Derelict dads
Women fight for child support payments

Terry Kruger
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (May 08/00) - The paper trails that litter the lives of Rae resident Mary Louise Liske and Yellowknife resident Fran Bernier tell a winding tale of hope, heartbreak and frustration.

Both women are single moms. Both have struggled to make ends meet and ensure their children get the lives they deserve. At the same time they have had to fight former spouses and government bureaucracy for overdue child support payments.

Their stories are not unique. Liske and Bernier are among the estimated 10 per cent of the 735 active files in "chronic" default under the Northwest Territories Maintenance Enforcement program (MEP).

Liske is owed $6,650 by a man with whom she had an on-and-off again relationship with dating back to the late 1980s. They had met through mutual friends in Yellowknife and within six months of getting romantically involved, Liske was pregnant.

Their relationship continued on and off for four years until Liske found out the man -- an immigrant from Asia -- was married.

She confronted him with what she learned and he left.

"He gave me $30 and he left," said Liske. "Maybe he thought the $30 would wipe away my tears."

Pregnant with their second child, Liske chose to give the baby up for adoption, but she was determined to make him support their first child.

In February 1992, the man was ordered to pay $150 a month. By September 1994, he was $4,400 in arrears, at which time the monthly payments were reduced to $100.

They returned to court in 1998 and payments were increased to $150, with $50 going to pay down the arrears.

Liske said payments were made for a few months after each court order but would eventually stop. While not a lot of money, she said it would have helped her and especially her son make ends meet.

Birthdays and Christmas have been difficult. She has had to go to the food bank for help because she couldn't afford food and presents at Christmas.

They're scheduled to be back in court on May 15.

Left with five kids

Bernier's story is one of determination.

She had five children with her common-law husband, but when he left four years ago, the mortgage on their house was in arrears, payments on their truck were not being made and her financial situation was bleak.

"The bank foreclosed, so I was evicted," she said.

Bernier lost her vehicle as well, but was determined to not lose her self-esteem.

She won her house back through a government program and manages to get by on social assistance and ensure her children get what they need.

"I make sure they have what they need," said Bernier. "I have never been to the food bank, never. You watch what you do."

That means no big birthday parties, making do with second-hand clothes, borrowing computer games and videos from friends.

She's taking computer training and works part-time to supplement what she gets from social services.

But the $1,000 a month her former spouse was ordered to pay in child support back in 1996 would go a long way to ensuring financial stability.

The problem is, apart from money garnished from income tax refunds and other sources, Bernier's former spouse has never paid a dime.

The arrears in this case, as of their last court appearance in October 1999, was $29,617.11. It's now up to $33,000

And according to a letter to MEP from Bernier's lawyer, there's little hope that money will ever be paid.

"It was clear in his evidence (in the October 1999 hearing) that while working in the Province of Alberta (he) directed that his paycheque be deposited to an account in the name of a company that he incorporated," wrote Bernier's lawyer in a letter to MEP. "This was done to ensure that 'no one could have access' to these funds."

While she's angry at her former spouse, Bernier also heaps blame on MEP for their inability to enforce the court-ordered support payments.

"They gave me hope, but guess what? Hope kills you an inch at a time," she said.

"They do have power if they want to exercise it."

Ten-year-old act

While the MEP workers -- two officers, a clerk and administrator Lou Hall -- empathize with the women, what they can do is directed by legislation.

"It's hard for us, too, because we want to get the money for them," said Hall, adding "we've heard all the excuses" for not being able to pay support.

Under the Maintenance Orders Enforcement Act, which became law in January 1990, enforcement remedies include:

- garnishing of wages, tax returns, employment insurance benefits, pension payments and training allowance

- seizure of a debtor's property

- seek the debtor's arrest and imprisonment for up to 90 days.

The NWT program also has reciprocal enforcement agreements with the provinces, several American states and some countries.

But Hall says there are limits to what they can do to make sure people pay support.

"We do everything we can under the act ... and then with some, you just never get that money."

Most troubling are people who are self-employed -- everyone who doesn't have a paycheque issued to them.

"It's very, very difficult to know exactly what self-employed earnings are," said Hall.

Another complication arises when people register property in someone else's name or have joint-ownership with someone else.

The NWT act does not allow for seizure of jointly- owned assets.

Keeping track of people who are constantly on the move is also difficult as MEP doesn't have an investigative arm.

While the staff review files on a regular basis, they often have to rely on "the creditor" to track down their former spouse.

Hall also understands the frustrations felt by people who are owed money.

"We're dealing with your money and your children," she said.

"If everyone was paying, we wouldn't need to be here."

Even so, as bold type in a July 1997 letter to Bernier from MEP says, "We cannot guarantee that you will receive payments."