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

2003-FCY-1E

5. ANALYSIS OF INTERVIEWS WITH PARENTS AND PROFESSIONALS (cont'd)

5.4 The Relationship Between Paying Parent and Children

It was noted in the literature review done prior to this study that some research suggests a link between the nature of a paying parent’s relationship with his or her children, and the likelihood that the parent will meet child support obligations. In this section we look at measures of the quality of that relationship, both before separation and after.

5.4.1 Relationship Pre-Separation

The link is not a simple one, of course, but one intuitive premise is that non-custodial parents who have had a close and loving relationship with their children and have participated actively in their upbringing, will be more likely to pay child support than parents who have been more remote in their children’s lives.[32] To examine this premise, the interviews conducted for the P.E.I. study included a series of questions about the relationship between the paying parent and the children before separation. The same questions (slightly reworded in some cases) were asked of both paying parents and recipients. The results suggest that in the P.E.I. sample the pre-separation paying parent-child relationship is by some measures an influencing factor, and by others not, in itself, a predictor of compliance or non-compliance.

Two quantitative measures of the nature of this relationship were examined. The first is the length of time that the paying parent lived together with the children in the complete family. We may expect that the longer the paying parent had lived with the children before separation, the more likely that parent would be to meet child support obligations, because the bonds would be stronger and there would be a greater recognition of what was required to maintain the household with children. The data in P.E.I. showed little association with compliance. Differences in compliance among parents who had lived for different periods of time with their children were marginal, and the only outstanding figures show up where the numbers of cases are too small to be meaningful. Those paying parents who separated prior to, or soon after, the birth of their child, yet are highly compliant, represent an anomaly. The question of what this reflects will be raised below in the discussion of alternative views of marriage and family.

The second measure is whether or not the children for whom child support is supposed to be paid represented the paying parent’s first family, the presumption being that ties to the first family of children may be different from those to a second family, or that multiple families may influence the sense of responsibility for providing support that a parent feels. By this measure, a somewhat higher proportion of “first family” paying parents are complying with child support orders/agreements than “not first family” paying parents, and a somewhat lower proportion of “first family” paying parents are among those complying least with their orders/agreements. However, the differences are relatively small, and the since there are only 11 “not first family” paying parents in the sample, a meaningful association cannot be drawn.

Aside from these two quantitative measures, the interviews included questions about the parents’ views of the paying parent-child relationships. In responding to questions about their pre-separation relationship with their children, all paying parents were consistent in reporting positive relationships. Two features of their characterizations of these relationships are rather striking: the descriptions are uniformly very vague, generally ranging from “good” to “really good” or “great”. Prompting for details rarely elicited anything more than “loving” or “close” and in the case of infants and toddlers, “easy” or “simple”. The second feature is the predominance of play and recreational time spent with the children during the marriage relative to involvement in caretaking activities, involvement in homework or supervision of play with other children. This reflects a traditional gendered division of parental labour. There were several exceptions: paying parents who had been seasonal or shift workers or unemployed for a time report being more involved with their children when they were not working, and in a few instances paying parents report that they did the majority of caretaking because the recipient parent was often “out partying” or otherwise not meeting her responsibilities.

We can speculate that for paying parents whose time with their children was generally recreational and concentrated mostly on weekends, the conditions imposed by post-separating visitation might not be experienced as very different from the original pattern of involvement. In fact, while paying parents do often note that they have less contact with their children and would like to have more, their descriptions of post-separation relationships do not differ substantially from the pre-separation ones. Some even point out that they spend more “quality time” with their children since the separation occurred. In summary, regarding the pre-separation relationship between the paying parent and the children, we found that by the measures examined here it was not in itself a major factor in determining child support compliance in our sample of cases.

5.4.2 Post-Separation Relationship

When we look at measures of the relationship between paying parents and their children after separation, there appear to be some indications of an influence on compliance. A reasonable premise here would be that paying parents who spend more time with their children after separation, and who participate actively in their care, would be more likely to be in compliance.

Again, several measures were used, and some show a stronger association than others. One factor that shows a clear trend is the extent to which the children reside with the paying parent after the separation (remembering that in all of our cases the “paying parent” is expected to pay child support, indicating normally that the children live with the paying parent less than they do with the “recipient” of support). In our sample, compliance rates fall steadily as residence with the paying parent decreases (Table 5.20).

