Toronto Star

February 6, 2000

Unit sought to track deadbeats

Government can't do job right, parents' group says

By Patricia Orwen and Dale Brazao
Toronto Star Staff Reporters

Angry spouses trying to collect child support payments are demanding that the Ontario government set up a special investigative unit to track down the most elusive deadbeat parents.

``It's obvious the government can't do the job. . . . It's the biggest deadbeat of all,'' said Renate Diorio, head of the 500-member Families Against Deadbeats.

Diorio's organization is recommending that the government contract a private investigative company for cases similar to that of Mark Suddick.

The Markham man owed Harriet Levesque, his former spouse, and 12-year-old daughter, Valerie, more than $100,000 in support after paying them only $140 in the past eight years.

The province had told Levesque they could not locate Suddick or any of his assets, but The Star tracked him down in less than a week. He has been working for the past year delivering auto parts and averaging about $400 a week.

The 38-year-old father is one of Ontario's 128,000 deadbeat parents who collectively owe $1.2 billion to their former spouses and children. In October, 1998, the Family Responsibility Office forwarded 23,000 of its most hard-to-enforce cases, including Suddick's, to three private collection agencies.

`It's a nightmare. I've called the government countless times, but no one ever does anything.'
- Toronto secretary Irene Stratton

Just $1 million was collected in the first six months of the project, according to a provincial auditor's report.

But using the same information Levesque provided to the ministry, two Star reporters found Suddick living at his parents' Markham home.

The Star investigation also found that Suddick had been living in Florida since 1995, but came back to Canada in January 1999, leaving behind a trail of lawsuits, debts and three warrants for his arrest.

Although the provincial government introduced driver's licence suspensions, jail terms and other measures to crack down on defaulters 2 1/2 years ago, such enforcement measures are not being widely used, Diorio said.

The government's policy manual says enforcement officers have the discretion to suspend a licence at any time, but ministry officials won't comment on why they did not do so in Suddick's case.

Liberal MPP Michael Bryant (St. Paul's) describes the government's licence suspension program as a colossal failure. In the two years since the new enforcement tool came into effect, the government has suspended only 5,130 licences of the 128,000 defaulters.

The numbers should be higher and the penalties for driving under suspension need to be tougher, Bryant said. Currently, anyone who is caught driving under suspension because of failure to pay child support faces a maximum $5,000 fine. Bryant argues that the driver's vehicle should be impounded.

Attorney-General Jim Flaherty admitted to The Star last week that his ministry could do a better job in tracking down defaulters and enforcing the court orders. But that hardly soothes the anger of people who have been contacting The Star.

Irene Stratton, a Toronto secretary, is at her wits' end. She hasn't received court-ordered child support of $750 a month in nearly a year and is owed nearly $30,000, according to ministry records.

But Stratton, 51, blames the province - not her ex-husband - for her situation.

She recently learned that for the past 10 months, Florida's state office of child support enforcement has deducted payments from her ex-spouse's pay, but the deduction has been far less than what was ordered by the Ontario court and she hasn't even received the lower amount.

According to her former husband, who asked not to be identified in this story, he hadn't forwarded the $750 a month and last year he went to a court in Florida, where he now lives, and had his support payments assessed at $100 a month, based on his earnings. The Florida office has taken that from his pay, he said.

Ontario's Family Responsibility Office, which has an agreement with Florida and most other U.S. states to forward court orders and then channel support money to recipients on this side of the border, should be passing that money along to Stratton.

But it isn't doing that and Stratton has exhausted every means to rectify the situation.

``It's a nightmare. I've called the government countless times, but no one ever does anything,'' said Stratton, who struggles to support her 19-year-old son Michael.

After months of being unable to reach anyone who would help her at the Family Responsibility Office, Stratton turned to her MPP, Mike Colle (Eglinton-Lawrence), for help.

That was last October. It appears that even her MPP isn't able to rectify the situation.

``It takes hours and hours of phone calls and we still haven't been able to get any action on this case,'' Colle said last week. ``It's cruel and unusual punishment they are putting people like Irene through. The government knows the problems are there and they put in an automated telephone service to appease people, but that doesn't solve the problems.''

Meanwhile, Suddick has been served with a subpoena for a default hearing on March 2. He is wanted in Florida on forgery charges. He left the state with six judgments against him and three warrants for his arrest.

Suddick, who had not had any contact with his ex-wife and daughter for more than six years, phoned his former wife last week. She says he blamed her for his predicament.

``He tried to lay a real guilt trip on me,'' Harriet Levesque told The Star. Suddick said he has no money to give her and that he has had to rely on welfare and food banks at times.

He made no mention of the five years he lived in his parents' Florida home, which backs on to an exclusive golf club.

He blamed Levesque for soiling his parents' reputation by going public with her case against him, and said he missed his daughter.

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