Officials tasked with forcing delinquent ex-spouses to pay child support failed to consider the very kids they were supposed to help when they kicked a single mother out of the program, says Nova Scotia's ombudsman.
"Mostly what I felt was hurt — hurt for my children," said Angela Power.
According to documents recently obtained by CBC News, the ombudsman found the decision by provincial Justice Department officials to expel Power from the maintenance enforcement program — a free service that enforces court-ordered spousal and child support — was made in an "unbalanced and therefore unfair manner."
Power is now suing the province, alleging negligence and lack of good faith. Court documents filed by Power say officials failed to explain the difference between "assisting in enforcing of the matter" and "enforcing on her own" before they kicked her out in March 2014. She has since been allowed back into the program.
Her lawsuit also alleges the program did not enforce orders in a timely manner and failed to consider the impact on her children.
"I feel obligated, and in fact, the law says I am obligated as a custodial parent, to ensure that my children receive the proper amount of support from their father," said Power.
The mother of two is seeking damages to pay for the nearly $390,000 — including interest and court costs — she is owed by her ex-husband, Joseph Power.
While he consistently made monthly payments of $700 for eight years, Joseph Power fell into arrears after the court increased his payments to $3,242 per month in 2013 when it was learned that he had a higher income than reported.
Although he had his passport revoked as part of the enforcement orders, it was returned to him when his ex-wife was kicked out of the maintenance enforcement program. That allowed him to legally move to Denmark, where he still resides.
Power told CBC News he has no intention of coming back to Nova Scotia.
"In my case, if I were in Canada right now, I would be in jail. How is that to benefit my children?" he said.
In October 2015, Joseph Power was found in contempt of court after he failed to show up for a court appearance.
He said he tried to negotiate with maintenance enforcement program officials based on what he could afford. He believes the program has "God-like powers."
"They basically are mandated to collect money at all costs and have a great deal of power to do that," he said.
Now that Angela Power has been admitted back into the program, Joseph Power has once again been stripped of his passport, and said all of his Canadian bank accounts are frozen. He said his current wife offered to sell her Nova Scotia house to settle the dispute. Instead the program put a lien on that house, saying it is considered a matrimonial asset.
"The seizure of the asset was unnecessary and vindictive and ensured that the asset could not be sold. If MEP [Maintenance Enforcement Program] had not acted in this manner, Ms. Power would have had a large payday by now," he said in an email to CBC News.
Why was Angela Power booted from the program?
Angela Power was expelled from the maintenance enforcement program on grounds she broke the rules by taking steps to enforce the order against her ex-husband on her own, rather than leaving it to bureaucrats.
As evidence, the department pointed to a website they believed was "expressly intended to collect information for enforcement" and contained personal information about Joseph Power. Angela Power denied running the website.
"I am about at the end of my rope with this," wrote one Justice Department staff member, according to the January 2016 ombudsman's report.
"This woman has gone to the minister," another employee wrote. "I wouldn't be surprised if this woman goes to the media and/or politicians to plead her case. She doesn't think we are doing enough to enforce her file."
The ombudsman's report noted frustration escalated on all sides and said maintenance enforcement officials regarded Angela Power as "unreasonable." But while she was a "demanding" client, the report also pointed out she was not receiving child support payments.
Focus on children, report urges
The report also highlights a letter from the program director that outlines how Angela Power asked the province, on at least 11 occasions, to revoke her ex-husband's driver's licence in addition to repeated requests to garnishee his wages.
As a result of Power's case, the ombudsman recommended that the program develop clear guidelines "with respect to the definition of self-enforcement, and articulate them to all clients when their orders are registered."
It also urged program staff to focus more on the potential consequences for children when terminating enforcement, and less on the "difficulty in dealing with challenging or even unreasonable clients."
'We would not impede a client from taking steps'
The director of the maintenance enforcement program, Judy Crump, would not speak about the ombudsman's report because it was not a public document. However, she said a department review and new legislation have led to some changes.
Crump said while it's her role to enforce orders, there can now be exceptions to the rules.
"There are times when we are not able to take an enforcement action or we decide not to take an enforcement action, and we would not impede a client from taking steps themselves if we're not able to take a step at a certain juncture in the file. And we would communicate that with the recipient," she said.
Other key changes include sending more cases to investigators and preparing more cases for court, Crump said.
She said her department recognizes that the children need to come first.
"That's a message that we need to hear loud and clear, and to tell ourselves daily," she said.
'We do not stop trying'
As for tracking down parents who aren't making payments, Crump said it's an area that remains challenging. She cited a category of cases that are "unenforceable," including payors who are on social assistance or who are behind bars.
"And sometimes when a payor moves out of jurisdiction, that might also be the case," she said.
"We do not stop trying and we do not stop looking at those cases and examining over time what we can do in those cases."
Home sale seen as option for recouping cash
Angela Power said she hasn't received a payment from her ex-husband in more than a year.
At this point, she's hoping her court case against the province will force officials to seize and sell Joseph Power's Nova Scotia home.
"I would call that some form of justice," said Angela Power. "He would still owe money probably after that, but it's a start and then we'll see what we can do about maybe making the maintenance enforcement program put the children's best interests paramount."
The ombudsman's office recommended two months ago that Justice Department seize and sell the home, and continue enforcement. The house has not been seized.