The number of “deadbeat” parents — people who refuse to pay their child support payments — has remained steady in Alberta for the past five years.
Two-thirds or 65 per cent of cases in Alberta are in arrears, meaning there’s $572,726,160, or more than half a billion dollars, in outstanding payments owed to 48,146 parents.
The statistics have been compiled by CBC as part of a Canada-wide analysis of the maintenance enforcement, government-run programs that collect court-ordered child support payments.
Wendy Gallagher, the mother of six-year-old twin daughters, is entitled to payments under the program.
Gallagher works as a truck driver but says she’s currently receiving Worker’s Compensation for a work-related injury.
Gallagher and the girls’ father split about four years ago. After their separation in 2010, she said her former partner agreed to give her support money to take care of the girls.
She didn’t receive sufficient money from him, she said in an interview at her apartment in downtown Edmonton.
That’s when Gallagher took the girls’ father to court. He was ordered to pay $850 plus $1,000 a month in child support.
Despite the court order, Gallagher said all of the money still didn’t show up.
“We leave him to ensure that we have a better life and we find out that yeah, it might be a little better in the sense that we don’t have the abuse … but now we’ve got the financial abuse,” she said.
Seeking the money she said she needed for her daughters’ child care and medical expenses, Gallagher enrolled in the province’s maintenance enforcement program.
The program has existed in Alberta since 1986. If required, parents who neglect to make payments can be taken to court, resulting in more severe remedies to enforce payment such as issuing a jail sentence.
“It is exceedingly rare for that provision under the law to be pursued,” said Alberta Justice spokeswoman Michelle Davio in a written statement.
In an effort to make debtors pay, the Alberta government created an online website showcasing those shirking their financial responsibilities to their children. Alberta and Ontario are the only provinces that publish debtors’ photos and ask the public for any information about their assets or employment.
The government credits the website in helping them locate about seventy five per cent of all debtors posted and collecting $1.8 million in overdue payment since April 2000.
Not enough, says parent waiting for money
In the four years since Gallagher enrolled, she said she received $10,000 but is still owed another $33,000.
Statistics compiled by CBC shows she’s not alone.
Despite repeated requests, no one with Alberta’s maintenance enforcement program was available for an interview. A request to speak to Justice Minister Jonathan Denis was denied.
In a statement, the Justice department said over the past five years, those who pay, do so more consistently.
But that hasn’t been Gallagher’s experience.
“It’s been very hard to try and get maintenance enforcement to do their job — even with giving them the information, the address, everything they possibly need in order to catch him,” she said. “They tell me ‘no, not enough evidence.’”
Gallagher said she called the program to report where her ex-partner is working with the hopes his wages would be garnished. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
“They wanted me to go Whitecourt and spend my days driving around, trying to take pictures of him in and out of his work vehicle, living at the shop,” she said.
The last payment her ex-partner made was in April. It was for $500.
Gallagher suspects a lack of staff may partly account for why the maintenance enforcement program isn’t collecting. She said she’s often put on hold when she calls the office, and will not receive a response from anyone until weeks after making a request.
“MEP [Maintenance Enforcement Program] must balance the needs of its client base with its duty to be accountable for its spending of tax dollars,” said the statement from Justice spokeswoman Davio.
“MEP is continuously seeking out ways to manage its business in more efficient and effective ways.”
“There’s no gold star program in Canada you can talk about,” said Rollie Thompson, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and an expert on maintenance enforcement programs across the country.
“It’s important to remember that every single one of these programs is seriously underfunded.”
“Over $500 million in child support is owed in Alberta. Obviously the system isn’t working,” said Gallagher.
Despite her criticisms, Gallagher said that she has no choice but to stay with the program.
Some money from her ex-partner every once in a while is better than nothing at all, she said.