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



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. One of the activities decided upon was a research strategy to investigate the factors that influence compliance and non-compliance with child support orders and agreements.

In early 1999, the first project under the research strategy on compliance and default began in Prince Edward Island. The project was conceived as an analysis of compliance in Prince Edward Island, and a test to help assess the methodologies for studying compliance in other provinces. Ultimately, the objective was to collect and analyze sufficient information to provide a national perspective on compliance with child support orders.

The research was designed to be exploratory in nature 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 was limited. We set out in P.E.I. to test a range of research methods, and to identify factors 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. combined several methodologies. First, information was extracted from a sample of cases registered at the province’s Maintenance Enforcement Program (MEP). That information included some demographic characteristics of the paying parents and recipients of child support, information about the child support order or agreement that was the basis for the child support expected to be paid, and a detailed accounting of the actual payment of child support, from 1990 to the research period in March 1999 (or until the case had been closed). The main purpose of this element of the research was to examine patterns of compliance and default, and to categorize paying parents according to their payment histories. The second main research element was interviews with paying parents and recipients of child support. A sample of 130 people were interviewed, including 51 paying parents and 79 recipients. In 31 cases, both parents in the same case were interviewed. The interviews ranged in duration from 45 minutes to two hours, and explored a wide range of issues believed to potentially have a bearing on child support compliance, including: pre- and post-separation relationships and child care; the process of separation; decisions about where the children would live, visitation by the non-resident parent, and child support; and the parents’ experience with legal and other government institutions.

The third main element of the research was interviews with family law lawyers, judges, court workers, mediators, court-appointed social workers and maintenance enforcement officers. These interviews were designed to ensure that the researchers understood the formal structures that may come into play in P.E.I. when parents with children separate, and to benefit from the experience of people who work with these parents on a regular basis in seeking to understand the factors that may influence compliance and default.

Findings from these three key research elements were analyzed together, and the findings are presented in two chapters: the first focussing on compliance patterns; and the second examining the factors influencing compliance with child support.

Data on compliance patterns showed that while the majority of child support amounts are in the smaller range (two-thirds are $300 a month or lower, and 43 percent are $200 a month or lower), support is not forthcoming on a regular basis in three-quarters of the cases, and in about 42 percent of cases there are significant default problems. Our two primary measures of compliance—the frequency with which monthly obligations are paid in full and on-time, and the percentage of total obligations paid—indicate that the problems with compliance are complex and vary greatly in nature. A substantial number of paying parents pay in full and on-time every month. Some pay in full for extended periods, miss a number of months, and then resume payments and gradually pay off the arrears. Some paying parents pay at least some amount all or most months, but frequently pay less than what they are obliged to pay. Some pay very sporadically and in amounts not clearly tied to their monthly obligations. The degree of variation in payment patterns suggests that a host of factors influences whether or not support obligations are met, and that in individual cases compliance may be tied to a single predominant factor or some combination of factors.

The analysis of MEP case files also provides us with information about the enforcement strategies used by the MEP, and some information about the resulting payment behaviour. However, it is clear from this analysis, and from the researchers’ detailed review of the MEP files, that it is not possible to obtain an accurate picture of the relationship between specific enforcement measures and resumptions in payments, and it is unwise to assume a “cause and effect” relationship, even when a resumption in payment follows closely after the initiation of a specific enforcement action. There may well be some enforcement measures that work better than others, and enforcement strategies that prove to be more effective overall. Our analysis thus far suggests that in order to identify those “best practices” in the enforcement of child support orders, it will be necessary to examine a sample of specific cases in detail.

Analysis of the MEP case file data was a first step; it indicated the extent of the problem with non-compliance and indicated, by the wide range of payment patterns, the complexities in understanding why some paying parents pay support regularly and in full and others do not. Our analysis of the interviews with paying and recipient parents, and the linking of those interviews to actual payment patterns, allowed us to test the broad premise that compliance and non-compliance with child support orders are influenced by factors beyond just the ability to pay, and are related 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. Key findings in this regard included the following:

  • 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 lawyers, judges, social workers, court workers and MEP officers interviewed supported this premise strongly, suggesting in fact 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 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, but some also identified “willingness to pay” reasons.
  • The nature of child support orders and agreements appear to be important factors in compliance. Where 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.
  • Where arrangements for parenting are made through an agreement rather than a court order, compliance is more likely to occur. 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 having taken place between the parents about shared parenting or child support. In these cases, there is a greater risk of low compliance.
  • Larger child support amounts are more likely to be paid than lower support amounts. However, substantial numbers of paying parents with higher obligations still fall into the “moderate” or “low” compliance categories.
  • Our ability to assess the quality of the pre-separation relationship between paying parents and their children was limited, but by the measures used here 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 show results at the extremes: 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 between the parents did not help in predicting compliance. Relationships described as hostile or tense were as likely to be in compliance as those described as friendly.
  • Issues concerning money or access to the children by the paying parent, even though they were raised as problems in some cases, did not correlate to compliance or non-compliance. However, when 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.

In this study the above-described factors were discussed in the context of their possible interrelatedness, but because of the limited number of interviews we had to work with, it was not possible to conduct a more detailed analysis of the relative strength of some of the relationships, and of how these factors may interact at any given time and as time passes. The goal of the compliance research project, of which the P.E.I. study was a first step, will be to explore these factors in more depth to see how they interrelate. To the extent possible, research in other provinces will seek to identify some profiles of paying parents that incorporate their compliance records and the factors that appear to work together to influence compliance.

We have succeeded as a first step, however, in supporting the general view that compliance with child support is often a decision, rather than a question of ability to pay, and in highlighting some of the factors that appear to be most influential in the decision that paying parents make about whether or not to comply with their child support obligations.

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