Feds to overhaul victims’ fund where administrative costs far outstrip benefits

Liberals look to overhaul victims fund

OTTAWA — A federal fund designed to give financial help to parents whose children have been murdered or gone missing has spent more than 14 times as much on administration costs as it has on actual grants.

Internal government documents obtained by The Canadian Press show that the fund has doled out $170,000 in grants as of March 2015, while at the same time spending more than $2.4 million on costs, not including employee benefits.

Add in what was spent through the fund last year, and the total grants hit $223,300, or less than one per cent of what was budgeted over a three year plus stretch.

The documents outlining the gaping disparity between administrative costs and grants underline how stringent criteria has made many parents ineligible for the fund.

The continuing shortfall in spending — far below the $10 million that has been budgeted annually since the program’s inception in 2013 — prompted the minister overseeing the program to consider multiple changes that advocates have been requesting for years.

The program set up by the previous Conservative government provides up to $350 a week, for a maximum of 35 weeks, to families whose children have either been killed or gone missing as a result of a probable criminal offence.

The child must be under age 18, the parents must not be working or in receipt of employment insurance benefits, and the grant is only doled out within one year of the offence taking place.

When the previous Conservative government set up the fund in 2013, public servants estimated there would be about 1,200 families who would use the benefit annually, “based on available data and interdepartmental consultations,” read the documents, obtained under the Access to Information Act.

Instead, take-up has been well below estimates: The government has received 52 requests for funding through the program, just over one application per month, and officials have approved 30 for funding.

A government official with knowledge of the file said Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos is considering raising the age criteria, and extending the time frame for payment beyond one year.

The government is also looking at ways to ensure benefits flow to affected, but innocent parents whose spouse or family member is suspected in either the kidnapping or killing of a child, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss the behind-the-scenes work.

Duclos is expected to announce changes to the program by the end of the year.

An ongoing review by the federal victims of crime ombudsman has found issues with the application process as well as a need for flexibility and broadened eligibility requirements. The final report to delivered in the spring will look at ways to increase take up, or develop a new program that could assist a broader group of victims, said ombudsman Sue O’Sullivan.

“If you want victims to use the grant they have to know about it, feel comfortable and supported in the process, and be eligible,” O’Sullivan said.

Heidi Illingworth, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, said the government should raise the age criteria from 18 to at least 25.

She said the Liberals should also broaden the scope of the program to allow parents whose children go missing for any reason, not just as result of a possible criminal act, to apply for the income support.

“The program can only do so much because the eligibility is so strict,” Illingworth said.

“If the parameters do not change, I doubt there will ever be more take up from victims.”

Duclos and the department are also looking at ways to promote the program, given a lack of knowledge about it even though federal officials have promoted the fund to police, victims’ support organizations and missing children networks who come in contact with eligible families.

“I have been an active victim advocate…and I have never heard about (the fund) and I thought I was plugged in,” said Joe Wamback, founder of the Canadian Crime Victims Foundation.

Wamback said the government would be better off taking the millions in the fund and instead funding psychological services for parents who require counselling.

That kind of move would provide “a massive payback to the federal government” because it would help parents get back to work faster and be more productive at work and at home, he said.

— Follow @jpress on Twitter.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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