Table 5.20
Compliance and Residence with Children
Children reside
with paying parent
High
compliance
Moderate compliance Low
compliance
% No. % No. % No.
Part of every week 61 14 35 8 4 1
Part of every month 50 10 45 9 5 1
Occasionally 39 5 23 3 39 5
Never 34 12 51 18 14 5
Total [33] 45 41 42 38 13 12

This issue is complicated by the fact that some paying parents live in a different province or in P.E.I. but a substantial distance away from the children. They may fall into the “occasionally” or “never” categories above, but may still pay child support in full. The fact that they don’t generally have the children staying with them may not be a matter of day-to-day choice, and may be influenced by employment or other factors that separate them geographically. Of course, it can also be argued that these circumstances may reflect priorities not in keeping with the notion of fully supporting the children. In any case, it is difficult to factor the “out of province” element into the above analysis, because there is often considerable movement in and out of province and residences in some cases have changed over time.

The results are less pronounced but still of interest when we look at how often the non-custodial parent sees the children (as opposed to residing with them). Paying parents who see the children more than one day every week remain more highly represented among those who pay support regularly, and none of them fall into the low compliance category, but there is little difference in compliance between those who see the children one day per week or some time every month and those who rarely or never see them.

5.4.2.1 Reasons for Limited Time with Children

Time spent with the children is not necessarily a regular phenomenon, of course. For 35 of the 51 paying parents interviewed, contact with the children was reported to be less frequent at the time of the interview than during the early period following separation. To understand how time spent with the children after separation might influence compliance, it is important to consider the reasons why some paying parents might spend less time than others with their children. We inquired about the reasons for the reduction in contact and got a variety of answers that differed substantially between paying parents and recipients. In some cases, several reasons were given.

Paying parent responses(21 paying parents interviewed reported reduced contact).

  • Seven said they lived further away, so frequent contact was more difficult.
  • Five said the other parent prevented them from seeing the children.
  • Five said the children were older and had their own lives now.
  • Three said that while the other parent didn’t actually prevent contact, it was discouraged and therefore harder to maintain.
  • One said the children were no longer interested in seeing him.

Recipient responses(28 recipients interviewed reported reduced contact; in some cases these correspond to the paying parents above).

  • Fourteen said the paying parent had moved away.
  • Six said the paying parent looked after himself first, and so didn’t care as much about the children.
  • Five said that anger toward the custodial parent caused the reduced contact.
  • Three said the reduced contact was due to anger about child support obligations.
  • Two said the paying parent blamed the children for not maintaining more contact.

The discrepancy between the frequent reporting by paying parents of interference with or prevention of access, and the absence of reports by the recipient parents that access has been withheld is a significant one. It would be simple, of course, to conclude that one group or the other is misrepresenting reality, particularly when such a conclusion might support arguments on one side or the other for changes to policy governing custody and access. Practitioners (lawyers, social workers and mediators) recognize that in some cases access is indeed withheld, and that in some cases paying parents fail to exercise access as agreed or ordered. In either case, there may be perceived justification for such conditions. Paying parents may reduce contact for emotional reasons, self-interest or for other reasons not yet fully understood. Recipient parents may withhold access for emotional reasons, due to perceived concerns about the children’s well-being under their paying parent’s care, concern about the effects of irregular visits, anger over missed support payments, or for other reasons.

Given the connection that some paying parents in our sample made between payment of support and availability of access, however, and given that the connection is frequently made by advocates for changing how the courts handle access and child support issues, there may be implications for compliance in the claims of denied access that require closer investigation. Whether the withholding of access is real, perceived or bogus, it appears to be linked in paying parents’ minds with their willingness to pay. This link sometimes persists even in cases when support has always been paid regularly and fully. The question this raises is: Why do some paying parents who experience or perceive access problems continue to pay while others do not? There is also a question, in cases when there is a link between lack of access to the children and the withholding of support, of whether irregular or non-compliance with child support obligations was the original cause of withholding access to the children.

Clearly, access alone is not a major determinant, but it may be a contributing factor in some cases. Whatever the reasons, limited contact with the children appears to reduce the likelihood of compliance.

As a measure of the quality of the relationship between paying parent and children, we asked respondents about the extent to which paying parents were involved in the care and regular activities of their children (essentials, such as school and medical matters, as well as formal activities of the children, such as organized sports or clubs). A reasonable presumption here is that parents who are actively involved in the children’s care and upbringing would be more likely to pay support.

