Benefit bypasses foster kids
TheStar.com – News – Benefit bypasses foster kids
20,000 Ontario children haven’t received money under new Liberal plan to alleviate poverty
February 18, 2008
Tanya Talaga, Laurie Monsebraaten, Staff Reporters
Ontario Liberals are trumpeting the new child benefit as the cornerstone of their pledge to fight poverty, but child advocates say the government forgot to include the 20,000 kids living in foster care.
They want Queen’s Park to correct the oversight so provincial money meant to help low-income parents cover the costs of raising a child â€“ such as buying books, paying for sports or saving for university â€“ helps kids in care too.
The benefit, unveiled in last spring’s budget, put a lump-sum payment of up to $250 per child in the hands of low-income families last July. By 2011, it will grow to an annual maximum of $1,100 per child under age 18.
“Our children, the most vulnerable, aren’t benefiting from this announcement and it should be changed,” said Marcelo Gomez-Wiuckstern, of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, which represents 51 societies in the province. “It’s shocking.”
The association first noticed the oversight during the budget lock-up last year and has been lobbying the province ever since.
“This is a substantial amount of money. It would make a difference to a lot of kids,” added Virginia Rowden, the association’s social policy director.
Last summer’s $250 payment would have translated to about $5 million for the 20,000 kids in care, the association says. This year, when the annual benefit rises to $600, these kids would be owed $12 million.
And in 2011,when the total benefit hits the maximum of $1,100, about $22 million would be owing.
Ontario Children’s Minister Deb Matthews said the government is working to fix the problem and hopes to extend benefits to children in care by July.
“These kids are something special, they deserve to get the support they need,” she said in an interview. “We’ll make sure they do get it. We’re not exactly sure what form that will take.”
Matthews, who also chairs Ontario’s new poverty-reduction committee, said bureaucrats are trying to hammer out the details on how the money will be delivered.
“By this July the ministry will have it worked out,” she said.
Julaine Skyers, 18, and Melanie Bento, 17, two young women in the care of Toronto’s Catholic Children’s Aid Society, say they need the money to help in their efforts to save for college.
The young women, who moved out of their foster home in December and are renting an apartment in the city’s east end, are stunned the province would introduce a measure to help low-income kids and leave them out.
“It’s really hurtful,” said Skyers, who met with Matthews earlier this month as part of a delegation of youth in care.
“We don’t have families that can help us, so we need all the help we can get.”
Although Skyers and Bento are each receiving about $800 a month in “maintenance” from children’s aid to cover living expenses, the money doesn’t go very far. And they will no longer be eligible for any help when they turn 21.
“If we got the benefit, I think the best thing would be to invest that money for school,” said Skyers, who is working full-time to save for college next year.
She is hoping to get accepted in a program to become a child and youth worker, but tuition and books will cost about $3,000 a year, she said.
Bento, who is working part-time while she completes high school, wants to study hospitality or mechanics in college next year.
Although the children’s aid association says the simplest solution to the problem would be to transfer the child benefit funds to them on behalf of the kids, others believe the money should flow directly into registered education savings plans for each child.
That way, children in care would also be eligible for federal education grants of up to $550 a year.
“Money coming from a child benefit should be going into funds that any other child can get,” said John Stapleton, an independent social policy consultant who used to work for the provincial social services ministry.
Any or all money paid out on behalf of children in any other family can be used to open an education savings plan, so it should be the same for kids in care, he said.
There are about 3,300 children under the care of the Toronto and Catholic children’s aid societies.
About 63 per cent live in poverty, said Toronto CAS executive director David Rivard.
“When it comes to escaping poverty, education is crucial,” he said. “Opening education savings plans for these kids is certainly one option that should be considered.”
The Child Welfare League of Canada, which advocates on behalf of vulnerable kids, including those with mental health issues, in trouble with the law and in the care of Children’s Aid, has been lobbying Ottawa and the provinces to help these children access federal education grants.
“We live in a knowledge-based society,” said executive director Peter Dudding.
“We have to lever the resources of government and the private sector to ensure these kids succeed.”