meeting location.

3 3 2

Convenience of meeting time.

  6 2

Professionalism and courtesy of staff.

  1 7

Knowledge of FMEP staff person.

  2 6

Staff willing to listen to (payor) concerns.

  2 6

The attitude and response of the Outreach Officer was rated very highly by the payors, particularly in the area of professionalism and courtesy. These positive assessments corroborate the positive ratings given by Family Justice Counsellors and clients attending Client Meetings.

Because of their past negative payment history, many of these payors have a negative attitude towards the FMEP. These ratings suggest that responsive and respectful communication can change attitudes, although it is not clear whether this change is long lasting.

5.4.6 Specific Result of the Payment Conference

Payors were asked to describe the results of the Payment Conference from their perspective. In 4/8 cases, the result of the conference was a recommendation to vary the payor’s maintenance order. In one case, the payor was given help to renegotiate the amount of his garnishee and in another case a Voluntary Payment Arrangement was arranged. Two payors said the result of the meeting was that the FMEP had a better “understanding of their situation and inability to pay” (no concrete results were identified).

5.4.7 Payor’s Assessment of the Helpfulness and Limitations of the Payment Conference

Payors were asked to assess the helpfulness of the Payment Conference in three areas:

Table 32 Helpfulness of the Payment Conference N=8

Aspect of Payment Conference

Not helpful 1 2 3 Moderately helpful
4 5
6 7

Increasing understanding of the role and mandate of the FMEP.

2 2 4

Addressing problems that affected the payor's ability to pay.

  3 5

Assisting payors to meet the terms of their* maintenance orders.

3   4

* One case—no data.

Payors described the most helpful outcome of the Payment Conference as the addressing of problems that had affected their ability to pay. Five out of the eight payors said that they were not aware of options to deal with their arrears until they had met with the Outreach Officer.

“Until then I had no idea of what I could do. I thought it was jail time as there were no other avenues open.”

Six of the payors described the information they received about the FMEP at the Payment Conference to be moderately or very helpful.

“It (Payment Conference) certainly enlightened me…. I didn’t know the system.”

Several payors said that even though they received information about the FMEP at the Payment Conference, they still did not understand or find acceptable the mandate of the program.

“It is very one sided—makes the payor feel like a criminal and to feel persecuted. I had some prior knowledge, but although it was explained well, I was not impressed with the mandate.”

Opinions were polarized on whether the Payment Conference had helped payors meet the terms of their maintenance order. In three cases, the payors said the information didn’t actually change or help their situations; in four other cases, payors said that they were given information about what they needed to do to pay their arrears or vary their orders.

Payors identified three specific aspects of the Payment Conference that they considered to be “most helpful.” The first was that the Outreach Officer listened to the payor’s side of the story, showing sympathy and not stereotyping the payor.

“It was the fact that I was listened to. I was not treated like a deadbeat. I became part of the solution rather than the problem.”

The second aspect of the Payment Conference considered to be helpful was that the meeting provided specific, concrete advice based on the details of the payor’s case. The advice given was practical and based on the payor’s situation.

Finally, most of the payors valued the empathy and willingness to help conveyed by the Outreach Officer. This was in contrast to the way some felt about previous contacts with the FMEP, which they described as one-sided.

“She defused the problem. (The) FMEP are like a collection agency. Everyone’s back is up. I felt she was there for me as well as for the recipient.”

Four of the eight payors identified aspects of the Payment Conference that were not helpful. In one case, a payor said the introduction to the meeting was negative because it started with threats of enforcement and jail. In another case, the payor was disturbed that garnishee payments sent to the recipient (that were later reduced) were not repaid to him. In one other case, the payor was frustrated that the FMEP could not arrange for an enforcement measure to be terminated. Finally, a payor complained that information on his case was not readily accessible on the computer at the time of the Payment Conference.

5.4.8 Does the Payment Conference Change the Payor’s Outlook on Making Maintenance Payments?

Two out of the eight payors said that the Payment Conference had little or no impact on their outlook and attitude towards making payments. Three said it had a moderate impact and three said it improved their attitude towards making payments. In one of the two cases where the outlook had not changed, the payor said that that he had always had a good attitude towards making payments.

“The Payment Conference had nothing to do with my making payments. I feel that my kids are my responsibility. It was my inability to pay that started the whole crisis.”

The payors who felt that the Payment Conference had a very positive impact on their outlook cited three reasons: 1) a feeling that the Payment Conference helped defuse their animosity towards the FMEP; 2) assistance with steps to vary the order; and 3) the development of a Voluntary Payment Arrangement to address the arrears.

“The FMEP approaches payors with terrible animosity. There is no accessibility to them and it seems impossible to talk to anyone. No names are used when they talk to you. They make it as painful as possible. The Outreach Officer was very empathetic and helped me to solve some of my problems.”

5.4.9 Value of Face to Face Meetings in Comparison with Telephone Contact

One payor said that he preferred telephone contact to a face to face meeting because it was more convenient and less time consuming. The other seven payors identified many advantages of a personal meeting over telephone contact. The most important was that, in the personal meeting, they felt listened and responded to in a personal and compassionate way. Several noted that they did not get this kind of response through telephone contact with the FMEP.

“It is easier. The FMEP worker can ignore you on the telephone. It is much more personal. The Outreach Officer is very honest and is a great listener.”

Payors also said that there is a quality to a personal meeting that is lacking in telephone contact.

“Face to face establishes rapport. It is a tremendous advantage. You get to know people.”

“I could see the seriousness of the situation when face to face. I can see desperation in a person’s face. I felt listened to and acknowledged. I felt some humanity at the meeting.”

Payors felt that a face to face meeting is more professional, less secretive and allows for more possibility to mediate and resolve issues.

“How can you resolve issues without a face to face sit down with the parties involved? There should be an investigative branch in the FMEP to get both sides of the story.”

“Face to face allows for more answers. It is also easier to come up with questions when you lose your paranoia about whether the conversation is being taped.”

5.5 Value of the Pilot Outreach Project as a Staff Skills Development Opportunity

5.5.1 Overview

A final issue addressed by this evaluation was whether the Pilot Outreach Project provided a skills development opportunity for FMEP staff. This question was primarily addressed through interviews with key respondents.

In the past, staff skill development was primarily supported through the appointment of staff to special projects or committees. Reduced funding in recent years has eliminated some of these opportunities. The Pilot Outreach Project has provided an opportunity for one staff member to embark on a specialized training and development process and to implement a challenging, multi-faceted initiative.

5.5.2 Assessment of the Pilot Outreach Project as a Staff Skills Development Opportunity

By all accounts, the Pilot Outreach Project has been a successful staff development initiative. The Outreach Officer has had to develop and put into practice interpersonal, communication and mediation skills with a group of clients who are often angry, frustrated, worried, fearful and hostile. She has also had to overcome a somewhat negative attitude towards the FMEP by other family justice partners and develop a cooperative and responsive approach. The development of the project has allowed for the use of creativity and initiative. Feedback from both Family Justice Counsellors and clients affirms the appropriateness of the staff person selected for the position.

The position, however, leaves little room for advancement. The question must be asked: Where can a highly qualified staff member with this experience be utilized by the organization beyond this position? Without some resolution of this question these skills and expertise may be lost to the organization.

Because this is only a one-person role it presents only a limited opportunity for other staff or for the building of additional staff expertise. The expansion of the position may allow for the inclusion of more staff, even if only on a part-time basis. Some rotation of staff, under the coordination of an experienced Outreach Officer, could also be considered.