A remarkable finding here is that about 50 percent of the paying parents said they had no involvement (even though some of those saw the children on a fairly regular basis), and about 86 percent of the recipients said their former partners had no involvement in the children’s care and regular activities. When we look at the compliance records of the paying parents, we see that our presumption is borne out to some extent: about 55 percent of “involved” paying parents have a high compliance rate, compared to 41 percent of those “not involved” in child care. However, both involved and not involved paying parents are equally represented (15 percent) in the low compliance category.

By the measures used in this study then, it appears that paying parents who reside with their children some of the time in the post-separation years, or who see their children very regularly and often and participate in their care and essential activities, are more likely than others to comply with child support obligations. Analysis by the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth shows a link between contact with the children and payment of child support as well (Marcil-Gratton and Le Bourdais, 1999, 33-35). However, a variety of factors contribute to explaining why some paying parents spend more time with their children than others do, and none of these factors stands out as predictive of compliance behaviour. The nature and determining influence of time spent with the children by paying parents warrants examination in future research.

5.5 The Relationship Between the Parents

To the extent that “willingness to pay” factors influence compliance, we can expect that the relationship between the recipient parent and paying parent will in some cases have an impact on whether or not, and how regularly, child support obligations are met. The relationship between the parents can be characterized by direct indicators, such as how they report getting along, and less direct measures, such as the kinds of issues they report as being problematic, including visitation or decisions about the children’s upbringing. As well, we can expect some change over time in the relationship. We were not able to track the kinds of changes in detail, but we did record some information about the pre-separation and post-separation relationships. The overall premise is that indicators of a more positive relationship will tend to correlate to higher compliance. Nevertheless, we are dealing here with parents who have separated despite having children, so some degree of disagreement on fundamental issues is highly probable.

5.5.1 Parents’ Pre-Separation Relationship

As one measure of the pre-separation relationship, we inquired about whether the parents had been married or lived common-law, or had a more casual relationship. About two-thirds of them had been married, and another 14 percent had lived common-law. The remainder said they had never lived together (except in three cases, in which one of the parties said they had lived together for short periods). The nature of the relationship, however, did not appear, to be a strong influencing factor in compliance in our sample. If anything, those who had not lived together tended to be slightly more highly represented in the high compliance category than those who had been married, and less likely to fall into the low compliance category. The numbers of cases were too few to be indicative of a pattern, however, especially in the low compliance category.

We also examined the duration of the relationship between the parents to see whether longer relationships (which suggest a longer mutual commitment) could be linked to higher compliance. The data show mixed results. On the one hand, shorter relationships tend to be less likely to have high compliance. But the reverse is true with regard to the low compliance group—the longer lasting relationships are linked more strongly with low compliance. This suggests that perhaps a longer pre-separation relationship can have an influence at the two extremes—it can result in stronger cooperation after separation or it can have the opposite effect.

It may be instructive in future research to learn more about the motivations of compliant paying parents from short-lived or uncommitted relationships, particularly in cases when the separation occurred before or soon after the child’s birth, or when the paying parent and child never lived together. Possibly some men in uncommitted relationships who separate from a woman they did not wish to marry feel that paying child support is a reasonable and responsible way to get themselves out of a lifetime relationship with that particular woman. It might be fruitful to directly ask paying parents who pay under these circumstances, when we might expect otherwise, what motivates them to do so.

One rather blunt indicator of the nature of the parents’ relationship is violence. Many of the mothers interviewed reported that their former partners had threatened them with physical violence (50 percent of respondents) or had actually assaulted them while they were together (40 percent). The existence of such violence in the pre-separation relationship (or at least the reporting of it) appears to have only a moderate connection to compliance patterns. Paying parents who were reported to have threatened violence were just as likely in our sample to have high compliance rates than other paying parents, but they were somewhat more likely to show low compliance. Similarly, paying parents reported to have assaulted their former partners were somewhat more likely to have a poor compliance record.

These are quite striking figures, even given the turbulent nature of many marital separations and the differences the two parties might have in their perceptions of what constitutes violence. Perhaps not surprisingly, very few references were made by the paying parents to any violent threats or actions. The most explicit came from a paying parent who clearly regretted the separation, reporting that he had been charged with assault and ordered to leave the marital home. Even he, however, did not actually state that he had acted violently. In any case, we can only speculate about the incidence of reportedly violent paying parents at both ends of the compliance spectrum. It is conceivable that some paying parents, as in the example above, feel remorse for their violent behaviour, particularly if they feel it contributed to the separation. Perhaps such paying parents are more likely to comply with support. In cases where paying parents are not remorseful or do not recognize their violence as problematic, they may simply be persons who are not inclined to accept responsibility.

