Debtor’s prison for dads

Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010
Barbara Kay, National Post ·

Last week Ontario announced it will begin impounding cars of fathers who fall behind in their child support payments. What, are mere licence suspensions not driving enough men to despair?

On Aug. 31 Paul Donovan, age 50, a reliable long-haul trucker, lay down beside train tracks near his home in London, Ont., and rolled himself into the path of an oncoming train. Most people would call it a suicide. Not his common-law partner, Brenda Higgins. Ms. Higgins holds Ontario’s Family Responsibility Office (FRO) liable for his death, and will launch a lawsuit to that effect.

Paul’s ex-wife works, owns a home and drives a new car. Neither she nor their children — today adults of 18 and 21 — are, or ever were, impoverished. Paul had been paying regular child support since 1996. But during the trucking industry’s recent hard times, Paul was temporarily unemployed, and missed two support payments.

Although he was soon back at work, Paul’s commercial licence was suspended by the FRO. They refused to reinstate it without payment of $1,500 Paul hadn’t yet earned. Their irrational licence suspension ensured he couldn’t earn it. Ms. Higgins’ scant income is only sufficient to support her three children. According to Ms. Higgins in a telephone interview, several pleas to negotiate the amount and schedule of payments with the FRO by Paul, his MPP and an ombudsman were rebuffed.

Bills mounted, but Paul’s livelihood remained blocked. He couldn’t afford a lawyer, and when he acted for himself a judge told him she couldn’t help him. The FRO took him to court, petitioning for $10,000 or 188 days in jail. Appalled, Paul confided to Ms. Higgins he would rather die than serve such a sentence. Famous last words.

Every province has similar support-payment enforcement agencies. The FRO’s Kafkaesque persecution of delinquent fathers is not unique to Ontario. These collection agencies are unaccountable, quasi-penal bodies. They hold powers to invade privacy without a warrant, and to impose criminal-level penalties for non-payment. But unlike defendants in criminal courts, FRO victims don’t have the protections of due process.

I gained a fuller understanding of these inherently unjust agencies from a 2010 study in the Canadian Journal of Law and Society: “Punishing our way out of poverty: The Prosecution of Child-Support Debt in Alberta, Canada” by Nipissing University academic Paul Millar.

The privatization of child-support enforcement in the 1980s was conceived of as a means of reducing welfare handouts from the state. The initiative sprang not from politicians, but from legal academics who erroneously linked divorce to the impoverishment of women and children. The setting of guidelines was, according to Mr. Millar, “a judicially fostered social policy aimed at reducing poverty.”

Imprisonment for debt is sometimes grouped with torture and slavery in human rights discourse, and was abolished here under the 1869 Debtor’s Act as “not consistent with the morals of the day.” Debtor’s prison was only reinstated at the urging of radical feminist legal activists in the 1980s for one group: fathers behind on support payments.

In what Mr. Millar calls “inverted justice,” Canada is one of a tiny handful of Western countries that jails men for an essentially civil offence without the procedural protections accorded real criminals, such as: the right to remain silent, the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, the right to an impartial arbiter and the right to legal representation.

Reliable data demonstrates unequivocally that this regressive form of taxation disproportionately affects blacks, aboriginals and the poor, since the highest rates are reserved for those with the lowest income (under $20,000 a year). Moreover, so-called “deadbeat dads” can’t declare bankruptcy. “Deadbeat dads” is, by the way, a terrible slur on the majority of dads who want to pay, but can’t; women who deny fathers legal access to children are never jailed or called “deadbeat mums.”

While out looking for Paul on the afternoon of Aug. 31, Ms. Higgins arrived at the scene of his suicide, not 50 metres from their home. Seeing the police cars and ambulance, she “knew” without asking. The trauma threw her into a suicidal depression resulting in a six-week hospital stay.

Tally: A healthy, responsible, productive man is dead, a partner devastated. Two middle-class children have lost a loved father, three children an engaged stepfather. At the time of his death Paul Donovan owed a measly $4,000 in child support.

Ms. Higgins can hear the trains go by as she struggles to sleep. Is there a winner in this story? If so, who?