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Ontario parents on social assistance will no longer have their benefits slashed when they temporarily lose their kids to children’s aid societies.
The policy change by the Ministry of Community and Social Services lets these parents keep their full benefits until a court decides whether their children will be kept permanently in care. The benefits will only get reduced if the children are made Crown wards.
The ministry will also reinstate full benefits to parents whose children are currently in temporary care, according to a ministry “fact sheet” obtained by the Star. The ministry says the change takes effect April 1 and parents on Ontario Works or disability benefits will be notified by May 1.
“In recognition that decisions on permanency may take up to two years or longer, during that time full assistance is to be provided to support the child’s possible return” to his or her parents, the ministry document says.
The change rectifies what parents, children’s aid societies and Ontario’s Social Benefits Tribunal considered a perverse policy. Slashing benefits forced parents deeper into poverty and made it, according to one tribunal decision, “very difficult, if not impossible” to get their kids back.
The change comes after the Star highlighted the gap in a story last fall, part of an ongoing investigation into the province’s child protection system.
“We’re delighted the change has been made,” said Caroline Newton, spokeswoman for the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, which represents all but four of Ontario’s 47 societies. “It helps us reunite families.
“It takes a huge stress away from parents, who are extremely fearful that involvement with children’s aid is going to penalize them economically,” said Newton, who described the practice of slashing benefits as a kind of “punishment.”
Michael Coteau, Ontario’s minister of children and youth, applauded community and social services minister Helena Jaczek for making the change.
“It’s about fairness,” Coteau said in an interview. “I want to make sure at the end of the day that children are in homes where they are loved and the system doesn’t create outcomes that make it harder for families to get back together.”
Almost all children who enter care do so on a temporary basis. The goal is to reunite them with their families once parents have been helped with mental health, parenting, addiction or other issues. Children’s aid officials say it becomes far more difficult for parents to improve their lives when their social assistance cheques are sharply reduced.
The biggest concern is housing. The Social Benefits Tribunal has dealt with at least one case of a parent evicted and forced to move to a smaller apartment after she lost the housing allowance Ontario Works provided for her children. Children’s aid won’t return children to their parents if apartments aren’t a suitable size.
A single mother with three children would lose $ 353 a month in housing benefits alone if her children are taken into care. A Scarborough mother interviewed by the Star was evicted from her apartment after her benefits were reduced. Her legal battle to regain her three children has dragged on for three years.
“She was being punished for being caught up in the system,” said the mother’s lawyer, Anum Malik, referring to how her client’s case has dragged on in the courts.
“We’re genuinely pleased that the ministry has made these changes,” Malik added in an interview Monday.
When the Star first reported on the problem last fall, the social services ministry told the Star it would not change its policy, even though the Social Benefits Tribunal had overturned such benefit cuts three times in the last three years. The ministry had no idea how many parents annually get their assistance slashed due to kids being temporarily placed in foster or group homes.
On average, 15,625 Ontario children were in foster or group-home care in 2014-15. A recent study found that parents who ran out of money for food, housing or utilities were twice as likely to have their children apprehended.
The policy change was announced in a March 21 “fact sheet” sent to children’s aid societies.
“In efforts to support family reunification, a child who is placed in the temporary care of a society must be maintained as a dependent in the parent’s benefit unit pending a decision of permanency for the child,” the ministry document says.