Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction
A policy that was narrower than the law caused an unfair result.
When Jeremy contacted our office, he and his wife were not sure what to do after the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (MSDPR) would not add their grandson to their file as a dependent, even though they were now responsible for his care.
Jeremy told us he and his wife had agreed to become their grandson’s caregivers, after learning the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) was concerned about his safety. Although Jeremy and his wife did not have legal custody, they did have a letter from the mother explaining the care agreement, which they provided to MSDPR with their request to add their grandson to their existing assistance file. However, MSDPR told Jeremy that without a legal order, they were not eligible for any additional supports. This was because according to MSDPR’s policy, Jeremy and his wife did not meet the definition of a “parent”.
When Jeremy called our office he felt out of options and was deeply concerned about how he and his wife would be able to afford to care for their grandson on their disability assistance income. They were not eligible for funding from MCFD, and the process of getting an order for legal guardianship through the courts was proving to be more difficult and lengthy than anticipated.
In our investigation we reviewed the policy definition of “parent” MSDPR relied on to deny Jeremy’s request, and compared it to the legislation, which sets out when a client is eligible for assistance for a dependent in their care. We identified an inconsistency that raised questions about the overall fairness of the ministry’s policy.
Although according to the policy a client could only be considered a parent if they were a child’s biological or adoptive parent or legal guardian, the wording of the legislation did not appear to limit eligibility to only these specific relationships. By telling Jeremy he needed proof of legal custody before they could add his grandson, MSDPR was applying an eligibility criteria that was more restrictive than the legislation. Fairness means ensuring policies do not make it impossible for a person to receive a benefit they may be eligible for according to the legislation. Fair policies are flexible enough to reflect the full scope of decision-making power the ministry has under the legislation.
In response to our investigation, MSDPR agreed that the policy should be changed and shared their proposed revisions with us for our input to ensure that both the policy and the process for staff reviewing and assessing requests to add a dependent met best practices for administrative fairness.
By the time the policy was changed, Jeremy had obtained legal custody of his grandson. The ministry agreed to apply the new policy criteria retroactively to his case and as a result issued Jeremy an underpayment reimbursement of nearly $2,000. As a result of our investigation ministry staff can now determine if a client is a “parent” to a child by looking beyond the legal status of the relationship, a change that will impact many British Columbians who find themselves in a similar situation to Jeremy’s.