5.5.2 Parents’ Post-Separation Relationship

In considering the post-separation relationship between parents, we looked at how the parents characterized the nature of the relationship, whether or not significant problems were identified, and at problems reported concerning some specific issues: visitation, money and child-rearing. In more than one-third of the cases in our sample, no contact at all was reported between the parents, not even to exchange the children or discuss issues. In a majority of the cases when contact was reported, the contact had to do with the children or money alone—only 16 percent of cases reported occasional or regular social contact between the parents at the time of the interviews.[34] Cases in which there was some social contact between the parents were less likely to have a strong compliance record than either those with no contact at all or those in which the only contact was in relation to the children and the exchange of money. Those same cases with some social contact were also more likely to have lower compliance records than the others (Table 5.21).

Table 5.21
Compliance and Type of Post-Separation Contact Between Parents
Type of contact High
compliance
Moderate
compliance
Low
compliance
% No. % No. % No.
Some social contact 27 4 47 7 27 4
Contact about children, money only 54 20 38 14 8 3
No contact at all 54 20 32 12 14 5
Total 49 44 37 33 14 12

The parents also characterized their post-separation relationships in terms of how friendly or hostile they were toward each other. The majority (58 percent) said they were on generally friendly terms (and this varied little between the two parents, in cases when we interviewed both former partners). The remaining respondents characterized their relationships as either tense and impersonal (26 percent) or hostile (16 percent). Those with the more friendly relationships were somewhat less likely to be low compliers and more likely to be highly compliant. However, the “hostile” cases also showed up in the high compliance group in higher proportion than the “tense, impersonal” group.

Overall, based on our data, it is fair to say that general characterizations of the parents’ relationships do not correlate strongly to compliance. Also, the fact that a parent or both parents identified a specific issue such as visitation, money or child-rearing as a problem in the post-separation relationship did not appear to relate to compliance. There was one exception. When child-rearing was identified as an issue between the two parents (i.e., when the parents disagreed about child-rearing decisions or approaches), there appears to be a link with compliance rates. In cases when this was identified as a problem, paying parents were less likely to be highly compliant and much more likely to have a poor compliance record (Table 5.22).

Table 5.22
Compliance and Child-rearing as an Area of Conflict
Child-rearing as an issue High
compliance
Moderate compliance Low
compliance
% No. % No. % No.
Yes 31 5 38 6 31 5
No 46 19 44 18 10 4
Total 42 24 42 24 16 9

The paying parents who complained about child-rearing issues in the present sometimes expressed a perception of loss of influence over the child’s development, presumably moral and lifestyle development. This has connotations of loss of parental role and identity that was discussed in the literature review for this study. We can speculate that this may contribute to unwillingness to pay, particularly when the perceived loss is combined with a belief that support should be linked to access. There is also possibly an element of control involved, in that as control of one’s role in the child’s life is felt to be lost, control is increased over the tangible area of child support.

5.5.3 Other Post-Separation Factors

Some aspects of the post-separation relationship do not relate directly to the interpersonal relationships involved, but may nevertheless indicate the strength of ties between the paying parent and the children, or may indeed influence those ties. These aspects include the length of time the parents had been separated when the interviews took place, and new relationships that may have developed for either parent. In our sample, both of these factors appear to be linked to compliance.

5.5.3.1 Time Since Separation

The parents we interviewed ranged widely in the amount of time they had been separated from their former partners. One might expect that time outside the family household might gradually diminish some paying parents’ sense of responsibility to support the children, or their understanding of the requirements of maintaining a household with children, and that these might lead to lower compliance. Alternatively, the tensions, hostility or disagreements on specific issues between separating couples that could contribute to non-compliance may be expected to diminish over time, resulting in higher compliance in later years. Relating the separation time to compliance in our data shows that high compliance diminishes as the time since separation increases. Similarly, the likelihood of having a low compliance record is greater if the time since separation is greater than two years (Table 5.23).

