Social assistance cuts making it harder to regain custody

Children’s aid societies want Ontario to stop making it tougher to get kids back by cutting housing and other benefits.



From left, lawyers Jonathan Robart and Anum Malik and paralegal Antonia Baker of the Scarborough Community Legal Centre helped a single mother whose children were apprehended by the Children's Aid Society of Toronto navigate housing and maintain child benefit payments.  (JIM RANKIN / TORONTO STAR)


Sun., Oct. 9, 2016


Children’s aid societies want the Ontario government to stop making it harder for parents on social assistance to regain kids taken into care.

The call echoes decisions by Ontario’s Social Benefits Tribunal, which has three times in the last three years overturned cuts to the benefits mothers receive when their children are apprehended and placed in foster or group homes.

The slashing of Ontario Works or disability benefits forces parents into deeper poverty and makes it “very difficult, if not impossible” to get their kids back, the tribunal has ruled.

“The state is creating a situation in which parents are losing their kids,” says Jackie Esmonde, a staff lawyer at the Income Security Advocacy Centre. “I find that grotesque.”

The Children’s Aid Society of Toronto is so concerned about the financial squeeze placed on these parents that it has a policy of not informing Ontario Works when they apprehend children at risk.

Increasing a struggling family’s financial burden creates “a huge barrier to that child ever going back to that family,” says society spokesperson Rob Thompson. “So we’re not reporting it because we understand the implications of it.”

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 tribunal has dealt with at least one case of a parent evicted and forced to move to a smaller apartment. But children’s aid won’t return children to their parents if apartments aren’t a suitable size.


When children are made Crown wards, making them eligible for adoption, no one disputes the Ministry of Community and Social Services’ practice of removing them from a parent’s “benefit unit.” Children’s aid societies have up to two years to decide that, and family court battles can extend the process.

The concern is with families who lose benefits when societies still consider the removal of children temporary. The three tribunal cases overturned ministry cuts to benefits before a decision on a child’s permanent placement.

“It makes sense that families keep their benefits until a permanency decision is made,” says Danielle Warning, a supervisor at the Toronto society.

Caroline Newton, spokesperson for the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, which represents all but four of the province’s 47 societies, called on the government to align its benefits policy with the goal of reuniting families.

The ministry does not intend to change its approach.

“For children who are temporarily in the care of the CAS, decisions regarding continued inclusion in the parent’s social assistance benefits are done on a case by case basis and are based on the plan of care established by the CAS,” the ministry said in an email. “Currently, there is no plan to remove this discretion.”

The ministry, which says it raised Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program benefits by 20 per cent since 2003, doesn’t know how many parents each year get their assistance slashed due to kids temporarily placed in foster or group homes. Lawyers in legal clinics interviewed by the Star say it is not uncommon.

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 ministry says it recognizes “keeping the child in the parental benefit unit may be necessary to allow the parent to retain suitable housing for the child’s planned return.”

That awareness didn’t help Tiyya, a Scarborough mother who lost three young children to foster care due to violence between her and the kids’ father. The loss made her feel “like I couldn’t breathe anymore, like somebody was choking me,” says Tiyya, a soft-spoken woman in her early 30s.

Children’s aid took her kids in April 2014. Six weeks later, Ontario Works decided her benefits would be cut by almost $400 a month, an amount covering the “basic needs” portion for a family of four and the housing allowance for three kids.

Tiyya also lost about $530 a month in federal and provincial child benefits, money redirected to the CAS. Today, a mother of three would lose about $1,800 a month.

With a cheque reduced to $656, paying $989 a month for her two-bedroom apartment would be impossible.

“I was lost,” Tiyya says.

Tiyya is a pseudonym the Ethiopian-born woman chose because Ontario law prevents identifying children in care. She says it means “mine” in her Omoro language, a signal that her children will always belong to her, no matter what family court eventually decides.

When she turned to Scarborough Community Legal Services for help, staff lawyer Anum Malik intervened and Ontario Works agreed to restore the housing allowance portion, leaving her with $1,020 a month.

Tiyya then followed the plan set out by children’s aid. She took parenting and anger management programs, at $100 a month. She visited her children once a week, borrowing from friends and family to pay for TTC tokens and to make Ethiopian food the kids enjoyed.

But on March 1, 2015, Ontario Works again cut her benefits to $656. She fell behind on rent and was evicted six months later.

Ontario Works temporarily restored some benefits when Malik appealed to the Social Benefits Tribunal. By then, Tiyya had moved to a junior one-bedroom at $950 a month. She wanted something cheaper but children’s aid warned her anything smaller would make the return of her kids impossible.

She went to food banks. She missed some visits because she didn’t have bus fare. Other times, she showed up stressed out.

On May 27 this year, tribunal adjudicator Nancy Ferguson noted the “refusal to continue benefits impacts the mother’s efforts to have the children returned home because the ability of the parent to provide a suitable residence is a factor the court may consider in determining where the children should be placed.”

Ferguson ordered Ontario Works to immediately restore full benefits — as though Tiyya’s three children were still in her care — retroactively. Ferguson further ruled Tiyya should receive $230 per child as temporary compensation for the loss of federal and provincial child benefits.

Similar conclusions were reached in two other recent decisions by the tribunal, whose rulings are not precedent-setting. They referred to a 2008 Court of Appeal order that a woman should receive full disability benefits for the shelter of her three children, even though they spent half the year with her ex-husband.

Nicholas Bala, an authority on family and children’s law at Queen’s University, describes the ministry as being “penny wise and pound foolish.”

“If we don’t invest in our children now we pay a huge price later in terms of mental health services and correctional services,” he says, noting the poor outcomes of many children in care.