Research on Compliance with Child Support Orders and Agreements in Prince Edward Island
The compliance research in P.E.I. was exploratory in two senses. First, it was a testing ground for applying a range of methodological approaches, each of which evolved as we understood more about how the P.E.I. MEP operated, what data were available in the MEP’s information systems, how amenable the data were to extraction and analysis for our purposes, and what information would need to be obtained directly from paying parents and recipients. Second, the individual research elements were exploratory in that we did not develop them with a specific hypothesis to test; rather, the approach was to investigate a wide range of issues and consider a wide range of possible influencing factors. It was to be a starting point both for a planned larger research project and for contributing to the body of research on compliance with child support orders.
The project coordinator for the Child Support Team at the Department of Justice Canada, and others at the department, were consulted regularly during the development of detailed research plans and specific research instruments, such as data collection forms and interview guides.
There were five research elements: a review of the P.E.I. MEP; the collection and analysis of MEP case file data; interviews with professionals working with separating parents; interviews with paying parents and recipients of child support whose files were registered with the MEP; and interviews with separated parents with children not registered with the MEP. Each of these is described in detail below.
As a preliminary step for the project as a whole, and in order to have on record an up-to-date description of the operation of the MEP in P.E.I., we needed to review MEP operations in detail. This involved a review of available documents describing the MEP and the legislation under which it operates, an on-site review of the MEP information system and hard files, ongoing discussions with the MEP director and staff, and observations at the MEP office during several extended periods. These activities enabled us to plan the case file data collection and the sampling for interviews, and contributed to the development of the interview guides. As well, it resulted in a written description of the MEP, which is included in this report and is also being used as a section in the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics national description of maintenance enforcement programs.
During the preliminary stages of the research, the MEP information system was examined to assess the information it contained about individuals and cases, and the possibilities for extracting data for analysis. It was determined that for the sample required, it would be more cost-effective to extract data from the system manually, rather than develop a program to download data in an automated fashion. This approach was adopted in part because some information of interest was to be found in “comment” records rather than records that could be easily coded and extracted. This was particularly the case with background information that helped us to correctly interpret the financial ledgers in more complicated cases, and to obtain more accurate information about enforcement measures, as well as information about employment, Employment Insurance and social assistance that was not readily available in the standardized records.
A sample of 500 cases (about 27 percent of total cases) was randomly selected from a total caseload of 1,868 child support enforcement files. The sample was drawn in March 1999. Cases were scanned prior to sampling and again after the sampling to ensure that we had included an adequate number of cases involving certain key characteristics, such as REMO cases, cases involving female paying parents and male recipients, and older and newer cases. The random sampling proved adequate for our purposes, and the collection was initiated.
The data collection was completed using a standardized data collection sheet (see Appendix). The sheet was developed in consultation with the Child Support Team, based initially on what we hoped to draw from the system, and then modified according to what information was available on a reliable and consistent basis. It allowed for the recording of information on the sex, date of birth and last known address of paying parent and recipient and the children, information about the support order and any variations, information about income sources, the method of payment to the MEP, details from 1990 to the present about support obligations and payments made, arrears (current and upon entry to the program), and details about any enforcement actions taken.
Not all variables were available for all paying parents and recipients. The following limitations were found.
- Dates of birth for both paying parent and recipient were available in most cases, but in some cases one or both dates were not in the system. These were likely cases that were brought to the MEP through an agreement rather than a court order.
- The postal code of paying parents and recipients was recorded as the indicator of location. However, in some cases no address was on file. In the majority of those cases we were able to discern from other information in the system whether or not the person lived in P.E.I. or some other province (or outside the country), and in these cases we recorded the postal code simply as “P.E.I.” or “N.B.” (New Brunswick), etc. In this way we could at least group them according to whether the parents both lived on the Island, both lived elsewhere, or lived in separate provinces. The location variable identifies the last known location of the parents. We knew from our experience in trying to locate parents for interviews that some of those addresses were not current. However, we were primarily interested in their locations relative to each other at the time that the MEP was involved in administering their child support. In the large majority of cases, the system contained an address for both parties that would have been accurate at the time that the file was opened, at least. In most cases, addresses were updated when a recipient was either receiving cheques through the mail or was mailed any other information from the MEP, and when there was an enforcement situation. In cases where the paying parent or recipient left the province and the MEP (or another provincial or territorial MEP) continued to be involved, the information about province of location would be accurate.
- Information in the MEP system on sources of income and income levels is not very reliable. Employment of paying parents was tracked only when enforcement was required, and there is no ongoing record of changes in employment status, periods of unemployment, or other such fluctuations, except to the extent that “comment” fields in the system described in general terms what was happening with a case at a particular point in time. Where we have recorded that a paying parent or recipient had been employed outside the home at some time, or had been on Employment Insurance or social assistance, the information is reliable. However, in many cases we do not know one way or the other, and no information was recorded. Income levels were only available in a small number of cases, when a court order indicated the income level at the time of the hearing as a basis for establishing the support amount.
