A commentary on Alberta's Maintenance Enforcement Program

On Friday, November 20, 2009 the Executive Director of the Alberta Maintenance Enforcement Program, Manuel da Costa, was interviewed on the Calgary Eyeopener

The interview was preceded by an unfortunate woman who was having difficulty collecting child support from the father of her child.  She had lost her apartment and had to move back with her parents.  The father was, in her story, doing drugs and avoiding his role as parent to the child.  It’s a disturbing story, a compelling story, and not at all unrealistic to be exactly as she portrayed. 

The interview itself was framed around the $2.5 billion dollars owed to parents in arrears.  The interview may be available from the Eyeopener website, available only in Real Audio format.  I make no promises if it will be available or for how long. 

I was angry.  Even before the interview I started firing off tweets of complaint on twitter to @eyeopenerbob. 

@eyeopenerbob Hold up! I’m a “beat dead” dad. I’m living in poverty paying child support for my kids. I have reported MEP for abusing me 
@eyeopenerbob There is endless frustration dealing with a mindless, heartless bureaucracy that hides behind cherry picked stats and no… 
@eyeopenerbob no responsibility for their own abuse or the abysmal way they treat parents - BOTH parents. 
@eyeopenerbob They do not live up to their own code of conduct. I want fairness and balance. I expect none. 
@eyeopenerbob Please, PLEASE stop using the term “deadbeat” parents. It’s a huge black brush tarring everyone with a strawman argument. 
@eyeopenerbob There is an entire department in place to enforce the financial half of the court order. Where is enforcement of the rest? 
@eyeopenerbob How about the way MEP throws out penalties for late payments? I’m struggling enough. Penalties just add to my burden. 

At this point, the interview started.  Some of these tweets are direct rebuttals at Mr. da Costa’s comments. 

@eyeopenerbob How about the equity behind the statistics? How valid are they? You cross the line, you get tarred and there is hell to pay 
@eyeopenerbob “No matter how much pressure we put on them.” The first thing that happens is they take your license. 
@eyeopenerbob They have a single big hammer and slam it down relentlessly. 
@eyeopenerbob They go after anything and everything. If you don’t fit into their preset pattern, they assume you’re a “deadbeat.“ 
@eyeopenerbob NONSENSE! I talk to them and I get abused on the phone or told, “You have to meet your resonsibility.“ 
@eyeopenerbob Payment arrangement? Pay now, pay by direct withdrawal, or we’re going after you HARD. 
@eyeopenerbob Money is enforced. The rest of the court order does not matter. I don’t have the money to cause enforcement. 
AWGH. Odds of me getting back to sleep after THAT interview are nil. Might as well get on with the day. 

It was not an easy interview to listen to.  Mr. da Costa sounds very suave and makes the situation seem unfathomable that anyone could possibly be in arrears without willfully cheating the system or lying to the Collections Officer.  I know very well the situation on the ground is very different and the treatment I have received from MEP most definitely does not meet their mission statement or their values statement.

I have personally run across Mr. da Costa previously.  When I complained about exceptionally poor treatment I received at the hands of the Maintenance Enforcement Program’s Collection Officers, the end result was that my concerns were brushed away and the ‘apology’ I received from Mr. da Costa was, “We’re sorry that you feel that way.“  It is, without doubt, the least sincere non-apology I have ever received in my life.

So when I heard him in an interview talk about how fair they were to debtors and how easy it was to set up payment arrangements with the department I was very upset and cynical.

Happily, I received the message, “Thanks for the note.  Could one of our show producers call you for your side of this story?“  Absolutely, yes.

My story is long and complicated, like pretty much every single other divorce story out there.  It’s filled with two villains and two heroes (both the same people, by the way) and is virtually impossible to fit into a ten minute description.  My encounter with MEP runs just about as long as my separation and is every bit as complicated.  After trying to explain as much as possible, the producer asked if I would consider writing a commentary in response to Mr. da Costa.  The script I wrote follows the clip.

This isn’t about paying Child Support, this isn’t about my divorce, this is about the horribly shoddy treatment meted out by the Alberta Maintenance Enforcement Program - to both parents.  They’ve done a terrible job as an organization, reform is warranted and long-past due.

zaugg_commentary23nov09.mp3 (2.65 mb)

I am a divorced father of two and pay child support monthly. Parents who do not pay their allotted child support anger me, because they make my dealings with the Maintenance Enforcement Program much more difficult.
On Friday's Eyeopener, Manuel da Costa said that in times of financial distress, one could simply call the MEP and make payment arrangements. My experience has been quite different from what he described. When hard times have come and I have had to speak to a Collections Officer at MEP, I am at their mercy. The majority try to be helpful and cooperative, but I have been treated unfairly and discourteously when I felt I most needed help.
When experiencing financial hardship, I have been held under a suspicious microscope, accused of hiding money, accused of dodging my responsibility to my children. I have not been offered payment plans, I have been threatened with the withdrawal of my driver's license and garnishee of my wages.
Collection Officers are brusk, rude and sometimes offensive towards me. Those same people are polite and professional when speaking with my lawyer or payroll manager.
The amount of arrears owed to parents is staggering. That number comes from the court orders in the divorce or separation process. The Maintenance Enforcement Program actively and aggressively enforces the court-ordered child support payments. But there is no government program for the non-financial part of the court order. If non-custodial parents are having problems such as access to their children, their only recourse is expensive legal help.
Mr. da Costa minimizes how difficult it can be to have meaningful, significant communication with the MEP. By focusing on only financial issues, the MEP has a very narrow view of the issues at hand, and great power to enforce collection. It isn't working well for either custodial or non-custodial parents. It is time for a meaningful discussion on the program as a whole. For the Calgary Eyeopener, I'm Mark Zaugg.