Towards a Better Understanding
**This featured case is one example of the concerns people have brought to us. Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people involved.
Doris was a mother of three children who was living with and caring for an elderly father. A Canadian citizen, she had emigrated from a country where English was not her first language. Doris had a limited understanding of English. Though she could carry on a conversation she had a limited ability to read or write English. Doris was not employed outside the home and received limited support from family. Her father, a senior, was ill and did not have the additional income to support Doris and her three children, so she applied for social assistance with the help of her teenage son as a translator, and was placed on assistance.
While Doris and her children were on assistance, her sister had given them money to visit her ailing mother back in her country of origin. Doris did not understand she had to tell her social worker and cancel her social assistance benefits when out of the country. When their social worker learned of the trip, Doris was charged with an overpayment for the social assistance benefits she had received while she was out of country. The money from her sister was determined to be a gift and after subtracting the $200 allowable gift deduction, the rest was considered money she had available to support her family and calculated as support for a specified number of months in accordance with the applicable policy. She was now not on assistance, with no income and with a large debt to Social Services to be repaid.
When Doris reapplied for assistance at the end of the calculated time period, Social Services reviewed her financial assets and discovered that Doris’s name was on some joint bank accounts with her father. When Social Services confronted Doris about the accounts, she told them she did not know about the accounts and this was the first time she had heard of them.
She was again refused assistance and all the assistance she had been paid since her original application was now deemed to be an overpayment. She and her three children then had to live off of her father’s senior income, the Child Tax Benefit and a rental supplement for all their needs.
Her father, who also had a limited ability to communicate in English, met with the Ministry to explain why Doris’s name was on the accounts. He explained that the money was to be an inheritance to be left to his entire family should he die. His understanding was that this action replaced the necessity of having a will. He told Social Services she did not know about the accounts. In order to try and resolve the situation, Doris had to show that her name was removed from the accounts. When her father understood the impact, he removed her name from the accounts and verification was provided to Social Services. Social Services placed Doris and her children back on assistance but the overpayment for all previous assistance was still to be paid.
Doris tried to discuss the situation further with Social Services, but English was not her first language and she had trouble communicating. Social Services would not change the decision, so she appealed to the regional committee and then the Appeal Board, but was denied. At the appeals she was not provided an interpreter to ensure she clearly understood the process, the questions asked and the policies that were being discussed. The advocate who presented her case was not fluent or knowledgeable in Doris’s first language so could not ensure Doris clearly understood the information. After the appeal, Doris obtained an adult friend as an interpreter and contacted our office.
Our investigation found that Social Services was following policy when it assessed Doris an overpayment for the assistance money received while she was out of the country and when they considered the funds from her sister as available money to support her family.
We found, however, that Social Services could not demonstrate that Doris actually knew about the joint accounts or that she had accessed them. In reality, the money in the accounts had not been available to her.
We found that, in both instances, the situation was made more difficult because of a language barrier. It was not appropriate for the Ministry and Appeal Board to assume that Doris understood all the rules when she had difficulty communicating in English, nor was it appropriate to rely on a minor to interpret the obligations under the social assistance policy and program. Doris needed to understand the reasons for the decisions and she needed to be able to communicate clearly in return. She needed the services of an interpreter and translator in her first language, but she could not afford to pay for this.
To the Ministry of Social Services</5>
1. That the Ministry of Social Services provide interpreter services at no cost to income assistance applicants and or recipients where:
- it appears to ministry staff that the applicant is unable to reasonably appreciate and understand their obligations with respect to receiving social assistance, or
- the applicant or recipient has declared that language will serve as a barrier to their ability to appreciate and understand their obligations required to receive social assistance and that assertion appears to be reasonable.
1. That the Ministry remove the overpayment assessed to Doris based on the decision that she had access to funds in any account held jointly with her father.
To the Social Services Appeal Board
1. That the Social Services Appeal Board consult with the Ministry of Social Services to develop and implement a plan of action that will allow the appropriate appeal panels, both at the regional appeal committee level and at the board level, at their discretion or upon request of a respondent, to provide interpreter services at no cost to an income assistance applicant and or recipient where:
- the applicant is unable to reasonably appreciate and understand the hearing process and requires the assistance of an interpreter to adequately make presentation to the appeal panel and to actively participate in the appeal hearing, or
- the applicant or recipient has declared that language will serve as a barrier to adequately make presentation to the appeal panel and to actively participate in the appeal hearing.