Evaluation of the B.C. Family Maintenance Enforcement Program's Pilot Outreach Project
This report presents the findings of an evaluation of the British Columbia Family Maintenance Enforcement Program’s Pilot Outreach Project. There are three main components of the Pilot Outreach Project: Client Meetings, Payment Conferences and Ministry of Human Resources (MHR) Information Sessions.
- Client Meetings are an educational/informational outreach to clients referred by Family Justice Counsellors that are held on-site at seven Family Justice Centres. They provide information on the FMEP and maintenance enforcement to both payors and recipients.
- Payment Conferences are an enforcement mechanism that is used to establish a Voluntary Payment Arrangement with payors owing substantial arrears in order to avoid a Default Hearing.
- MHR Information Sessions are regular information meetings held in collaboration with B.C. 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
Six main methodologies were used to measure the findings:
- a telephone survey of Family Justice Counsellors;
- a survey of clients who attended Client Meetings;
- a comprehensive case/file outcome review for payors who attended Payment Conferences;
- a telephone survey of payors who attended the conferences;
- a document and statistical review of records; and,
- key respondent interviews.
A seventh methodology: a Survey of Ministry of Human Resources Information Survey, was not used as their were no information sessions held during the study period.
The purpose of the evaluation was to address the following questions:
- Are client and Family Justice Counsellor information needs being met through the Client or MHR Recipient Information 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 among Family Justice Counsellors and the integration of family justice services?
- Do Payment Conferences result in access to new payor information, help establish the payor’s ability to pay or lead to Voluntary Payment Arrangements?
- Do Payment Conferences result in the avoidance of a Default Hearing?
- What barriers affect the payor’s ability to pay?
- Is the Pilot Outreach Project perceived as a skills development opportunity for staff?
The study found that the Client Meetings were effective in meeting the information needs of recipients and payors attending Client Meetings. Payors and recipients required specific information about the role of the FMEP, status of arrears, enforcement mechanisms and ways of meeting payments.
Clients emphasized the value of two aspects of the Client Meetings: the compassionate, humane and professional tone of the interaction and the concrete, practical information provided. There was an 86 percent level of agreement between the type of information requested and provided.
Clients at the Client Meetings and payors attending the Payment Conferences rated the courtesy, professionalism and concern shown by the staff highly; the location (quite limited for the Payment Conferences) and the timing of the meetings (during working hours) were rated less positively.
Family Justice Counsellors defined specific case related needs of payors and recipients requiring contact with the FMEP. These included information on the amount of arrears, enforcement mechanisms, how to make payments in changed financial circumstances and how to change payment arrangements. FJCs identified one of the most important client problems as being an inability to resolve payment problems through telephone contact with FMEP enforcement staff.
Family Justice Counsellors valued access to the Pilot Outreach Project and felt it increased their own understanding of the FMEP and maintenance enforcement. Access to the FMEP through the Pilot Outreach Project allowed them to provide a more comprehensive and reliable set of services to clients. The regular presence of the FMEP at many of the Family Justice Centres created a more positive image of the FMEP and has led to it being seen as an important family justice partner.
A significant number of payors who are referred to Client Meetings have payment problems that they recognize and want to deal with. They expressed slightly more satisfaction than recipients with the outcome of the Client Meetings. This suggests that Client Meetings may be a useful tool to address arrears issues among clients at the pre-crisis stage.
The results of this study indicate that the Payment Conferences led to only a limited amount of new financial information. Very limited information on new employment or business assets was provided. Voluntary or Interim Payment Arrangements were concluded in five out of 25 cases. Payments resulted from 3/5 cases where Voluntary Payment Agreements were made; in three other cases, voluntary payments were made (not related to VPAs).
Over half of the payors (14/25) were assessed by the Outreach Officer as lacking the capacity to pay the level of payments required. In 21/25 cases, a recommendation was made to vary the maintenance order. These data suggest that many of these payors have legitimate problems making payments.
Referrals were another important outcome and were made in 21/25 cases. Improvements in communication and cooperation were noted in the majority of cases sent to Payment Conferences (17/25), but in half of these cases, these improvements led to no concrete action or attempts to make arrears payments.
Default Hearings were not significantly avoided as a result of the Payment Conferences. Thirteen cases were recommended for Default Hearing at the time of this report; of these, only one had been completed.
The availability and completeness of data on the data collection forms and within the electronic case management system did not fully meet the needs of the evaluation. There is currently no method for collecting data on the exact source of referrals (from all sources) for the Client Meetings. The Pilot Outreach Project would benefit from a review of data collection methods now in place and an increased focus on the systematic collection of referral and client data for all components of the program.
The findings of this study suggest that there is room for an expanded role for the Client Meeting component of the Pilot Outreach Project. This would mean an expansion into more Family Justice Centre sites and an increased presence at high volume sites such as Surrey and Vancouver. The opening up of referrals internally, and more formally, to include other family justice partners (e.g. MHR), is a further consideration.
There is a case to be made for considering an expanded form of Client Meetings as a preventative approach to addressing payment problems before they become overwhelming and insurmountable. While not applicable to all payors, there is sufficient enthusiasm among payors attending Client Meetings to assume that the voluntary problem-solving approach could be effective in the long term.
At the same time, the FMEP has always been legitimately concerned about creating an alternative service delivery model that is unsustainable. The expansion of a Client Meeting component would require a clear understanding of screening and referral criteria by all partners.
Outcomes from the Payment Conferences were limited. Further consideration should be given by the FMEP to clearly identifying clients who have the ability to pay but who are not making payments. This may require the earlier identification of payors by Enforcement Officers.
The recommendation to the payor to vary his/her order was the most frequent recommendation made to payors attending Payment Conferences. This was also a frequent issue identified by clients and Family Justice Counsellors. Payor Information Workshops have been a component of the Pilot Outreach Project in the past. These data suggest that this need still exists and may intensify with changes in the delivery of legal support in the province. Family Justice Counsellors also noted this need.
By all accounts, the Pilot Outreach Project was considered to offer a positive skills development opportunity for the staff member involved. However, problems may arise in the utilization of these skills in another part of the organization or in expanding these skills to other staff. Consideration could be given to using the current Officer to provide supervision and training to other FMEP staff providing related services.
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