CHILD SUPPORT PROCESSES
OPTIONS FOR CANADA
Regardless of the specific features of the model established by a particular province, staffing will be an important consideration. Each potential model includes certain functions that need to be carried out for the program's ultimate success. As with other operational considerations, the specific staffing requirements will depend to a certain extent on the nature of the program and the resources already available in the province. However, there are some general staffing features that will be integral to any model. It is therefore useful not only to look at some of the strengths that personnel will be able to contribute in the process but also to assess the appropriate qualifications, which will provide staff members with the required skills to perform their duties in an effective manner. This section of the report provides a brief overview of the possible staffing features of a child support model.
The general view of those persons administering child support throughout the various jurisdictions is that clerical staff should be used as support staff in any process and their skills put to use accordingly. Their duties would potentially include the following basic responsibilities:
- telephone - fielding general inquiries and providing basic information about the process; taking people's names and addresses;
- organizing materials - could include ensuring all relevant documents are in a file; and
- organizing schedules and making referrals.
Beyond these basic tasks, the clerk could also be responsible for mailing information out to the parties involved in regard to more procedural matters. In many administrative child support schemes however, the case officer or person who will be involved beyond the initial stage plays an active role in mailing out notices to the involved parties. In this way, the case officer retains an active involvement in the process from the initial stage.
In the court process, clerical staff is involved at the organizational level. The duties of a clerk in the British Columbia process include the following:
- reviewing files scheduled for court and checking each one for completeness and accuracy and obtaining any missing or additional documentation (i.e., transcripts, medical reports, pre-sentence reports, etc.);
- reviewing and discussing pre-court issues (i.e., order of cases to be called; special security precautions; state of readiness of case; presence of interpreters; documentation; special requests, etc.) with the judge/justice.
The clerks do not at any time take measures to contact the parties themselves for additional information, that responsibility being fully on the parties and their counsel. However, the clerk's functions could assist with the smooth handling of a child support case further down the line.
In regard to the role of the clerical staff in court-annexed services, the clerk functions as support to the mediators and other staff. In a 1993 publication entitled Guidelines for Establishing Court-Connected Mediation, Evaluation and Conciliation Services, the American Association of Family and Conciliation Courts reviewed a number of existing programs and reported:
The median ratio of clerical staff to professional staff is 1:3 with a range from 1:2 to 1:6. Multiple sites and technical capacity of the office equipment could influence the number of clerical staff needed.
In a pilot project conducted in British Columbia in 1994 entitled "The Family Justice Reform Project," provision was made in the Burnaby pilot site to second a court clerk to work out of the Family Justice Centre. This person retained her title of "court clerk" for the duration of the pilot.
The Family Justice Centres were set up in response to a number of identified needs in the area of family justice and were aimed at offering a core of family-related services to the community, including: providing information on alternatives to court litigation; making referrals to appropriate agencies; assisting with the filling out of court forms; providing information about the court process; conducting mediation and conciliation; providing emotional support and counselling; and conducting educational programs. During the pilot phase, the court clerk worked out of the Family Justice Centre.
The court clerk utilized previous court experience to a great extent in the Family Justice Centre Burnaby site. Some of the primary responsibilities of the clerk were as follows:
- filling out court documents at any stage of the process, whether before or after mediation;
- assisting with training programs for the public;
- assisting the parties to fill out financial statements for provincial court proceedings and filing those statements for the parties;
- assisting both parties with the gathering of financial information for establishing or modifying support orders through supreme court;
- drafting financial affidavits for the parties if necessary - these financial statements could then be sworn before the mediator;
- assisting with the filing of documents in the Supreme Court registry;
- obtaining court orders with the consent of the parties;
- providing information about upcoming hearing dates, through direct computer linkage with the court's records;
- conducting courtroom tours for the public;
- conducting training about the supreme court process for family court counsellors;
- providing information about enforcement procedures.
Some of these functions could potentially be managed by a full-time clerical staff member.
In many court-annexed models designed to deal with family issues such as child support, there are staff members who process the information received by the parties requesting the agency's services. Often, these staff members perform functions such as conducting investigations and sorting out the relevant facts. In many situations, this function is carried out by the same personnel responsible for conducting mediation. In other places, such as Michigan State, the process is specifically designed so that the investigative role is definitively separated out from the mediation function. As discussed, whether or not these two functions are separated out depends on the philosophy of the mediation component of the program.
Nevertheless, regardless of the general approach taken, there are certain duties that an investigator may perform, which include the following:
- interviewing the parties and receiving from them any pertinent information;
- processing the information received from the parties so as to organize the file for subsequent stages in the process;
- conducting guideline calculations;
- conducting financial assessments or evaluations of the parties' relative positions;
- negotiating with one or both of the parties as appropriate; and
- advocating the best interests of the child at a later stage in the process.
This person is in the best position to carry out this latter function of advocating because presumably, this staff member will have the best working knowledge of the file based on his or her other functions.
An important responsibility of this person would be to outline the nature of his or her position to the parties from the outset and to make it clear that neither party is going to be treated as a client more than the other party. Rather, the investigator should act as an impartial gatherer of information either subsequent to or prior to mediation or in other cases, prior to the hearing stage of the process.
The most significant feature in regard to the investigator's role is that his or her role is well-integrated with the rest of the process. The investigator should be able to both analyze and synthesize the useful information and be able to present it in a logical format in another forum, if necessary.
In effect, the investigative function might take place at any stage in the process depending on the specifics of the model. For instance, for court-connected mediation services, the investigation could take place at the outset of the process and would ultimately bolster the effectiveness of the subsequent mediation sessions. Another approach would be to have the investigation take place contemporaneously with the mediation in order to eventually coincide with the outcome of the mediation in a harmonious way. Finally, the full investigation may take place only after mediation has been unsuccessfully attempted. This latter approach may not be so fruitful in the case of child support because, before the parties can proceed, a first useful stage of any process would be to assess the relative financial positions of either party which will necessitate a rather thorough examination of their resources before other steps are taken.
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