Family Responsibility Office
A government agency under the Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services.
Family Responsibility Office has often come under criticism.
Established by Marian Boyd a New Democratic member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, serving as Ontario Attorney General.
FRO admitted to overbilling parents on child support payments more than $5 million was wrongly collected from these parents.
The Office of the Ontario Auditor General released a report that specifically discussed the tardy nature of the FRO’s helpline.
The Ombudsman report suggests that between 2014 and 2015, over 500 people were denied more than $1 million in support payments due to FRO errors.
All you should know: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly
Many families in Ontario have come across the Family Responsibility Office. The agency was set up by the Ontario government to assist in the enforcement of child and spousal support orders and arrangements made after divorce. The job of the agency is to assist with creating an intuitive process where spouses can pay and collect support without undue stress on either side.
However, the Family Responsibility Office has often come under criticism. While the stated objective of the agency is to help make couples’ post-marital arrangements work, the experience for many is not always positive. The agency has been dogged by controversy in recent times, and this adds unnecessary complexity to an already complicated divorce process.
As a result, it is important to understand what the Family Responsibility Office is, what it does and the challenges it faces before couples decide to involve the agency in their marriage dissolution process. Here’s all you should know.
What is the Family Responsibility Office?
The Family Responsibility Office (FRO) is a government agency under the Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. The agency was established under the watch of Marian Boyd when she served as Ontario Attorney General from 1993 to 1995. It derives its powers and functions from the Family Responsibility and Support Arrears Enforcement Act, 1996 and the Inter-Jurisdictional Support Orders Act, 2002.
Like the Ministry that oversees it, the FRO is primarily concerned with family law issues. Specifically, those that concern child or spousal support and other post-marital financial arrangements. The agency was created in response to the difficulty that ex-spouses sometimes have with enforcing or collecting child support.
Sometimes, one parent may face considerable difficulty in getting the other parent to pay support accurately or on time. Before the establishment of the FRO, a parent in this situation would be left with few options to enforce the payment. Often, this would mean asking the court to make the other parent fulfil their obligations – an expensive and relatively lengthy process.
The FRO steps into the role of enforcement instead. So, rather than approach the court just to ask that the other parent make their payment accurately or on time, an aggrieved parent or spouse can simply contact the FRO.
What does the FRO do?
The FRO has several duties, but its primary duty is to enforce child support orders and the financial obligations of spouses to each other. The agency is capable of enforcing support payments that were ordered by a court or that are contained in a separation agreement.
The agency collects child support payments from the payor parent, records the payment and then disburses the sum to the collecting parent. In instances where the payor fails to pay on time or accurately, the FRO is empowered to use a number of measures to enforce payment. These include:
- Monthly support deductions directly from the payor’s employer or from the payor’s bank account, when authorized
- Wage garnishment
- Criminal prosecution for failure to pay or to settle arrears
As far as enforcement by the FRO is concerned, it does not matter if the payor parent is not resident in Ontario or Canada. Through the Inter-Jurisdictional Support Orders Act, the FRO enforces child support and spousal support obligations in the United States and more than 30 countries worldwide.
In theory, all of this should make the FRO a beneficial and highly effective agency for people making or receiving support payments in Ontario. However, as the controversy that has trailed the agency over the years has shown, nothing could be further from the truth than this.
Problems of the FRO
To put it mildly, the FRO has flattered to deceive since its inception. The agency has been a painful disappointment for many residents of Ontario. Its actions (and inactions) have been a source of severe anguish for parents all over Ontario, leading many into depression, severe health problems, financial ruin, and even suicide.
According to Ontario’s Ombudsman, the FRO has been the subject of thousands of complaints from families all over the province. The Ombudsman report suggests that between 2014 and 2015, over 500 people were denied more than $1 million in support payments due to errors on the part of the FRO. In some cases, the agency inaccurately denied the payments these people were qualified for because it interpreted applicable laws incorrectly. In other cases, the agency and its staff were quite simply negligent in wrongly stopping payments to collecting parents or failing to remit payments for no just reason.
The agency has been a source of multiple complaints bordering on its simple failure to accurately carry out its duties. One complaint alleged that the agency failed to properly assess a fraudulent claim filed by a collecting parent, despite the existence of evidence to show fraud. And many more maintain that, with all its goofs, the agency has even worse customer service, routinely failing to respond to queries or forcing people to give up on calls after interminable wait times.
The Office of the Ontario Auditor General released a 2010 report that specifically discussed the tardy nature of the FRO’s helpline. According to the report, 80% of telephone calls that the agency receives do not get answered. The agency does not provide payors and recipients direct access to their enforcement services officers. This is largely because many calls either do not get through or are terminated before they reach the assigned officer.
The report further stated that the FRO only works on between 20% to 25% of its total caseload every year. At the time of the report, there were roughly 91,000 outstanding “bring-forward” notes (essentially customer service tickets). Almost a third of the notes were “open”, meaning they were read but not acted upon or had not been read at all, and most of these had been open for between 1 to 2 years.
According to the report, the FRO takes almost 4 months to start enforcement action on ongoing cases. While, for newly registered cases that go straight into arrears, the agency takes as much as 7 months before its first enforcement action.
Another report by the Ottawa Citizen stated that the FRO admitted to overbilling parents on child support payments. The fracas affected more than 1,700 parents, mostly fathers, and had been going on for 13 years. Over the period, more than $5 million was wrongly collected from these parents. Several other reports abound of the agency wrongly garnishing the wages of parents who lost their job or were unable to work for various reasons.
Overall, the disturbing nature of the complaints regarding the FRO indicates that this is one government agency that spouses want to be certain they avoid.
Rather than submit to the terrible aspect of the FRO and the court-supervised system, spouses can instead explore the advantages of mediation or other alternative methods. It is in your best interest to conclude your separation as far away as possible from the debilitating influence of the FRO and the Family Courts.
A certified, professional mediator can help you and your spouse come to a mutually satisfying arrangement concerning child support, spousal support and other divorce issues you wish to settle. This gives you the freedom to create an arrangement that perfectly suits your circumstances, and protects you from the emotional trauma of dealing with the FRO.
Are you having trouble reaching an agreement on your finances? Do you want to avoid going before the judge and asking for help? Consider working with a family mediator who can help you end your marriage in a way that is peaceful, cost-effective, and child-focused.
Would you like to learn more? Get in touch for a Get Acquainted Call to learn more about finding a separation agreement with a soft landing.
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Ken S, Maynard CDFA
Ken Maynard CDFA, Acc.FM
I help smart and successful couples, create separation agreements with clarity and soft landings for secure futures, in 4 meetings or less without all the lawyer created overwhelming conflicts, confusion and costs. You can work with me by video conference or with a DTSW associate at any of our 6 DTSW Greater Toronto mediation centers, including | Aurora | Barrie | North York | Vaughan | Mississauga | Scarborough.
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Ken Maynard CDFA, Acc.FMhttps://divorcethesmartway.ca/author/wardman/May 23, 2023
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