Table 5.23
Compliance and Time Since Separation
Years since separation High
compliance
Moderate compliance Low
compliance
% No. % No. % No.
Up to 2 years 83 5 17 1 0 0
2-6 years 49 22 33 15 18 8
More than 6 years 36 16 49 22 16 7
Total 45 43 40 38 16 15

A number of factors related to the time since separation could help explain this relationship. For example, a longer time period presents a greater opportunity for employment or other income-related problems to occur. It also increases the opportunity for problems to crop up between the parents, or between the non-custodial parent and the children. With the passage of time, children mature and become more independent, which many paying parents say accounts for why they spend less time with them (“they have their own lives now”). While many paying parents have described their relationship with their very young children as “easy” or “simple”, it may become increasingly difficult for these parents to relate to their children as the latter become older, more complicated and, at the same time, less intimately known. Some children may withdraw from the parent as time goes by and judgements of blame and loyalty develop. The perception of rejection by one’s child may influence a parent’s willingness to pay, especially if the paying parent perceives that the recipient parent has contributed to the deterioration of the relationship. This may also be connected to paying parents’ complaints about interference with access.

5.5.3.2 New Relationships

Time since separation also increases the opportunity for the parents to get involved in new relationships and take on additional family responsibilities that place demands on available income. This can be an issue in a considerable number of cases. In a recent Statistics Canada study, Galarneau and Sturrock found that “a significant proportion of both men and women became part of a couple in the years following separation. Though men did so earlier, the gap between the sexes was small; one year after separation 30 percent of men and 26 percent of women had formed new unions. The gap widens with time, however; five years after separation 54 percent of men had a new partner, but only 45 percent of women did.”[35]

New relationships are apparently quite common, and they have the potential to reduce compliance. When the recipient parent enters into a new relationship, some paying parents respond by viewing their responsibility to support the children of the previous relationship as diminished. When the paying parent enters into a new relationship, there can be pressure to direct available income toward the new household and family. On the other hand, if child support compliance is weak because of tensions between the parents or anger or hurt on the part of the paying parent, a new relationship may have the opposite effect.

The interview responses in our sample show some increase in compliance when the paying parent enters a new relationship, and a decrease when it is the recipient parent who finds a new partner. In both cases, however, paying parents with low compliance records do not appear to be influenced by the emergence of a new relationship (Table 5.24).

Table 5.24
Compliance and New Relationships
New relationship High
compliance
Moderate
compliance
Low
compliance
% No. % No. % No.
Paying parent has new relationship 50 34 37 25 13 9
Paying parent does not
have new relationship
33 7 52 11 14 3
Recipient has new
relationship
40 19 43 20 17 8
Recipient does not have new relationship 49 16 33 11 18

6

In looking at the relationship between the parents then, our findings are mixed. The fact that some parents had been married or living in common law, while others had had more casual relationships, did not appear to influence compliance. Longstanding pre-separation relationships appeared to have results at the extremes; these parents were more likely than others to pay regularly and in full, but also more likely to have low compliance records. Partners who maintained some social contact after separation were substantially less likely to comply with child support than others who had little or no relationship with their former partner. However, relationships described by the parents as hostile or tense were as likely to be in compliance as those described as friendly.

Access to the children by the paying parent, and money issues, even though they were raised as problems in some cases, did not correlate with compliance or non-compliance. However, when child-rearing issues were raised, there was a clear link. Paying parents with strong concerns about the child-rearing practices of the recipient parent were more likely to be in default.

The data showed a clear link between the amount of time that had passed since separation and compliance levels. As time since separation increases, compliance decreases. When the recipient enters a new relationship, compliance also tends to decrease. However, when the paying parent enters a new relationship compliance tends to increase. Future research with greater numbers of cases will allow us to examine how the time and new relationship factors interact with each other.

5.6 Non-MEP Cases

The P.E.I. research centred on parents whose cases were registered at the province’s Maintenance Enforcement office. However, the review of literature that the Department of Justice Canada conducted as a basis for this research, and our own discussions with people in P.E.I. who work with separating parents, indicate that there are some, and perhaps many, parents who never register their child support agreement with the MEP. Because little is known about the characteristics of these cases, it was decided to include in the P.E.I. study a small number of interviews with such parents. The purpose was to see if any particular characteristics stood out as noticeably different among those parents, as compared to the “MEP” parents.

