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Women ‘swept under the carpet’: No relief for lost child, spousal support due to COVID-19

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Despite acknowledging existing financial support is insufficient, the federal government has offered no specific relief package for women whose ex-partners can’t afford child or spousal support due to lost income during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

This is support women, advocates, lawyers and politicians say is badly needed.

READ MORE: Child and spousal support not covered by government’s coronavirus emergency benefit plan

“There are so many women being just swept under the carpet,” said Anne Thompson.

Anne Thompson is a pseudonym, as Global News has agreed to conceal her real name due to the seriousness of allegations surrounding her divorce.

Desperate for help, Thompson reached out to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office after she said her ex-husband paid just $500 of the roughly $7,000 in support payments he owed since the novel coronavirus outbreak began.

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Trudeau’s office told Thompson to contact Ontario’s minister of children, community and social services.

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When she contacted the ministry, Thompson’s email was forwarded to the province’s Family Responsibility Office (FRO), which acts as an intermediary between ex-partners to make sure agreements and court-ordered support payments are maintained.

A representative from FRO told Thompson her ex-husband said he couldn’t make payments due to the pandemic and suggested she apply for social assistance.

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“Given your expressed dire financial situation, you may want to reach out to Ontario Works to inquire whether they are able to assist you during these difficult times,” the FRO email said.

Thompson said it’s unbelievable that the only option available to her is to collect welfare when so many other groups have been given assistance by the government to help cope with COVID-19.

“I’m beginning to worry this could be a situation I will never recover from and wonder if I even can go on,” she said.

Other women affected

Global News reported in April that anyone whose ex-partner can’t make child or spousal support payments due to lost income during the COVID-19 pandemic is not eligible to receive the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

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At the time, the government said this is because CERB is meant to replace employment income only, and that a person must have stopped working in order to qualify.

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New Democrat MP Jenny Kwan then pressed employment and workforce development minister Carla Qualtrough to explain this apparent gap in financial support during a Parliamentary committee meeting held on April 24.

In response to Kwan’s questions, Qualtrough acknowledged current top-ups to the Canada Child Benefit and GST rebate offered by the government “falls short” of what’s needed by those no longer receiving support payments.

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She also said that although support payments aren’t considered income for the purpose of CERB, it is something she’s looking into because of how vulnerable women in this situation are financially.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about as we’ve been looking at groups, in particular vulnerable groups,” Qualtrough said.

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Global News asked Trudeau’s office why the government hasn’t assisted women whose ex-partners can’t afford support payments during the pandemic. No response was provided.

Rather than answer questions, the PMO redirected Global News’ request to Qualtrough’s office, which reiterated its earlier statement that the government has boosted the child care benefit and GST rebate — the same benefits Qualtrough said fall short of what women need.

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“We know that Canadians feel the impacts of COVID-19 differently, which is why we apply a gender and diversity lens to everything we do,” said Marielle Hossack, a spokesperson for Qualtrough’s office.

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On Tuesday, Kwan asked Trudeau during a special Parliamentary committee meeting if the government plans to assist women in this situation. Trudeau didn’t answer the question directly, but said the government wants to make sure all Canadians who need help get it.

“We actually moved in the most rapid and simplest possible way, providing income replacement to millions upon millions of Canadians who needed it,” Trudeau said.

“However, (when) one moves quickly and efficiently, there will be gaps and that’s why we’ve been working diligently to try and fill those gaps.”

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Meanwhile, Karen Vecchio, Conservative MP and chair of Parliament’s standing committee on the status of women, said she doesn’t support the NDP’s proposal to expand CERB eligibility to include lost child and spousal support. Doing so would take away from the program’s intended purpose, which is to support workers, she said.

Still, she believes there should be some kind of mechanism to support women who need assistance. She also credits the NDP for its efforts on this issue.

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“This is a very challenging time for any public official,” Vecchio said. “Right now we do need to work together and find fast solutions to help women.”

Lack of enforcement action

Every province in Canada has a department responsible for making sure child and spousal support gets paid.

It’s voluntary to register with these agencies, but once an account is set up, the person who owes money is required to make payments through the department.

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If a payment is late or missed completely, departments have the power to issue fines, garnish wages and “intercept” federal financial support, including employment insurance, pension payouts, tax refunds and GST rebates.

But as a result of COVID-19, some provinces have stopped certain enforcement actions against those who can’t pay, such as issuing credit reports, fines and suspending driver’s licences.

Provincial agencies have also told anyone who normally receives payments that greater flexibility is required during these times and that alternate payment arrangements should be made when possible.

But if an ex-partner is out of work due to COVID-19 and can’t make payments, there’s little these agencies can do to help right now.

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According to B.C., Ontario and Quebec, in cases where an ex-partner is receiving the $2,000 monthly CERB payment, this money is exempt from federal garnishment rules, meaning it can’t be redirected to the person who is owed, even in cases where that person is owed child support and is responsible for the children full-time.

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And because of COVID-19, provincial courts are closed to all but the most urgent matters. According to family law lawyer Ryan Kniznik, courts have primarily taken this to mean cases involving child custody disputes, not disagreements over support payments.

Kniznik said he’s also seen a lot of people he believes are trying to “take advantage” of the current situation by making unilateral decisions about parenting arrangements and how much should be paid in support payments.

And while the courts are currently closed, they’re likely to look unfavourably upon anyone who takes action without first obtaining approval from their ex-partner once they reopen, he said.

“There will be consequences,” Kriznik said.

Court order must still be paid

Court closures have also affected provincial enforcement actions, according to the FRO, such as holding default hearings when payments are missed.

“We are responding to every case as quickly as possible while working with both payors and recipients to determine the best possible outcome in each individual situation,” said Kristen Tedesco, a spokesperson for Ontario’s ministry of children, community and social services.

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While court-ordered support payments can’t be changed by anyone other than a judge, out of court agreements can be altered if both parties agree to the changes. This can be temporary, to address the circumstances of COVID-19, or permanent.

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The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) says anyone who owes money through a court order must continue to pay it, even if they’ve lost their job or income due to COVID-19.

The DOJ also says anyone out of work who can’t pay should contact their provincial enforcement office to discuss available options.

In terms of jurisdiction, the DOJ says anyone who doesn’t receive a support payment should try to resolve the dispute through their provincial enforcement agency. The DOJ does, however, acknowledge the federal government’s role in making sure what’s owed gets paid.

“As part of its mandate, the DOJ provides support to the provinces and territories in enforcing family support payments for the benefit of Canadian families and children,” the DOJ website says.

“As many families and individuals are facing economic uncertainty due to the impacts of the pandemic, this is especially important now so that children and families are not put at further risk.”