- We recorded in chronological order any enforcement actions that had occurred for the cases in our sample. When possible we also recorded the dates of the actions. Finally, we looked at payment records for the period immediately after the enforcement action, and recorded whether the action had resulted in a resumption of payment (defined as at least six months of regular, on-time payments soon after the action), a temporary resumption (defined as at least one full payment soon after the action but lasting less than six months), or no resumption of payments. After a review of this information for a number of cases, and in consultation with the MEP, it was concluded that this information, while of interest in some specific respects, was insufficient to fully understand how the case unfolded, how enforcement actions were used and to what effect, and what factors were influencing the sequence of events. Our use of the enforcement information and the analysis we have applied reflect these limitations.
- The data on the monthly obligations and payments for each case is considered highly reliable. It is a simple matter to review the two sets of data together, and anomalies show up readily because, in the normal course of events, monthly obligations remain the same for long periods and payments are typically consistent in amount (even if they do not meet the obligation). In our review we found no instances where changes in obligations or payments were not consistent with notes in the files explaining what had occurred. We did, however, find anomalies in the data on arrears, when the total arrears appeared not to take into account, for example, the fact that the children were no longer eligible for support, no payments had been made for some time, and no complaint had been registered by the recipient. These cases were brought to the attention of the MEP and were rectified through a simple accounting entry. In our sample, all cases with arrears that appeared abnormally large were investigated, and any such problems were resolved so that our data reflected actual arrears owing.
A major component of the research in P.E.I. involved interviews with a sample of paying parents and recipients of child support registered with the MEP. The interview sample was drawn randomly from the 500 cases selected for the case file data review, so that interview results could be linked with information we already had about child support payment patterns (and, potentially, other information such as enforcement actions taken and some demographic information). The purpose of the interviews was to explore factors that may be influential in determining whether child support is paid regularly and on time or not. At the same time, respondents were asked about their experiences with the MEP itself.
Given that we wanted to interview a substantial number of parents to have sufficient information across a range of potential factors, the primary interview mode was by telephone. A sample of 100 telephone interviews was decided upon. In addition, a sample of 20 in-person interviews was drawn in order to determine whether there were benefits in obtaining more detailed and wide-ranging responses from that more personal approach. A common interview guide was developed for both types of interviews through extensive consultation and review between the researchers and the Child Support Team. The resulting guide contained sections on the participants’ current living arrangements, including custody, visitation and child support, and current relationship with the children and with each other; their family life prior to separation; the steps involved in separating and establishing their post-separation arrangements; their experiences with the MEP; and their attitudes and beliefs about child support. The interview guides included primarily open-ended questions. The interviews were structured and consistent in the questions asked and the ordering of questions, but they allowed considerable leeway for respondents to tell their story about what they had experienced in the period of their life that we were concerned with.
Matched pairs of parents were selected, because, to the extent possible, the objective was to interview both parents in the selected cases in order to have a balanced and comparative view of the factors that may have influenced compliance or non-compliance. Since the 500 cases selected for the case file review provided a wide range of payment patterns (from paying parents who never paid to those who paid in full every month, and many types of patterns in between), we relied on a random selection for the interview sample.
A letter was sent to all prospective participants with two separate notes, one from the MEP director to indicate that the research was legitimate, and the other from the project manager to describe the study and request their participation. The project manager’s note assured prospective participants about the confidentiality of the interviews and the independence of the process from the MEP and the Department of Justice Canada, provided toll-free numbers for the project manager, the department and MEP, so that they had a choice about who to call if they did not want to be contacted, and indicated that they would be receiving a phone call in the near future if they did not inform us that they would prefer not to be contacted. We recognized that the issues being studied, as well as the fact that they would be contacted by researchers as a result of their being registered with the MEP, might be of concern to prospective respondents. Thus, we made every effort to give them an opportunity to decline to participate. At the beginning of the interviews, we were careful to describe the kinds of questions we would be asking, reassure them that their confidentiality would be respected, and tell them that they should feel free not to answer questions they were uncomfortable answering.
The introductory letters were sent to an initial 220 parents, as we anticipated that some addresses and telephone numbers would not be current, that some parents would be difficult to locate, and that some would choose not to participate. As well, we were aware that because the interviews were being conducted through the summer and into the fall, the early period might coincide with vacations. Ultimately, it proved necessary to draw an additional sample of 200 names (100 pairs, or cases) and send the same letters out, because of the high number of people who could not be located or who in one way or another indicated that they would not participate. The majority of the latter simply made themselves unavailable by not answering the telephone at the time agreed upon for the interview, or repeatedly putting it off so that it became apparent they did not intend to participate. Very few people who were reached said directly that they did not wish to participate.
