Healing Gaia

Fighting Against Alberta's Child Support Clawbacks

It's outrageous to expect a beneficiary to repay a lump-sum debt on child support which should never have been clawed back in the first place.

By Doreen Nicoll
Published October 02, 2015

Myalisa, a single mother with one child, lives in Alberta. She has sole custody of her young daughter and until recently, was receiving full child support payments from her ex-partner without incident.

Myalisa worked as a school bus driver until she tore the meniscus in her knee in November 2014. Further medical investigations revealed that Myalisa had a severe case of psoriasis arthritis. Myalisa's immune system was attacking her joint cartilage and ligaments as if they were foreign objects.

The diagnosis started Myalisa on the long and arduous process of finding the medication that would best stabilize her condition. This trial and error process has been tiring but somewhat successful.

By March 2015, Myalisa had exhausted all employment benefits that she was entitled to and was placed on Income Support - social assistance. That's when things went from bad to worse. "I was shocked to find that my five-year-old daughter had to give up her child support and the Ministry of Social Services would take over my maintenance enforcement file."

Myalisa and her daughter receive $1,168 to live on each month: $849 for a single person, $319 for one child. This family's annual income is $14,016 from social assistance. The poverty line in Canada for a working poor parent and child is $27,000 per year.

That means Myalisa and her daughter would be living 48 per cent below the poverty line. But, the family qualifies for child tax credits and GST rebates which raises their annual income to $20,521. This means they live 24 per cent below the poverty line.

As if that wasn't punishment enough, the Ministry of Social Services initially made a clerical error that allowed Myalisa to keep one month of child support. Now, the Ministry deducts $20 a month off of her social assistance benefits and will do so until the full amount has been repaid.

However, should Myalisa find herself in the position to return to work, the entire amount still owing the Ministry is due in full as soon as she withdraws from the program. Living on a social assistance keeps you struggling month to month.

It's outrageous to expect a beneficiary to repay a lump-sum debt on child support which should never have been clawed back in the first place.

Children living with a lone parent living on social assistance are severely disadvantaged. Living well below the poverty line these children are unable to participate in simple things like music or dance lessons.

It's well documented that participating in music lessons helps children with their math studies and dance keeps otherwise sedentary kids active. Both build self-esteem and boost self-confidence.

When Myalisa's daughter asked for dance and violin lessons, "I literally felt like someone had kicked me in the chest and I cried along with my daughter when I told her she couldn't partake of her passions. If my daughter could just opt out of this program and keep her child support, I could get her the best blue cross coverage, enroll her in a new extracurricular activity each month if she wanted, and still have enough to buy all her necessities. It's not her fault that I'm sick, yet she's paying the price for my illness and I'm sure this ill treatment on behalf of the government will affect her negatively well into the future."

Myalisa started a Facebook page, End Alberta Income Support's 100% Child Support Clawback, to raise awareness about the unfair treatment of children living with a parent on social assistance.

She has met single parents who are disabled or parents with children so disabled that they require constant care. All of these parents are living on social assistance. She has heard stories of struggle and depression because many of these parents live with hopelessness due to constant financial worries.

Myalisa's posts have also brought support in the form of the Single Mother's Alliance in B.C. This group of women was instrumental in convincing the B.C. government to change its policy of clawing back child support. As of September 1, 2015 the B.C. government ensured that 100 per cent of child support payments collected were disbursed to custodial parents on social assistance.

Alberta has had a charter in place to protect the interest of children since 2013. The Children First Act focuses on broad outcomes and is linked with other priority initiatives including the Social Policy Framework, Poverty Reduction Strategy and the Early Childhood Development Framework.

All policies that impact children were to be reviewed, using a common lens, to ensure compliance with this act.

The Children First Act outlines five specific principles that must be recognized in any Alberta Children's Charter:

  1. That all children are to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their circumstances.

  2. That a child's familial, cultural, social, and religious heritage is to be recognized and respected.

  3. That the needs of children are a central focus in the design and delivery of programs and services affecting children.

  4. That prevention and early intervention are fundamental in addressing social challenges affecting children.

  5. While reinforcing and without in any way minimizing the primary responsibility of parents, guardians and families for their children; that individuals, families, communities and governments have a shared responsibility for the well-being, safety, security, education, and health of children.

The charter goes on to state, "given that single-parent families have a greater likelihood of experiencing financial hardship and other challenges that can put children at risk, ensuring that children and families receive appropriate levels of court-ordered financial support is essential."

However, the Ministry of Social Services, and specifically the Income Support Department, has failed to adhere to the charter guidelines which endorse treating the children of parents living on social assistance with dignity and respect; putting the children's needs first in the design and delivery of the Ministry of Social Services programs and services that affect children; and intervening in addressing the social challenges affecting these children.

In other words, the charter rights, and more importantly, the human rights of children living with a parent on social assistance are being trampled.

When Myalisa uncovered the fact that her daughter's rights were being violated, she wrote to Alberta Premier, Rachael Notley. Notely and Irfan Sabir, minister of Human Services, contacted Myalisa with what she calls, "a less than satisfactory response."

Sabir stated that child support payments are intended for the basic maintenance of the child and are a direct duplication for Income Support benefits; thus the payment is not exempt and is deducted dollar for dollar.

Ironically, the Family Law Act does not state that child support is for basic maintenance, it states that, "Every parent has an obligation to provide support for his or her child." So, clearly the Ministry is usurping the obligation of parents in section 49(1) of the Family Law act and violating section E of Alberta's Children First Act.

In fact, the Income Support Program is the only program to claw back child support. So, children living with a parent on social assistance are losing their basic human right to support from both parents.

Myalisa's ex-partner is frustrated by the entire situation. He is forced to surrender support each month that will never benefit his daughter.

To add insult to injury, Myalisa's ex-partner has had his child support payments recalculated by the Alberta government Child Support Recalculation Program. Beginning October 1, 2015 he will be required to pay an additional $90 per month in child support to the provincial government.

This was money that Myalisa's ex-partner was spending over and above the required child support to help meet his daughter's needs, but now that too has been taken away.

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

The plaintiff in the lawsuit is Anupam Kakkar. Kakkar's child support was assigned to the Ministry because the mother of his children is on long-term social assistance.

The class action suit alleges that the human rights of thousands of Ontarians were violated by the diversion of child support payments from parents and children to the Ministry. As Kakkar states, "Current policies are harming children, the most vulnerable citizens who are in need of their families' support. Unfortunately, family funds are being diverted to the Province."

On September 22, 2015 Myalisa launched a human rights complaint against the Ministry of Social Services on the grounds of family status and source of income. She is also looking into launching a class action human rights suit against the government of Alberta.

Myalisa would like to see the Alberta government replace its punitive policy with one that supports children living with a parent on social assistance. She would also like to see new legislation introduced to forgive all prior debts to the Ministry of Social Services.

As well, Myalisa is requesting repayment to recipient parents of all accrued support money collected by the Ministry of Social Services back to 2013 when the Children First Act came into effect.

Myalisa has heard from women across Alberta who are owed child support arrears and are living in abject poverty, "you don't know how many women I've talked to who are scraping by looking after their handicapped kids in less than adequate housing that should be entitled to large sums of back child support. But, if they fought for the arrears payments it would just be taken away from them by the Ministry. So, what's the point? This is downright abuse. It's time that these kids stopped being provincial ATM machines at the expense of their health and wellbeing, and start being treated like true protected citizens of the province of Alberta."

Myalisa can be reached at: End Alberta Income Support's 100% Child Support Clawback.

Doreen Nicoll is a feminist and a member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.


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