KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The Department of Community Services continues to penalize family members, including children, for actions that are entirely out of their control.
And it does so despite a Nova Scotia Court of Appeal ruling that called the practice unfair.
In November 2017 the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal decided that it’s unjust to deprive an entire family of social assistance benefits just because the so called head of that family is deemed not to adhere to an employment plan.
That 2017 decision was based on a case brought to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal by members of the Sparks family. Rosemary Sparks and her children were cut off from receiving any social assistance benefits because her husband missed an appointment with his employment counsellor.
In his 2017 decision Justice J. Michael MacDonald called the practice punitive. “This punishment (and it is nothing short of punishment) visits those who are most vulnerable: those living in poverty,” he wrote.
“It happened to us in the middle of the winter,” Sparks told the Nova Scotia Advocate at the time. “Without warning and all of a sudden we were deprived of very basic things like a roof over our head, food, keeping warm, winter clothing for our kids, all these very simple things.”
Despite the ruling, new regulations that came into effect on March 1 continue that very same punitive practice Justice MacDonald condemned.
Rather than cut family members off social assistance entirely for six weeks, as was the practice, recipients and their families will now see their basic needs assistance reduced by 20% indefinitely, until a caseworker decides the recipient is sufficiently cooperative.
The punishment is meted out by the department in monthly increments for a variety of transgressions, things like missing an appointment or not attending a training course.
Vince Calderhead and Claire McNeil were the lawyers who argued the case on behalf of the Sparks family and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), a national organization that defends equality rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The two lawyers were briefed (and decidedly not consulted) by the department on the new regulations last week.
Calderhead was not pleased with what he heard.
The new regulations remain fundamentally flawed because just as before there still are financial penalties that will deeply hurt blameless family members,” Calderhead says.
“Their big pitch was that the department will be taking off less than during the interim policy that came into place after the Supreme Court decision. But it’s the whole family that continues to be sanctioned,” he says.
The new regulations will also allow the Department to apply the 20% penalty to households where people have ever quit a job without just cause, also resulting in a potentially indefinite sanction.
“There are a lot of reasons that can result in people leaving their job, they may lose their childcare, a child gets sick. This rule is counter productive. People will hesitate to find work because they run the risk they will get penalized if things don’t work out,” says McNeil.
A Freedom of Information request submitted by the Nova Scotia Advocate established that each year hundreds of social assistance recipients are affected by the regulation.
The Department of Community Services (DCS) handed out 465 suspensions in 2016, 177 of these affected a spouse and or children as well. In 2017 there were 125 cases (up to mid-September), 53 of which affected entire families.
You may think a 20% penalty isn’t so bad. But keep in mind that people on social assistance receive so little assistance that every penny counts.
A 20% decrease doesn’t mean that you give up some luxuries, because when you receive assistance there are no luxuries to give up. It may well mean that you and even your children go hungry.
“Where we know that the current assistance rates are so unspeakably inadequate, taking a further 20% off, you are almost encouraging criminality,” says Calderhead.
And all this without any evidence that these retaliatory approaches yield results, McNeil says.
“I think there is zero evidence that this punitive approach somehow works. Criminologists have long established that these ideas of deterrence don’t really work at all,” says McNeil.
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