Social Assistance Changes to Eradicate Gendered Violence

I work for Women at the Centre, a non-profit organization with chapters across Ontario and the mandate of eradicating gendered violence, and co-chair the most active chapter, Women at the Centre -- Halton (WATC-H).

I'm often asked to sit on committees that deal with the issues surrounding violence against women. I make presentations at conferences, brown bag lunches and facilitate workshops or group discussions focusing on all aspects of gendered violence. It can be emotionally challenging, but without a doubt it's extremely rewarding.

It's important to clarify that gendered violence is about power and control, period. Overwhelmingly, it's the domination of a woman by her male partner. Eighty-three per cent of all police-reported domestic assaults in Canada are assaults against women. This violence includes physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, financial, social and spiritual abuse.

Some ask, "If things are so bad then why not leave?" It's not that simple.

If children are involved and if the woman has been out of the workforce or has precarious employment, the difficulty is compounded. A further complication is that most abusers don't like losing the power and control that they have over another person, so the likelihood of an abused woman being murdered increases nine fold when she leaves the abusive relationship.

In Ontario an average of 30 women are killed each year by intimate partners. Eighty-one per cent of these homicides occur during an actual or pending separation. Sixty-six per cent of these murders happen in the first six months after separation.

There's also a disturbing trend of more children being murdered by their fathers. Is this because it could be the ultimate punishment for a mother and the woman that's leaving him?

Here's the dilemma, for a woman to be safe she needs to leave her abuser, but by leaving she puts herself and her children at even greater risk of being killed.

We blame her for staying with her abuser and we blame her for leaving because there's a greater risk of homicide. It's time to move beyond victim-blaming. As a caring society it's time to support women when they decide to leave abusive relationships.

To do this we need to change the current social assistance policy so that women on Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) are no longer required to pursue child support from their abusive ex-partners in order to keep their benefits.

The provincial government should enable the Family Responsibility Office (FRO) to pay the court ordered child support up front and then the FRO should go after the payer for payments in arrears. This way the children are taken care of and the woman remains 'safe' because she is not required to interact with her abusive ex-partner.

The FRO could present the negligent payer with a bill for costs incurred by the province while collecting court ordered child support. Perhaps this would be incentive enough to ensure that the payer does not fall into arrears again.

Currently, if women on OW or ODSP successfully collect their child support then the provincial government claws back 100 per cent of those payments. In situations where both parents are on social assistance then child support paid from the non-custodial parent's benefits is deducted from the custodial parent's benefits. Children don't benefit from these financial arrangements.

Reviews of the social assistance policy have suggested that the current situation could be modified to enable child support to be treated as income. This translates into women being able to keep the first $200 of their child support with the remainder being subject to a 50 per cent claw back.

Keep in mind that a mother and child on social assistance have to survive on $19,380/year, which is 30 per cent below the poverty line for a working poor parent and child of $27,000/year.

I suggest that 100 per cent of the child support be given to the mother and none of it clawed back because this is the father's contribution to supporting his offspring. This money would go a long way to helping women break free of the cycle of violence as well as giving them a helping hand to raise their children out of extreme poverty.

To add insult to injury, the provincial government's social assistance policy discourages women from sharing housing costs by clawing back the shelter allowance when they share space to save money. The provincial government is also discontinuing the special diet allowance of $100/month, which was implemented to help recipients and their children requiring dietary modifications due to lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance and the like.

It's election time. Ask candidates whether they are willing to help vulnerable members of our society by implementing these changes to our social assistance programs.

If they tell you that they're all for cutting taxes and ending the free ride on the gravy train, then point out to them that the cost to society each time a woman is murdered by her partner exceeds $1 million.

Consider lost productivity at work, emergency room visits, police involvement, funeral costs, counseling for family members, care for children left without parents, coroner's inquests, court costs, incarceration, and so on -- then the solution becomes very cost effective even to the most conservative candidate and tax payer.