As we noted in Chapter 2, 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, we obtained names of parents through our contacts with lawyers in P.E.I. who would agree to participate in an interview. Other avenues were considered, but were deemed to require more time and effort than was available in the context of the P.E.I. study. Ultimately, the method proved insufficient. Our contacts were unable to provide as many names as we had originally thought possible, and some of those names did not result in interviews. Ultimately, 10 interviews were conducted, all with mothers who were the parents with whom the children resided and who were receiving child support.

Because of the small number of interviews, it was not possible to examine links between case characteristics and compliance. Also, because the child support amounts and the extent to which they have been paid or not are based only on what was reported to us by the parents, with no verification of their accuracy, we would have to be cautious about any interpretations in any case. What we can do with the available interview responses is report on some of the case characteristics that emerged, to see if there are any patterns that differ from the MEP cases. These are described below.

5.6.1 Employment and Income

Figures on the non-MEP parents’ income and employment are limited in the same way as the MEP cases by the fact that we are relying on reported estimates with no verification. Also, in the non-MEP cases we have only the recipient parents’ estimates of the paying parents’ circumstances.

In relation to income, four of the ten women interviewed declined to estimate their former partners’ current income because they did not feel they could accurately estimate it. Of the six who did estimate, one reported an annual income of less than $15,000, two reported incomes in the $20,000‑29,999 range, two in the $30,000‑39,999 range and one in the $60,000 or more range. This compared to their own reported incomes, six of which were less than $15,000 and three of which were in the $20,000‑29,999 range. Seven of the ten women interviewed were currently, or had at one time been, collecting social assistance. These reported income levels are substantially lower on average than the figures for the MEP population, but that is likely due to the fact that many of the names for the interviews were provided by the legal counsel at the social services office, rather than being indicative of non-MEP parents as a whole.

Unlike the MEP cases, in which only two-thirds of paying parents reported being employed full-time at the time of the interview, all of these non-MEP parents said that their former partners were employed full-time. Two reportedly work in a professional capacity, three in a skilled labour position, and the remainder in unskilled labour. Their assessments of money management circumstances, while they were in line with the MEP cases, were evenly divided between having serious problems, some problems and no problems at all.

5.6.2 Agreements Relating to Custody, Access and Child Support, and Compliance

Non-MEP cases usually do not have child support court orders, because court orders are automatically registered at the MEP. In a small number of cases, parents decide by mutual consent to “opt out” of the MEP, so that their child support order is no longer monitored or enforced by the provincial government agency. In all of our non-MEP cases, the parents had an agreement in place for custody, access and child support, and no court order had been issued. Primary responsibility for the children was similar to the MEP cases: six cases were described as sole custody for the recipient parent, three were shared custody with the recipient parent’s residence being the primary one, and one case was equally shared custody. Unlike the MEP cases (where 44 percent of cases had a set arrangement), all but one in the non-MEP sample had no formal arrangement for visitation and no regularly agreed upon visitation times.

The child support amounts that were agreed to ranged from $69 a month to $400 a month, with seven of the ten cases having amounts of $300 a month or less. This is similar to the MEP cases, in which about 70 percent of cases fell in that range. However, in the MEP cases, 25 percent were for more than $400 a month, so the non-MEP support amounts tended to be at the lower end.

In terms of compliance with those agreed upon amounts, eight of the ten paying parents always or almost always paid their support regularly and in full, and in no case was payment described in a way that would put it into the low compliance category used for the MEP cases. (In the MEP cases, 41 percent were fully or almost fully compliant, 37 percent were in the middle range, and 22 percent never paid or almost never paid support.) This difference is undoubtedly explained in part by the fact that recipient parents who were not receiving payments regularly always had the option to go to the MEP for help with enforcement, so cases not registered with the MEP are bound to be in large measure those in which support is received regularly. Still, it is of interest for policy makers because if there can be confidence that children whose parents have not registered with the MEP are receiving adequate support, it may indicate that current procedures for registering cases and allowing parents to “opt out” are reasonably effective. In almost all of the 10 cases here, the recipient parent reported that they had used the child support guidelines to decide on a figure for support. Assuming they used the guidelines correctly (which is supported by the fact that most of them consulted a lawyer at some point in the process), the support that recipient parents are receiving can also be considered in keeping with national standards.

In explaining why they believed their former partners paid the support regularly, the non-MEP respondents identified two primary reasons. First, all but one said that the paying parents were close to their children and wanted to make sure they had the things they needed. The one exception was a case in which the paying parent had no contact with the children or the recipient parent, but still never missed a payment. The second reason provided by most respondents was that they and their former partners knew about the MEP, and understood that if there were problems they could resort to enforcement. This second explanation was presented more as an aside in most cases, and not as an important motivator.

