The P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women says more needs to be done to ensure Island families receive their child and spousal support payments.
More than $12 million is owed in child and spousal support on Prince Edward Island but roughly 35 per cent of that cannot be enforced by the province since the people owing live in different jurisdictions.
"It is a big number," said Michelle Jay, the program coordinator.
"Imagine all the many families that are affected by that — all the many children that are unable to maybe participate in events or activities because that money isn't there."
According to the Island's director of family law and court services, Clare Henderson, the obligation to pay child support rests solely on the person who has been ordered to make those payments.
However, the PEI Maintenance Enforcement Program (MEP) is there to help ensure the money is collected and distributed to those who have opted to use its service.
"Child support is ultimately for the benefit of children, and that means that there is $12-million worth of support for Island children and families that has been unable to be collected," said Henderson.
"But it also reminds me that that $12-million number is unfortunately really complex."
Henderson said the voluntary program uses several methods to enforce payments.
For example, MEP can intercept a tax refund, a driver's licence or passport can be suspended, bank accounts can be garnished and an employer payment order can be put in place, which means support payments are deducted directly from a debtor's paycheque.
"We're actually one of the top jurisdictions for collection and disbursement," said Henderson.
"We generally run around a 98-per-cent collection rate. So of all of the files in the program, about 98 per cent of them pay or we are successfully able to collect from."
However, even if the family or individual due to receive payments lives on P.E.I., MEP can be enforced only if the payor lives on the Island too.
"The person who pays the money may live in another province or territory in Canada. They could live in a different country, like the United States or the U.K. or Japan, and their order is actually not enforced by our program," she said.
"It's the jurisdiction where the person who's paying the support that has the authority and the obligation to enforce the order… The P.E.I. program doesn't have any say or control over how the other jurisdictions take enforcement action against that person."
Moving out of province
The P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women said it's heard first-hand from women dealing with similar situations.
"It seems at this point that a lot of the fathers or the male partners are moving out of the province… Once they move out of the province, the province doesn't seem to have any authority to go after them for the outstanding payments for their children," said Jay.
"We should be able to enforce those payments."
One of the things Jay said the council has discussed is the possibility of the government underwriting unpaid child support.
"If a partner is not paying that outstanding amount, the government could pay the amount to the family, to the child, to their care," she said.
"Then they can go after the payment for that month so that families aren't left wondering and aren't left without resources to make do from month to month."
'How do we make it better?'
Jay said it's taxing for some partners to constantly be asking for payments, especially in situations where they may have fled an unhealthy relationship. On top of that, the system is complicated.
"Meanwhile, life goes on. Groceries are happening, you know, school activities are happening and people still have to carry on with their children," she said.
"Even if our rate is fairly high, I think we need to look at: 'How do we make it better for individual families and children in P.E.I.?'"
As for Henderson, she said the maintenance enforcement program is "absolutely committed to trying to maximize the collection and disbursement of support."
More staff have been hired and a free income-tax clinic is available to its users. Still, she maintains that despite all the tools available, at the end of the day the duty to pay falls on the payor.
"There's always a wish that we could do more," said Henderson.
"We will do everything that we can to try and collect and maximize that support. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the person who's supposed to be paying to make that payment."