Article by John Chilibeck
Photo by John Chilibeck/Legislature Bureau
“It’s private information and, in fact, we’re amending the human rights act in New Brunswick to protect single mothers from discrimination, in terms of family status, and this sounds like discrimination to me.”-David Coon
FREDERICTON • A single mom has been denied welfare for refusing to disclose the name of her children’s father, says her local MLA.
David Coon, who’s also leader of the Green Party, says the Department of Social Development has no business asking people in dire straits personal information such as this, even if the unnamed father could be providing money to the impoverished family.
The department won’t provide income assistance to a single mother without disclosing the name of the father unless she is fleeing an abusive relationship or doesn’t know who he is.
“They don’t have a right to ask that,” Coon said in an interview. “It’s private information and, in fact, we’re amending the human rights act in New Brunswick to protect single mothers from discrimination, in terms of family status, and this sounds like discrimination to me.”
Coon won’t disclose the woman’s name, but he says she is a constituent in his riding of Fredericton South. She has no job and two children, and recently lost her apartment.
“She’s in crisis,” Coon said. “She applied for income assistance but she was turned down because she won’t reveal the name of the father.”
Stephen Horsman, the minister of families and children, said in question period Tuesday he couldn’t talk about individual cases for privacy reasons, but welcomed Coon to come to his office to talk about it, with the permission of the single mom.
“As a former police officer, I know that there are always three sides to a story,” said Horsman, whose riding is in Fredericton North. “I am not saying that the side that the member opposite is giving is not true. What I am saying is that there are always different sides to a story. There are rules and regulations that we have to follow, and we will continue to follow them.”
Coon turned down the offer, saying the minister should be able to answer questions in the full light of public view.
Horsman, who is also deputy premier, did not take questions from reporters after question period on Tuesday or Wednesday.
However, he issued a statement some 24 hours after Coon raised the issue in the house and a day after Brunswick News posed questions on the matter.
It was forwarded by Anne Mooers, a spokeswoman in the Department of Social Development.
“This is not a question of sexism,” the email stated. “If the person in question were a single father, he would be asked whether the mother of his children is able to help support the children. This is about parental responsibility.”
Horseman said if neither parent is able to contribute financially, the government would help. And if a parent has concerns about potential violence or any form or retribution from the other parent, those concerns are also taken into account.
“In all cases, if there is an emergency or an urgent need for assistance, we would provide immediate assistance before we establish eligibility to one of our programs.”
Still, Coon said it was clear the system was broken and leaving many people in poverty in crisis.
He believes it’s time for the government to boost social assistance rates and stop asking recipients so many personal questions about the people they live with. Welfare rates range from $537 for a single person to $1,650 for a family of 13 or more, every month.
According to statistics on the government’s website, nearly 37,000 New Brunswickers received welfare cheques in March, slightly higher than the yearly average of closer to 36,700.
That’s roughly five per cent of the population.
Under the government’s policy, two or more people who belong to what it calls an economic household can only claim one welfare cheque a month.
The department says an economic household can exist even though there’s no marital, familial, or conjugal relationship among household members.
“The determination of an economic household will often result in assistance being refused, cancelled or decreased, depending on the particular circumstances,” the government’s website states.
There are 13 exemptions, which include a household with an adult child with income, a person with blindness, deafness or disability and single parents.
The department says it has a right to ask questions of people who claim to be single moms or dads.
“Staff at the Department of Social Development ask all questions that will help us assess a client’s financial need,” Horsman said in the email. “We work with all our clients to ensure they are provided all the assistance to which they are entitled. Each client has his or her own set of circumstances and the department does all it can to work with our clients to help them in any way we can.”