The non-MEP parents were asked why they chose not to register with the MEP, what they knew about the MEP, and whether or not they had considered registering. In all but one case, they reported having known about the MEP, and having decided not to go that route because they were sure there would be no problem with receiving payments, provided their former partner had income with which to make the payments. With the one exception, they also said that they believed the MEP was an important service to have in place, that they knew people who relied on it to obtain support, and that it was good for themselves to know that they could use it if it became necessary. In fact, one of the respondents reported that since her support payments had stopped coming regularly in recent months, she had just registered with the MEP to get help with enforcement. The one exception referred to was a case in which the respondent had not known about the MEP and at the time of the interview was unsure what the MEP did. In any case, she was not concerned because she received support regularly.

Two respondents noted that they had initially considered using the MEP, but that their former partner had asked that it be handled privately and they had agreed. In one of those cases, the agreement was actually registered at the MEP for a short time, but was then withdrawn.

5.6.3 The Separation Process

As in the MEP cases, the decision to separate was usually described by the non-MEP respondents as the recipient parent’s decision, with a smaller number described as a mutual decision. In one case, the recipient parent described it as the paying parent’s decision. Overwhelmingly, in the non-MEP cases, there was no discussion at least initially about parenting. It was just assumed that the children would stay with the recipient parent, even if it was they who moved out of the family home. In only one case did the recipient parent say that issues were discussed and the parents agreed. In the MEP sample, two-thirds of cases were described this way. Also unlike the MEP sample, the non-MEP cases were all ultimately settled without resorting to the courts (except in one case when an undisputed divorce had to be formally decided in court). In the MEP sample, 31 percent of cases resulted in a court decision for at least some aspect of the separation.

The non-MEP cases differed substantially from the MEP cases also in regard to the decision about child support. Whereas the MEP cases frequently did not address the support issue at the time of separation, all but two of the non-MEP cases had what were described by the recipient parents as mutual decisions about child support at the time of separation. In only one case was there no support for the period just after separation. In the MEP cases, nearly half required court orders or had no child support for an extended period after the separation.

Despite that difference, and despite the much better payment records reported by these recipient parents, there is still considerable dissatisfaction among them about the support amount. Half of the respondents said they believed the amount should be higher, even taking into account their knowledge of their former partner’s income.

5.6.4 Family Relationships

In considering why the non-MEP parents appear to have a positive compliance record compared to our MEP sample, it is worth looking at the nature of the parents’ relationships, and the relationship between the paying parent and the children, to see if they show any differences from the MEP parents in the measures we used. One such measure is the frequency with which the children reside with the paying parent. In five of the non-MEP cases, the children resided part of every week with the paying parent, and in one other case they resided with the paying parent at least some time every month. This compares to 25 percent of MEP cases every week, and 22 percent more at some time every month. In terms of how frequently the children and the paying parent spent time together after the separation, half of the non-MEP paying parents reportedly spent some time every week with their children. Only one paying parent never saw the children. This compares to 29 percent of MEP parents who see their children every week, and 27 percent who never see them.

In one area the MEP and non-MEP cases are similar: in both types of cases the majority of paying parents are reportedly not involved significantly in essential elements of the children’s care and upbringing, including school, medical and dental care. Paying parents’ involvement in both cases is most typically geared toward outdoor activities and sports, or household entertainment such as watching movies or playing games.

The relationships between non-MEP parents is generally described in a more positive way than was the case with the MEP cases. In four of the ten cases, some social contact is reported, and in only two cases is there no contact at all. This compares to 17 percent and 42 percent respectively for the MEP cases. In half of the non-MEP cases, the relationship is described as friendly, and in two cases it is described as hostile. This is roughly the same breakdown as for the MEP sample.

These findings about the non-MEP parents provide a glimpse of what some of the characteristics of these cases might be. However, we have not attempted to draw inferences from them because of the small number of cases and because of the way that the sample was drawn. The benefits of having conducted these interviews is twofold. First, we have learned about some of the hurdles involved in identifying and locating a sample of cases for this population that will assist the Department of Justice Canada in planning future research with non-MEP cases. Second, we have found some specific differences in the characteristics of the small sample we used that will be worth investigating further with a larger and more random sample.

