More Albertans skipping out on child support payments
'What do you tell your son when you can’t get help and it seems like nobody cares?'
Edmontonian Adele Perras, who is raising a teenager with special needs on her disability income, hasn't received a child support payment in 16 months.
Documents show the father of her child owes her $28,000.
Perras has repeatedly sent emails and called Alberta's maintenance enforcement program (MEP) to find out what collection actions have been taken.
She has also submitted screenshots revealing her former partner's seemingly much more comfortable lifestyle.
Some photos show Paul Longbottom advertising his property maintenance business on Facebook, while in others he brags about new equipment or his "new wheels."
Meanwhile, Perras says, she and her son turn to food banks and second-hand stores to make ends meet on her monthly disability income of roughly $1,800.
"It just seems unfair," Perras says, her 14-year-old son passing her a tissue as she becomes tearful. "It's hard to even get by sometimes — just to keep up with the amount of clothing, the food, the bills, rent, when you're on a limited income, alone, is extremely difficult."
"What do you tell your son when you can't get help and it seems like nobody cares and the system itself is against you?"
WATCH | Adele Perras describes her struggle to get child support arrears
In 2019, there were 35,343 parents in addition to Perras seeking assistance from MEP after their court-ordered family support payments came to a halt, according to figures from Alberta Justice.
Outstanding child, spousal and partner support payments amounted to $609 million.
The data shows the number of MEP cases in arrears on the rise — from 64 per cent in 2014 to 70 per cent in 2019.
Perras, who said she has a number of health challenges including autoimmune illnesses and depression, questioned why the program has not done more to enforce payment by suspending Longbottom's licence.
In response to her inquiry a program official wrote in an email on Oct. 22 that "based on information the MEP received from an independent source [Longbottom] has had limited income … and therefore, the MEP exercised discretion to not proceed with the driver's licence suspension."
'Blood out of a stone'
Reached by phone, Longbottom became emotional as he told CBC he used to pay child support when he was fit to work full time. He currently receives an $800-monthly cheque from social services due to depression and anxiety, he said.
On the two occasions when MEP suspended his license, Longbottom said, he couldn't keep up with payments because he drives for a living.
He said his mother purchased the vehicle and equipment seen on social media so he could try to move ahead, and if he could support his son, he would.
"I do not have it," Longbottom said. "You can't get blood out of a stone. I barely struggle to pay my rent and get ahead in life, to keep working."
Family lawyer Michelle Mackay said the high rate of arrears are not indicative of a failing program but rather the state of the economy, where older court orders don't necessarily reflect current incomes. Other payors simply don't follow the rules, she said.
"I'm not surprised at the level of arrears there are because they're essentially going after bad apples — people who are not adhering to an order, who don't want to pay," said Mackay, who has worked on hundreds of MEP cases and teaches law at the University of Alberta. "And so the entire program is intended to do as it's entitled, which is to enforce."
Enforcement measures, which include garnishing wages, revoking passports and suspending driver's licences are effective, Mackay said. In other cases a payment plan is made to avoid restrictions for payors who can't cover the full amount.
But the problem, she said, is the chronically-underfunded program has no means to investigate and root out false claims.
"If there isn't the money there, you're not going to get it no matter if you're bearing the brunt. If the money is there, it is absolutely unfair but that's the person you're dealing with and you just hope that eventually the maintenance enforcement program wins out," Mackay said.
"I don't know that there's a way for the government to step in and make it fair."
Protocol introduced during the pandemic allows those struggling financially to temporarily reduce their maintenance payments. But that means even less money for receiving families already affected by the coronavirus, Mackay said.
Years to settle
Alberta Justice said arrears on individual files vary between $1 and nearly $2.5 million with the average being $22,485.
A spokesperson said the program actively enforces all arrears files without a payment plan, but many cases enter the program with large arrear balances that take years to settle even when payors are compliant.
"Unfortunately, there are many factors that can result in a small percentage of parents being unable to meet their obligations, and there is even a smaller number of parents who refuse to make maintenance enforcement payments," wrote Blaise Boehmer, press secretary to Justice Minister Kaycee Madu.
"In those cases, the courts rely on stringent collections actions. Alberta's justice system is facing numerous pressures as a result of the pandemic and prolonged economic downturn, however, the Government of Alberta is always exploring better ways to ensure parents are financially accountable for their children no matter their circumstances."
The province declined to comment on Perras' case citing privacy reasons.
Edmonton lawyer Tim Verhaeghe, whose firm represents both payees and recipients, said a parent behind on child support payments can apply to the court for a stay of enforcement or cancellation of arrears. But he said the application, which is not straightforward, almost always requires legal counsel, which means greater expense.
"They can be reduced, but the test is high," Verhaeghe said. "One would have to show that they cannot pay arrears now or in the future."