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Lift parents on social assistance out of poverty so they can provide for their children

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Keep Karl on Parl

Christmas Eve I attended the 7:30 p.m. service at St. Andrew's Church at the corner of King Street West and Simcoe Street in Toronto. It's a beautiful church with an impressive choir.  That evening the minister reflected on how very little life has changed over the past 2,000 years — how we are still primarily concerned about being able to provide for our families and ensure a decent future for our children.

Later that evening, I was seated in Roy Thompson Hall surrounded by people who were there to participate in the Metropolitan Community Church celebration.  Reverend Dr. Brent Hawkes gave a stirring sermon and told the congregation to believe that we can end poverty and homelessness. Sitting in the congregation that night was Premier Kathleen Wynne.

My Christmas wish was to end child poverty. My New Year's resolution is to help the provincial government see the errors of its ways and encourage Members of Parliament to make positive changes that will help children across the province live lives of hope that includes a bright future because I believe it's a goal that's within reach.

Let's start by lifting parents out of poverty so they can provide for their children. I've often written about the financial discrimination faced by custodial parents receiving Ontario Works (OW) or Ontario Disability Support Program payments. These parents, and their children, subsist on monthly social assistance payments that fall 30 per cent below the poverty line. If these parents receive child support payments from non-custodial parents the province claws the payments back. 

Child support payments are treated as non-earned income by the provincial government rather than the legal obligation of each parent to financially support the children of the dissolved marriage or union. Both parents have a financial obligation to their children. In fact, Canada's child support law hinges on the principle that, "All children should continue to benefit from the financial means of both parents as if they were still together." Child support is the right of the child. A parent can't contract out of a child's support with the other parent. Likewise, the provincial government should not be allowed to take this money from children whose custodial parent receives social assistance.

On September 4, 2015, human rights lawyer Eric Letts filed a class proceeding against the Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS). The class action was filed on behalf of all Ontarians subject to a court order assigning child support payments to the Ministry.

The class action alleges that the human rights of thousands of Ontarians were violated by the diversion of child support from parents and children to the MCSS. There is no direct benefit to children when child support payments go to the MCSS.

One of Letts's clients spent Christmas with her two children in a shelter. Teresa Villeneuve receives monthly child support from her ex-partner in the amount of $917. As the mother of two children, Villeneuve would be entitled to receive $1050 per month from social assistance if she would agree to sign the child support assignment enabling the Ontario government to claw back her child support payments.  Instead, Villeneuve made the decision to forgo social assistance because she wants the money her ex pays to directly benefit of her children. As financially difficult as things are Villeneuve is investing in her children's future by continuing to contribute $50 a month to her children's registered education savings plan (RESP).

When she became destitute, Villeneuve finally gave in and applied for social assistance. However, the province denied Villeneuve's claim because her child support was higher than the base social assistance rate of $468 and she didn't qualify for the housing expense because she wasn't paying for housing. So, instead of receiving $1050 in social assistance, Villeneuve and her children spent holidays in the local shelter.

Another of Letts's clients is a young woman who left home at 16 and worked various retail jobs until she was struck and injured by a car. Unable to work for three months, Kelly Duggan began receiving Ontario Works benefits. Unable to afford a lawyer, Duggan self-represented settling with the insurance company for $3,500 in lost income. The entire amount went to Ontario Works (OW). 

At 17, Dugan became involved with a man twice her age. While pregnant Dugan was physically abused by her partner which resulted nine criminal charges being laid against him. After leaving her abusive partner Duggan applied for, and went back on, OW.

Five days after giving birth Duggan met with her OW worker only to be told that her social assistance would be terminated unless she made a concerted effort to seek child support from her child's father. In tears, Duggan agreed. Several months later Duggan reported to her OW worker that she had been successful in securing her child support only to be told she had to assign the full amount to OW. Duggan refused and is currently fighting the claw back of child support at the social benefits tribunal.

Despite all of the challenges that she has faced, Duggan finished high school, completed a college program the Friday before Christmas, and has a job set to begin after the holidays.  Duggan is not receiving social assistance and is creating a much better life for her and her child despite OW.

Fathers paying child support to ex-partners currently on social assistance are not happy about the provincial government claw backs either.  Anupam Kakkar has his two children three days a week and pays $560 per month in child support.  Child support is after tax dollars which means Kakkar has to earn $700 in order to pay the $560 per month.  His children don't see a penny of that money because their mom has been receiving social assistance for the past nine years. 

Kakkar, a very conscientious father, has been paying for necessities like the children's clothes, winter boots, and soccer registration in addition to the support payments that the government is collecting.  Think how much better life could be for these children if their mother was able to keep their child support and their father could save the extra money that he is spending to use when the children are in his care.

Assigning child support payments to the Ministry is just one of several family justice issues that Letts would like addressed by Premier Wynne and her government.  According to Letts, "One central issue has never been discussed, namely that Premier Wynne has a private war waging against children with parents who do not live together. Currently, one in four Ontario 13-year olds has separated parents."

Harking back to the services I attended Christmas Eve, I do believe people worry about being able to provide for their families and ensuring a decent future for their children. I also think as a community we are committed, as Reverend Hawkes told the congregation, "To believe that we can end poverty and homelessness."

I know Premier Wynne was listening. Let's hope Wynne and her government acts on it in 2016.

This article originally appeared in Leaders and Legacies. This is the first in a series of articles focusing on changes the Wynne government needs to implement in order to improve the lives of children in Ontario.

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Keep Karl on Parl

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