Scales of justice tipped against disabled kids
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Parent-activist creates website to guide parents of disabled children through Ontario’s legal maze
Aug 30 2013. By: Carol Goar
Ontario has more than 200 boards, commissions and tribunals where citizens can appeal bureaucratic decisions they consider unjust.
Parents of children with disabilities frequently appear before these agencies with complaints of mistreatment by school board officials, social assistance administrators, health-care gatekeepers and other functionaries. They seldom win.
Dawn Roper was one of those parents. She launched a human rights appeal and an appeal for home-care on behalf of her daughter Carolyn, who had an intellectual disability. The experience taught her a lot about the process, the law and the way to argue a case.
After Carolyn’s death, she became a member of the Special Education Appeal Board, then the Health Services Appeal and Review Board. Watching the process from the other side, she learned why so many parents with legitimate grievances lost their appeals.
“They would tell their story without connecting it to any legal issue,” Roper recounted. “They’d get the procedure wrong. And they’d lose, becoming angrier and feeling a greater sense of injustice.”
Most of these parents couldn’t afford lawyers and didn’t qualify for legal aid. They had no choice but to represent their kids, knowing they’d be up against government employees with lawyers who had appeared before tribunals hundreds of times.
“I understand the challenges families face,” Roper said. “They’re intimidated, they’re not familiar with the legislation and they’re not familiar with the appeal process, which they find alien and uncomfortable.
“There had to be a way to make things better.”
This spring, Roper found her answer — at least part of it. She launched theAdministrative Justice Support Network, an online guide to the appeal process. It is written in everyday English. (“We aimed it at a Grade 5 reading level”). It provides clear definitions of legal terms. It outlines what individuals with disabilities and their caregivers can expect, what they need to know and what they need to do to improve their odds of success.
Recognizing her own limitations, Roper consulted some of Ontario’s top lawyers, disability experts, social policy analysts, family counsellors and legal aid veterans. Eleven joined her advisory board.
She focused on the eight most commonly used tribunals: the Health Services Appeal and Review Board, the Social Benefits Tribunal, theLandlord and Tenant Board, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, the Special Education Appeal Board, the Child and Family Services Review Board, the Consent and Capacity Board and the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board.
Roper put the website up on April 25 with no publicity or promotion. In its first week, it had 92 hits. As word spread, the online traffic increased so fast she lost count.
Now she is poised to embark on Phase II, which would connect parents who have been through the appeal process to first-timers. The mentors would share what they learned, provide tips, offer support. “It could be anything from information to hand-holding.”
The Administrative Justice Support Network does have one caveat. It will not — and cannot — provide legal advice on specific problems. On more than one occasion, Roper has had to tell distraught parents: “You really need to speak to a lawyer.”
She can direct them to a legal aid clinic, to the referral service at the a Law Society of Upper Canada, which will provide the name of litigator willing to offer a verbal consultation of up to 30 minutes for free, or to Pro Bono Law Ontario, which will sometimes provide free legal services in disputes involving children. But she is not qualified to go further.
That never was the purpose of the network, Roper said. “The idea was encourage people to feel they are capable of launching an appeal whether or not they have legal representation.”
They won’t always succeed. But they won’t fail because nobody showed them the ropes.
Carol Goar‘s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
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