featured Poverty

Open letter to Minister Kelly Regan: The stakes are high and the department of Community Service must do better

Dear Minister Regan:

I am a Senior Law Student at Dalhousie Legal Aid Clinic.  During the three short months that I have had the opportunity to work with the Dalhousie Legal Aid Clinic I have encountered a number of members of our community that faced barriers in accessing the Department of Community Services’ Income Assistance program.

In my experience, the circumstances of these applications do not fulfill the purpose of the Employment Support and Income Assistance Act.  Section 2 reads, “the purpose of this Act is to provide for the assistance of persons in need and, in particular, to facilitate their movement toward independence and self-sufficiency.”  The files that I have worked on in my time at the clinic tells a different story; one where the onerous application process leaves progress stagnant, and where the needs of the client are not approached with compassion but are discounted and disregarded.  

Falling through the cracks of the system  

I acknowledge that each file had their own challenges which made them more complicated than the average file. However, once that extra level of complication was added the existing system was unable to serve them. Each of my clients fell through the cracks of a system that is apparently designed to provide assistance to persons in need.   

I too grew up in a situation where my family fell through the cracks of the social assistance system and so I can personally attest to the feelings of hopelessness and defeat that is experienced when this happens.  At this time, families and persons in need require support and compassion, however what our clients met with were closed doors. Each of our clients entered ‘survival mode’ and lived in fear of losing access to income assistance, and the consequences that would mean in their lives.  The stakes were high in our clients’ cases, including possibly losing their children, being unable to provide essential medication to their family or being left to live in a situation of domestic unrest.

Our existing Employment Support and Income Assistance system needs to develop to ensure that these people are also caught in the safety net.  Through extensive work on issues around income assistance, I have identified key areas where improvement is needed.

Onerous application

The application process for the income assistance program is too much as it currently exists.  In one of my files my task was to help a client get on income assistance, but this process took a month and a half to complete.  Each time that I talked to the intake worker about our progress she reminded me that once she received the initial documents that she requested, she may need more.  There was a constant veiled threat of future ‘red flags’ that may block access to the income assistance program.

The documents that were requested by the intake worker were often exacting and captious.  Some requests included a letter from a family member who transferred a mere $50 into the applicant’s bank account two months earlier, or an explanation of each money coming into the account, even though the total of that money was less than the budget estimate.  

The list of documents that were initially requested was an entire page long.  After the delivery of those, more documents were requested. Some of the documents that were requested had fees associated with the provision of those documents, which my client could not pay.  We were also required to produce documents from government programs from other provinces where my clients had previously lived. The incremental release of instructions for documents resulted in the application process taking over the 30-day allowance.    

During this application process we requested that Employment Support and Income Assistance Regulation 9 be applied.  This provision allows income assistance workers to release funds before the application is complete if the applicant faces undue hardship where the money is not paid out. My client was in danger of being evicted because of late rent payments, in danger of having their phone cut off which is necessary for health reasons, and the last money that came into the household was over a month earlier, leaving a need for grocery money.  In this request we explained the steps that were being taken to obtain the remaining documentation and committed to providing this documentation at the earliest opportunity. Unfortunately, these circumstances did not accrue to be deemed as undue hardship because our request was denied.

The demanding application process created a situation of hardship.  The delays of collecting documents were not for lack of trying, but instead due to transportation, financial and health complications.  When the application of Regulation 9 was requested to lessen the burden of the hardship, it was denied.

Lack of compassion

In each of the cases that I worked on, each of the clients was facing a particularly difficult situation in their lives, on top of the stress of not being able to support themselves and their families.  The system showed no understanding or compassion to the realities of our clients.

For some health issues made them unable to leave their home and therefore unable to collect the required documentation to finish their application.  For others a family emergency resulted in the clients having to move into the same house as other family members. And others still were experiencing domestic violence at home and was stuck in that situation because they were unable to separate the joined income assistance file with the abuser.  

In each case not having access to the income assistance could have disastrous outcomes.  They were met with a cold and inflexible system, which did not take into account any of their challenges.  In each case the client was made to feel like they were doing something wrong in their attempts at simply surviving.  

Policy manual

The management and revision process of the ESIA Policy Manual is inappropriate.  There is a lack of transparency and accountability in the decisions to alter the policy manual.  While the policy manual is not law, it is certainly treated as such by Department workers, therefore, the changes made to the policy manual should be subject to the same level of public scrutiny as would a change in the regulations.  However, this is not the case. The Policy Manual is altered without notice or option for the patrons to have a say, even though it is the public that the policy manual is supposed to serve.

The glaring message that I have learned during this term is that the Department of Community Services needs to do better to provide assistance to persons in need whose situation is complicated.  The news that the Department of Community Services has not used all of the monies that was originally set aside for various services is not a point of celebration for people in our community. Instead it is a point of frustration because the needs of the people are not being fulfilled, and the social system that is supposed to support them turns them away.  The stories that I have heard over my time at Dalhousie Legal Aid Service are of a few, but I know that there are many more in the community whose experience with the Department is similarly unsatisfying.

Yours truly,

Senior Law Student


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  1. I applaud this letter and can say that the DCS is so very bad in how it treats people. As a behind the scene advocate against their heartless treatment of people that are unable to fight back, it is something that makes me so upset. I have even conferred with local doctors that have tried to appeal to the caseworkers & supervisors humanity and well they gave up trying to help as the DCS people punished the clients for asking for the doctors to try to help advocate for their needs.