5.7 Summary of Interview Findings

This chapter of the report has presented the findings of the interviews with parents and professionals who work with separating parents in P.E.I. We have reported on the responses to a wide range of questions with potential relevance to compliance and non-compliance with child support orders and agreements. As well, we have linked those responses to the support payment records maintained at the MEP in the province. By doing so, we sought to test the broad premise that compliance and non-compliance with child support orders are influenced by factors beyond just ability to pay, relating more to willingness to pay. We also sought to identify those “willingness to pay” factors that appeared to be most strongly determinant, in themselves, of compliance or non-compliance. The key findings of the chapter are summarized below.

  • Data from the interviews and case file data support the broad premise that “willingness to pay” factors can be an important influence on compliance. The data from our sample also indicate that “ability to pay” factors, such as annual income, employment stability and money management history, can also be important influences, although they are limited in their reliability in this study by the fact that the data were self-reported and without verification.
  • The lawyers, judges, social workers, court workers and MEP officers interviewed, all of whom work directly on a daily basis with separating parents with children, supported this premise strongly, suggesting that “willingness to pay” issues are much more likely to influence compliance, given that child support obligations are determined on the basis of ability to pay.
  • Recipients of child support who had difficulties with non-compliance by their former partners, when asked why they thought support was not paid, identified predominantly “willingness to pay” factors. On the other hand, paying parents explained missing payments primarily by “ability to pay” factors, although some also identified “willingness to pay” reasons.
  • The nature of child support orders and agreements appear to be important factors in compliance. When a parenting arrangement includes shared residence with the children, compliance appears to be higher. If a formal arrangement is in place for visitation, compliance is marginally higher, but the amount of actual contact appears more important.
  • When arrangements for parenting are made through an agreement rather than a court order, compliance is more likely. An important caveat to this finding is that when the immediate post-separation arrangements are made by an agreement, it is often an implicit one in which issues have not been discussed adequately or at all. It is often a case of one parent (usually the paying parent) leaving the family home without any substantial discussion between the parents about shared parenting or child support. In these cases, there is a greater risk of low compliance.
  • Higher child support obligations are more likely to be met than lower support amounts. However, substantial numbers of paying parents with higher obligations still fall into the moderate or low compliance categories.
  • When asked about satisfaction with their overall arrangements for parenting and for child support, many paying parents expressed dissatisfaction, but this dissatisfaction does not appear to be linked to non-compliance.
  • Similarly, both paying parents and recipients had poor opinions of the legal system they encountered for separation and divorce, and both were frequently critical of the lawyers they had consulted (cost being a major area of contention). However, dissatisfaction with the legal system, and even an opinion that the system was biased in favour of mothers, did not appear to have a bearing on the decision to comply or not to comply with the child support order.
  • Our ability to assess the quality of the pre-separation relationship between paying parents and their children was limited, but by the measures used the quality of that relationship did not appear to be an important factor in compliance.
  • The post-separation relationship, however, did appear to be important. Paying parents who reside with their children some of the time, or at least see their children very regularly and often and participate in their care and essential activities, are more likely than others to comply with child support obligations.
  • The fact that some parents had been married or living in common law, while others had had more casual relationships, did not appear to influence compliance. Some paying parents who had never seen their child and were no longer in touch with the recipient parent still paid regularly and in full, while many who had been married for years did not.
  • Longstanding pre-separation relationships appeared to have results at the extremes, i.e. they were more likely than others to pay regularly and in full, but also more likely to have low compliance records.
  • General characterizations of the post-separation relationship did not assist in predicting compliance. Relationships described as hostile or tense were as likely to be in compliance as those described as friendly.
  • Access to the children by the paying parent and money issues, even though they were raised as problems in some cases, did not correlate to compliance or non-compliance. However, where child-rearing issues were raised (for example, disagreements as to what the children should or should not be allowed to do, or the kind of environment they were being brought up in), there was a clear link. Paying parents with strong concerns about the child-rearing practices of the recipient parent were more likely to be in default.
  • The data showed a clear link between the amount of time that had passed since separation and compliance levels. As time since separation increases, compliance decreases. This factor is related to others reported above about the amount of time spent with the children by the paying parent. As well, the emergence of new relationships can have an impact. When the paying parent enters a new relationship, compliance tends to increase, whereas when the recipient enters a new relationship, compliance tends to decrease.
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