featured Poverty

Community Services continues to punish innocent family members despite Nova Scotia Court of Appeal ruling

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.

Read the new regulations here.

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  1. Here we go again. The Department of Community Services is doing a run around the Supreme Court Decisions, making their own laws regarding the human beings they are supposed to serve. DCS has been doing that since time immemorial. Why do they think and end run around the well being of human beings is a good thing?? If they brag about all the money they’ve saved off the backs of people who are hungry and cold, I’m going to vomit.

    1. I think we need to name names here instead of allowing these policy and law breakers to hide under a title. The Department of Community Services did nothing to anyone. Department of Community Services is nothing but 4 words strung together to give abusers an excuse to do anything BUT serve their community. You never hear of Department of Community Services suffering from burnout. Kelly Reagan used to speak out against this type of evil. And it is evil what some of these workers and their self righteous supervisors do and cover up. Why? Why, year after year after year do we continue to allow the powers that be without any moral compass, a few top dogs that believe they are rulers instead of public servants, to behave in this vigilante bandwagon fashion. Why does the law society help them. Some body grow a conscience please. What kind of person gets off on doing this S*%-w/ to families and children.

  2. Holy Wicked! They do that! Surreal… Do they do it in Newfoundland & Labrador?

    I thing these statements could be true here… It’s unbelievable.

    It’s Abuse.

  3. Kicking people off income assistance, or any benefits, is the norm in the UK — when someone doesn’t attend meeting with social services or their social worker. This is where McNeil’s draconian idea comes from. Everyone should watch I Daniel Blake (by Ken Loach) to see where this province and this country is headed in terms of social assistance.

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