Doreen, VFCH Member

Social Assistance Review

The review of social assistance programs is one of the commitments made by the provincial government in its 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy. All parties in the legislature supported poverty reduction by unanimously approving Bill 152, the Poverty Reduction Act, in May 2009.

In late 2009, the provincial government appointed an advisory council to give ideas on how a review would work.

On November 30, 2010 the Ontario Government announced the names of the Commissioners to lead the Social Assistance Review, The Hon. Frances Lankin, P.C., Dr. Munir Sheikh. The Review was to be completed June 2012.

In July 2011, Halton Community Legal Services in partnership with the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC), the Schizophrenia Society and the ODSP Action Coalition hosted a community consultation to provide the low income community in Halton a forum to work together on a submission to the Social Assistance Review Commission. Legal clinic staff assisted the group Voices for Change – Halton in developing its written submission.

The Commission released a summary of the consultations around the first discussion paper, called “What We Heard“.

A second consultation focused on issues in the Commission’s second discussion paper, called “Approaches for Reform“.

Within days of the release of the second consultation paper, Voices for Change met and discussed its reply.

The Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario released its final report and recommendations on October 24, 2012.


The Fight for Child-Support

The Family Responsibility Office (FRO) is the provincial body that collects child support based upon a court order. The amount collected is based on the number of children being supported and the payer's income. Charts have been developed to simplify this process. The charts are a guideline applied to children under the age of majority, but the amount can be altered at the discretion of a judge to fit family dynamics. Once the amount of child support to be paid has been determined, an order is issued to the FRO, which enforces the order.

All support orders are registered and support deduction orders are sent to the FRO by the court. Child support collection begins on the date specified in the order or if no date is stated, then collection begins on the date the order was made.

You can withdraw from the program if both parties agree to this in writing and payments are up-to-date. A recipient may withdraw from the program without the payer's consent if the payor is behind in their payments. This is problematic when the recipient has experienced an imbalance of power within the relationship. Someone on the Ontario Disability Support Program or Ontario Works can only withdraw from the FRO if the caseworker at the agency also agrees to withdraw. Otherwise, the payor and recipient must go to court to get an order. There is no cost to using the FRO, but should the parties withdraw and they want to reregister, a charge of $50 must be paid by each party.

The FRO is a provincial body that enforces court orders, it cannot change any of the terms in the support order or domestic contract. Only the courts can do that. Herein lies the dilemma. A date for the exchange of income tax returns is stated in the final order issued by the court.

I was divorced in 2006. My most recent order issued November 2012 states: "For as long as child support is to be paid, the payor and recipient, if applicable must provide updated income disclosure to the other party each year, within 30 days of the anniversary of this order, in accordance with section 24.1 of the Child Support Guidelines." In seven years I have never received my ex-husband's tax return voluntarily.

Every two years my ex-husband takes me back to court. I have been to court three times since my divorce was finalized. While we're at the case conference my lawyer brings up the fact that I have not received a tax return since the last time we appeared before a judge. A recess is called so my ex-husband, a chartered accountant, can produce his tax returns. He pulls them out of a briefcase and that's when it becomes apparent that his income has gone up. A complicated process of recalculating his current payments as well as calculating the arrears is entered by both our lawyers.

The FRO is doing exactly what it was intended to do - collecting the court-ordered amount. The payor is in breach of the court order. Yet, little can be done short of the recipient making a motion, which is expensive if you must hire a lawyer since self-representation is extremely difficult.

I understand that the FRO is a provincial body and that tax returns fall under federal jurisdiction. However, this situation could be altered so that the tax return of a persistently tardy payor was made available to the FRO on the court-appointed date of exchange so that the standardized chart could be used to calculate any decrease or increase to the child support currently being collected.

In cases where there are no complications or extenuating circumstances this seems like a cost-effective solution to enforcing a court order and ensuring the correct child support is collected. Where there are objections or other complications then the payor could return to court to ask for a variance at the discretion of a judge for a fraction of the cost of a full motion.

Let's remember that we are talking about child support and our children's futures are hanging in the balance.

Doreen, VFCH Member

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