OTTAWA — The federal government is vowing to make changes to a largely untapped fund designed to help parents of murdered or missing children after a blistering critique exposed deep flaws in the program.
A report from Sue O’Sullivan, the federal ombudsman for victims of crime, found the program’s eligibility criteria to be so narrow that even those families who clearly ought to qualify may not receive financial help.
O’Sullivan’s report also concluded that an overly complex application process has deterred parents who might otherwise have benefited from a grant.
As a result, only 0.5 per cent of $33 million budgeted for grants between Jan. 1, 2013, and March 2016 has gone to eligible parents. Over the same period, administrative costs totalled $2.4 million — 14 times more the $170,520 in paid grants.
“It’s not acceptable that you have this kind of important financial support fund that is not being used, because we know how important that is to support victims,” O’Sullivan said.
A spokesman for Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the government plans to make changes to the program in the next few months.
The program set up by the previous Conservative government provides up to $12,250 to parents whose children have either been killed or gone missing as a result of a probable criminal offence in Canada. 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.
The Tories estimated annual funding of $10 million would help 1,000 families each year, but the strict eligibility criteria, confusing forms and lack of knowledge has dampened uptake.
Children make up a small percentage of homicide victims in Canada. Of those who go missing, few are taken by a stranger.
Those statistics and changing demographics that have led to more Canadians living at home longer were two reasons why O’Sullivan recommended raising the age limit from 18. She also wants siblings, grandparents and extended family members to be eligible for funding to accommodate shifting family structures.
Funding should also be available beyond the one-year limit, O’Sullivan said, to help parents who need time off for a trial, or to take part in related events like the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Duclos wrote in an official response to O’Sullivan that his department has increased outreach efforts and is reviewing application requirements as well as online information to make the program simpler to understand.
“I am committed to ensuring that the (parent) grant remains accessible to eligible parents who may need it,” Duclos wrote.
“This includes identifying unforeseen barriers that potential applicants could face and proposing relative mitigating measures.”
Karen Wiebe, executive director of the Manitoba Organization for Victims Assistance, said she knows many people who could have benefited from the program, making knowledge a significant barrier.
“Whatever supports there are, we need to know about them, we need to be able to access them, (and) they need to be broader in scope,” said Wiebe, whose son T.J. was 20 when he was murdered in January 2003.
Heidi Illingworth, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, said eligibility should not be based on income, such as being in receipt of employment insurance, to recognize families face significant financial effects when a child is murdered.
“There are too many restrictions, especially if we want the fund to actually help people who are marginalized or from lower socioeconomic economic status.”
Other changes the government needs to make are structural ones — better training for staff, for instance — that are often costly to implement, said Jennifer B. Lord, director of violence prevention at the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
“We are asking a lot, but in the long run we’re saving all this effort from workers as well,” Lord said.
NDP social development critic Brigitte Sansoucy said she hopes the Liberals turn O’Sullivan’s recommendations into concrete actions, including greater transparency about the demographics of who is applying and receiving benefits.
Privacy concerns prevented Duclos’s department from providing the ombudsman with those details.