In-person interviews were chosen randomly from the first wave of potential respondents. They were conducted by the project manager, who based himself in P.E.I. for an extended period and conducted the interviews in most cases in the respondents’ homes. No-shows were common, but persistence paid off in most cases. Beyond the potential benefits to the interview process itself, it was considered beneficial to have visited the respondents in their homes, and to have had a first-hand view, however brief, of their living circumstances.
Part of the introduction to the interviews was to reassure participants about the confidentiality of the process, and indicate that if they found a given question too intrusive, they should feel free to ask us to move on to the next question. Despite the extensive and highly personal nature of the interviews, not one person refused to answer a question. Of course, questions can be answered in varying degrees of detail and accuracy, and with varying degrees of forethought, but the researchers found no outright reluctance to answer questions. In a small number of cases, questions about relationships (for example, between a paying parent and his children) elicited very short answers, or were referred to as confusing or “weird” questions. However, the interviewers were prepared to explain the reasons for the questions, and to rephrase them if this seemed necessary to get a meaningful answer.
Ultimately, 18 in-person and 112 telephone interviews were successfully completed. The interviews lasted from 45 minutes to four hours, with the great majority lasting between one and two hours. The respondents were given every opportunity to be expansive in their comments, and the interviewers took extensive notes, in keeping with the objective to understand in the language of the parents themselves what their experiences had been and how they felt about what they had been through.
A final research element was added to the project a part of the way through it, to account for the fact that many parents with children who separate never come in contact with the legal system or the maintenance enforcement system, and therefore could not be included in our sample. We recognized that people who chose, for whatever reason, not to register a child support agreement with the courts or the enforcement agency may have a different perspective on the factors influencing compliance. This additional research element was adopted as an exploratory first step in looking at this issue. No attempt was made to identify and randomly select a sample of “non-MEP” parents. Rather, through our contacts with lawyers in P.E.I., we obtained names of parents who would agree to participate in an interview. The contacts were asked to select parents with a range of types of circumstances, so we would not, for example, only interview people who had steady, highly paid employment and no difficulties with child support. The same interview guide used for “MEP” parents was used in these cases, with some minor adjustments to reflect the fact that they had no experience with the MEP. This method of identifying non-MEP parents proved inadequate. Most contacts were unable to provide us with names (or did not wish to, for whatever reason), and the names we did get were all recipient mothers. Ultimately, 10 interviews were conducted with “non-MEP” parents, all with the custodial parents.
It was recognized in designing the research that the legal system itself could have an influence on parents’ experiences with the separation process, and on their attitudes toward each other and toward the care and support of their children. The department’s literature review indicated that interviews with professionals working with separating parents with children had not been conducted in previous compliance research. Therefore, we included in the research plan a set of in-person interviews with local family law lawyers, judges, mediators, court officers, parenting education workers, social workers hired to conduct assessments for the court, and the MEP director. A total of 15 interviews with professionals were conducted, using an interview guide that set out specific areas of inquiry and encouraged a broad consideration of issues that could be viewed as pertaining to parents’ experiences with the legal system and to the professionals’ impressions of the factors that may influence parental attitudes. The guide was developed in consultation with the Child Support Team.
The interview subjects were selected with the advice of the MEP director. The family law community in P.E.I. is small compared to other jurisdictions, and while the number of interviews reflected the available budget rather than an effort to draw a representative sample, we were advised that the people selected represented a reasonable cross section of relevant professionals.
In the case of practising lawyers, eight were interviewed, five of whom represented separating mothers and fathers for a range of purposes, from the development of agreements to the settlement of disputes about custody and access, child support and division of property. None of them represented custodial or non-custodial parents exclusively, but as individual lawyers do tend to represent one of those more than the other, an effort was made to include lawyers representing each parental category. Two of the lawyers interviewed represented the provincial Department of Health and Social Services. They provide legal counsel to women receiving social assistance, through their Family Support Orders Program. The program’s purpose is to obtain child support from non-custodial parents (98 percent of whom are fathers) for custodial parents on social assistance. Once clients are referred to the lawyers, they also receive their legal services relating to custody and visitation issues. The eighth lawyer interviewed is an employee of the provincial Ministry of the Attorney General, and acts on behalf of the MEP director to enforce the Maintenance Enforcement Act and the Reciprocal Enforcement Act.
We interviewed two judges in Charlottetown (one of the two family courts on the Island, the other being in Summerside) who regularly preside in Family Court and hear cases involving child support and related matters. We also interviewed the court Registrar and two Family Court counsellors who are social workers hired by the court to conduct home studies and report back on recommendations for a parenting plan for separating parents with children. They also act as mediators and family counsellors. The two interviewed for this research were also involved in a new parenting education program being implemented in association with the Family Court. In addition, we interviewed the Child Support Guidelines Officer, who is responsible for assisting parents in applying for variations to existing support orders under the new Federal Child Support Guidelines. Finally, we interviewed the Director of the MEP. In fact, much of the research was based at the MEP offices, and throughout the research period we had many occasions to talk with the Director and staff members about the full range of issues under consideration.
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