Research on Compliance with Child Support Orders and Agreements in Prince Edward Island

2003-FCY-1E

1. INTRODUCTION

In 1996 the Department of Justice Canada was given a five-year mandate under the federal government’s Child Support Initiative to undertake a number of activities relating to child support. These included amending the Divorce Act to introduce child support guidelines; strengthening child support enforcement procedures; improving public awareness and understanding of family support obligations; implementing a cooperative education program for justice officials, service providers and the general public; providing financial assistance to the provinces and territories to implement services to assist parents in obtaining child support orders and to enhance enforcement efforts; and conducting research to monitor the impacts of the child support guidelines. In May 1998, the department produced a discussion paper proposing a framework for the conduct of research relating to child support.[1] One of the proposals was to develop and implement a research strategy to investigate the factors that influence compliance and non-compliance with child support orders and agreements.

In September 1998, the department produced a framework for this strategy that outlined the relevant policy issues and reviewed existing research. It assessed the range of research that would contribute to the advancement of knowledge in key policy areas relating to compliance with child support, and put forward alternative strategies for a research program.[2]

In early 1999, the first project under the research program on compliance and default began in Prince Edward Island. The project was conceived as both an analysis of compliance in the province, and a pilot test to help assess the methodologies for studying compliance in other provinces. Ultimately, the objective is to collect and analyze sufficient information to provide a national perspective on compliance with child support orders. The purposes of the P.E.I. component were:

  • to test the research strategy itself, in order to make recommendations for similar research in other jurisdictions;
  • to identify and analyze detailed patterns of compliance and non-compliance among non-custodial parents registered with the Maintenance Enforcement Program (MEP) in Prince Edward Island;
  • to identify and analyze factors that may influence compliance and non-compliance, including those relating to pre- and post-separation family relationships and parental roles, post-separation arrangements to care for the children, experiences with the legal and social service “systems” (including the MEP), enforcement measures by the MEP, income and employment factors, and any other factors that emerged from the research; and,
  • to document and assess the potential impact on compliance of the processes involved for parents in P.E.I. who decide to separate, including legal procedures, legal and social service programs available in the community, and dealings with the MEP.

The research was designed to be exploratory and did not set out to test a set of specific hypotheses. It was recognized in the research design that the decisions parents make about paying child support are often based on complex circumstances, attitudes and inter-personal relationships. Research in the area was determined, through a prior literature review, to be relatively new, particularly in Canada but in other countries as well. Many questions have yet to be adequately explored as to what factors may influence compliance. More complex still will be the exploration of the interrelationships of these factors for paying parents of child support. In addition, it is understood that perspectives on the payment of child support may change over time, as the time since separation increases or as circumstances such as new relationships or new employment situations come about.

In the context of these complexities and the narrow base of existing research, the scope of this project is limited. We set out in P.E.I. to test a range of research methods, and to identify the factors related to “willingness to pay” (as opposed to “ability to pay”) child support that appear to influence compliance with child support orders and agreements. To the extent that the numbers of cases involved in the research allowed, we hoped to identify some factors that appear to be most strongly influential, and to learn more about how to examine those particular factors in more detail in the larger compliance project of which the P.E.I. study is a first stage. We also hoped to lay the groundwork so that the research in other provinces, with larger numbers of interviews to work with, will be able to explore how the key determining factors interact with each other over time. Ultimately, it is hoped that the overall study will be able to identify some “paying parent profiles” that incorporate categories of support payment records and key factors influencing compliance.

The research in P.E.I. was funded fully by the Department of Justice Canada, but relied heavily on the interest and participation of the director and staff of the Maintenance Enforcement Program (MEP) in that province. Throughout the research they were called upon to provide information, explain their operations in detail, facilitate the extracting of data from their information systems, provide interpretations of findings relating to the MEP itself, and look up specific case information.

This report presents the findings of the P.E.I. child support compliance project. It is organized into seven sections, including this introduction, a review of the research methodology used in P.E.I., a description of the MEP in P.E.I., findings from the analysis of MEP case file data that include an analysis of compliance patterns, an analysis of information on the factors influencing compliance, a review of the P.E.I. research strategy and the lessons learned for research in other jurisdictions, and a set of recommendations.

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