    So now DCS does what it wants to these people who are permanently disabled with disgust and derision. So sad that this department is so heartless when the very job demands the need to have some compassion and understanding. There needs to be a group of advocates that should be formed to document the mistreatment and frankly discrimination against those who are disabled and impoverished. We as a society are judged by how we treat our most vulnerable people and frankly I don’t know how these caseworkers can look themselves in the mirror knowing they are hurting people instead of helping them.

    There needs to be a system where a caseworker is held responsible for their negligent and sometime vindictive behavior by being fired and removed from the job. I know that if a site was put up for people to tell their experience with their identity anonymous, of how their caseworkers mistreated them … there would be a lot. I think naming and shaming these bad caseworkers would go a long way to help disinfect the department with the light of exposure. I know there are few of good caseworkers but believe they get bullied by the other caseworkers and supervisors that are bullies. Would they treat their own family and friends so bad? Love to hear thoughts on this idea of a site to expose these ones. Also, is there a bonus system in place for how much money a caseworker can save the department by scrapping back every cent they can? Are they encourage to do this and to deliberately put barriers and obstacles in the way?

    Shameful DCS and to think the money they wasted on transformation that was purely just for political points. Remember even though the party in charge may get voted out the bad caseworkers & supervisors stay and must be dealt with. They are union workers and feel untouchable but this must end and the department must be cleaned from the top down so real people with heart can be put in their place and help those truly in need properly.

  2. I know people who rely on Comunity Services and have heard way more bad than good.Im on CPP disability and have it tough as they provide a cheque once a month and nothing else.No more to say.

    1. CPP is terrible, maybe worse than ESIA. No Pharmacare unless/until you’re 65, no special needs amounts, no small amount towards furniture, eyeglasses, dental emergency, no one to call to discuss your individual circumstances, etc. Nothing, just as you said.

  3. I applaud this letter and to the author who took the time and had the courage to write this publicly. Thank you. Now imagine that the person in need lives in rural Nova Scotia where there is NOTHING available in terms of advocacy for them to help them get past the numerous barriers put up by DCS to acquire assistance. This is how we end up with people living in tents in the winter in rural Nova Scotia. Punishment for Poverty is the only thing that DCS can dish out in a timely and consistent manner.

  4. Department of community services has always been a department for a select few to pass judgement and mete out their vigilante abuse as they see fit. I still remember the day I found out this is true. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Nancy Regan used to try and hold them accountable. It is no wonder that the powers that be have banded together over the years to protect community services. Justice and Community Services have moved offices into the schools and it won’t be long till the shit starts to hit the fan because of the out of control, unsupervised (social) workers. Senior law student- your seniors will come looking for you if you continue to make noise. Even the video for child protection on the courts of NS website is not quite truthful and yet, there it is. You can get a lawyer to help victims of community services if you can get a lot of money. You never see people with money lose their kids and there are plenty of child abusers with money. One lawyer had to be shamed into helping in one such case where a child was to be taken without cause. He was a good lawyer. I DO APPRECIATE that this letter has been written. Please don’t allow the system to shut you up. DCS is corrupt.

  5. I wont shut up until I get some kind of satisfaction from DCS!!! I’m going to make a very long story really short. They are bullies and I’ve needed some assistance throughout my life as a single mother of 4 no child support just me. I had a debt of $6,771 , I called to make arrangements and was told it was now $17,252 !! I have requested an invoice, a bill, something in writing but they will not comply. Instead turning it over to revenue Canada to garnish my tax returns and GST. I just want a bill ? This is a bill isn’t it? How can I make arrangements to pay this when I do not have a bill? I am so frustrated. This is consuming my life. Just let me go already! I have been employed for the last 5 years and self sufficient. Get your claws out me and let me rid of you once and for all !! What are you hiding? I will tell you what they are hiding:
    1) The debt of $6,771 is from helping me with power bills and food
    2) When they would no longer help me I had to resort to working some small minimum wage jobs to give my children the very minimal of basic needs
    3) The other $10,480 is an over payment because I worked from these small jobs from 2009-2015 so average that over a period of 6 years and see that my monthly amount was a mere $152 to help feed 4 children!

    I’m sorry was I just expected to let them starve? They wont give me a paper trail because they know they are wrong and this situation along with so many other Nova Scotians that wouldn’t take the time to fight them. Well I guess you don’t know me very well I had no choice but to fight for my rights my whole life. I am 52 years old, the kids have moved out and I couldn’t be happier in my job. Just let me go already. The nicest thing you could do for me is to erase this debt for me, wish me well and congratulate me on becoming independent. Let me go!!

  6. DCS is more than corrupt I actually witnessed a worker apprehend a child in March 2019 and walk by the grandmother smiling and in court the passed week I witnessed a dcs lawyer walk pass the young mother of the same child and the lawyer stated “adoption”
    while smiling at the the mother taunting her.As for the dcs minister she really believes that dcs puts apprehended children in family members homes that have good standing in the community and are good living people with no criminal history are employed absolutely no reason to deny them guardianship well let me tell you that is what dcs does instead of working together they tell you to get a lawyer to prove your a good stable person when in reality all they need to do is check child abuse registry and criminal record check and do a home visit but no dcs makes you fight in court for up to 12 -18 months to get this done all the while the child remains in foster care.DCS is not about looking down and helping you up it’s about looking down on you and keeping you down with all the paperwork and bureaucracy.

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