Deliberate policy to drive parents apart

The Report (Canada)
13 May 2002

A divorced dad uncovers a deliberate policy to drive separated parents apart
By Candis McLean

[Picture: Researcher Soever delivering his paper in Ottawa: The guidelines
promote the loss of substantial contact with one parent. Photo: Glen

Toronto geologist Alar Soever was going through a divorce early in 1996
when he first encountered the federal Child Support Guidelines which
recommend amounts non-custodial parents should pay for child support.

"My lawyer couldn't tell me how the figures were arrived at," he recalls,
"so I contacted the federal Department of Justice which said that the
document to explain the formula would be published in the fall of 1996.

That made sense, since Parliament was going to debate the guidelines that
winter. "Mr Soever then telephoned every two months, but the guidelines
were never "ready." The controversial guidelines were passed by Parliament
in February 1997 and came into effect two months later. The research report
(CSR-1997- 1E) which explained the formula was not released until 14 months
after Parliament's decision.

Mr Soever is a methodical man, and was intrigued by a number of issues,
including how regulations affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of
divorcing parents could have passed without any public documentation as to
how the guideline amounts were calculated. To find out, he undertook four
years of investigations.

On April 5 he released his findings to an Ottawa forum, Toward Shared
Parenting, co-sponsored by the Family Forum of Ottawa and the National
Alliance Advocating for the Needs of Children and Parents. His 31 page
document was titled "The Federal Child Support Guidelines: A Breakdown of
Democratic Process and the Canadian Legal system."

According to B.C. resident Ross Bailey who attended the meeting, "Alar's
paper has the whole non-custodial and grand-parenting community across the
country buzzing because they knew something was wrong with the guideline
formula, but needed someone to tell them how it was wrong."

That community may buzz even louder with the news that last week, among
materials obtained by Liberal MP Roger Gallaway through the Freedom of
Information Act, Mr Soever finally found an explanation of the guidelines
which had been prepared in the fall of 1996.  He believes the explanation
was repressed because it gives examples of the financial consequences of
the guidelines, "transparently indicating how unfair the formula is" (see
story, p54).

One of those to whom he revealed the document compared the situation to the
"tainted-blood scandal," in which the government's suppression of
information caused irreparable damage "By not telling the judiciary what
the formulas really meant, they caused serious harm which has included
driving people into bankruptcy and even suicide."

As a geologist, Mr Soever examines mineral reserve to separate the truth
from self-serving hype, checking assumptions, formulas and calculations.
"When I examined the guidelines," he says, "I realized it was like the
Bre-X scandal, complete with flawed assumptions and skewed calculations. It
was driven by psychology, with everyone thinking it was child support so it
must be good, but it's actually promoting custody battles and hurting
children. The bottom line? No one appeared to have done the due diligence
on the underlying formula." He ended with a stunning question: "How is it
that in a democracy we can have guidelines which contravene the Divorce
Act, are based on a largely unknown, admittedly deficient formula, and are
derived from undisclosed policy decisions that promote the loss of
substantial contact with one parent?"

What Mr Soever learned is that the guidelines as implemented contain not
only child support but spousal support (which contravenes the Divorce Act),
and overestimate expenditures on children for the custodial parent while
underestimating them for non-custodial parents. That conclusion is also
reached by University of Calgary sociology PhD student Paul Millar ( ), in research to be published in
the June edition of the peer-reviewed academic journal, the Canadian
Journal of Law and Society.

The formula used to generate the guidelines Mr. Soever learned, makes two
key assumptions in all cases, whether valid or not:

1. The paying parent is always assumed to have the expenses of a single
adult (i.e. no parenting expenses); and

2. The incomes of the paying and receiving parent are assumed to be

In those cases where these assumptions match reality, the model does meet
its objectives; equal standard of living and a sharing of expenses between
the two parents. In practice, however, the amount of time that the
non-custodial parent has custody of the child can range up to 40% (when
over 40%, the guidelines do not apply).

Among parents with average incomes, if the paying parent spends no time
with the children and thus has no expenses, his standard of living tends to
16% higher than the receiver's. If, however, the paying parent is an
involved one, he or she has expenses often almost as high as the other
parent's. Yet the guidelines deny recognition of this.

In fact, Mr Soever has determined, if the parents have average incomes,
once custody exceeds 5% (roughly one night every two weeks), the
non-custodial parent and the children when they are with him are penalized
with a lower standard of living than in their other home.

Once custody approaches 40%, the standard of living in that home is almost
30% lower than in the other home, and barely above the poverty line.

In other words, concludes Mr Soever, the more time children spend with
their divorced non-custodial father the poorer he gets and the more
difficult and impoverished their time together. "The guidelines," he says,
"offer clear and powerful financial disincentives to joint parenting by
penalizing those payor parents with substantial custody, Most perversely,
parents who abandon their children are actually rewarded with a higher
standard of living than the children they abandon."

A further by-product of the guidelines, the researcher says, is that they
encourage custody battles as parents strive for the magical 40% threshold,
and the benefit to the custodial parent is lost. Mr Soever knows of one
case where a wife was prepared to allow her ex-husband joint custody and
about 38% residence time with the children, but not the 50% he desired.

This led to protracted mediation and negotiations. The father suspected the
guidelines' magical 40% threshold was the root of the problem. To test his
theory, the father asked if the children might occasionally have lunch at
home with him on Fridays. "Obviously, a hot lunch at home with a parent was
preferable to brown-bagging it in a crowded cafeteria," he says. "This,
however, would have put him over the magical 40%. It was not really a
surprise when the mother's lawyer responded, 'My client is absolutely not
agreeable to your suggestion with respect to the children having lunches.'
The mother was prepared to fight a costly custody battle just to retain the
40% threshold. Could there be any more blatant example of the insidious
nature of these guidelines?"

Ottawa economist Ross Finnie, now an adjunct professor with the School of
Policy Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, was one of the developers
of the guidelines, but has since published critical articles in the Ottawa
Citizen: "A dubious 'victory' for divorced families" and "federal proposal
may worsen custody, payment programs," as well as a paper, "Good idea, Bad
Execution: The Government's Child Support Package"

Mr Finnie believes the underlying guidelines are fair, but objects to the
custodial parent receiving all the tax credits. His major criticism,
however, is the same as Mr. Soever. The 40% threshold with no allowance for
expenses, he says, "came out of the air with no real explanation. It came
from within the Justice Department. Some people were topnotch, working with
technically difficult concepts such as 'What does a child cost?' and just
wanting to do the right  thing, but that was not uniformly the case. I
suspect someone said, "How can we ratchet up these rewards a little bit?'
Let's just say," he smiles enigmatically, "it ended messily between myself
and the Justice Department."

 Copyright, 2002 The Report