Trying to Succeed
**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.
Dillon, a 20-year-old social assistance recipient, decided to go back to school and complete his Grade 12. He had concerns for his safety in his home community so he moved to a city, where he registered for school and found a place to live. He applied for continued social assistance and began receiving partial benefits while attending school.
His social worker told him that he would have to attend 80% of classes in order to continue receiving benefits. He tried to stay with friends and relatives, but their lifestyles made it difficult for him to get a good night’s rest and attend school. He had to move a couple of times and when he did, the worker held his benefits until he had a valid address, making it difficult when he could not pay rent.
By the end of the fall semester, his attendance was quite low and his social worker again held his benefits. She requested a case planning meeting where she reminded him that his attendance would need to improve, but did not offer any assistance in finding another place to live or making plans to improve attendance. He was left on his own to sort out his problems and stay in school. He tried to attend more regularly, but was still not achieving 80% attendance. At the end of January, his benefits were cancelled.
He wanted to appeal the decision and the school guidance counselor went with him to the Social Services office. The receptionist told them that he could not appeal the decision because he did not have an address. The guidance counselor offered the school’s address, but they were told that this would not work; it had to be a residential address. He was not allowed to speak with his worker because he was now off benefits and therefore had no worker. The guidance counselor was not familiar with the social assistance policies, so did not insist.
Dillon was frustrated and the guidance counselor referred him to an advocate, but he was too upset to pursue the complaint and returned to his home community. The advocate thought it was a worthwhile concern and brought the issue to our attention, although she was not sure if Dillon would pursue the matter.
Our investigation focused on three issues:
Dillon’s urgent need for funding so he could complete school
Dillon did return to the city to restart classes. He re-applied for assistance and since he was expected to graduate in June (less than six months later) and get a job, he was eligible for the Transitional Employment Allowance (TEA) instead of the Social Assistance Program (SAP). He also found a new place to live which was a more supportive environment.
The refusal to accept Dillon’s appeal
The decision not to allow Dillon to appeal because he had no address seemed to be contrary to Social Services’ policy. Dillon’s social worker told us she did not know about his attempt to submit an appeal and that she would have agreed to see him if she had known he came in. Other officials at the Ministry confirmed that, even without an address, he should still have been able to appeal the decision and speak to a worker.
Policies interpreted and applied to vulnerable students, which impact their success
Our investigation found that there is no policy requiring students to attend a certain percentage of classes in order to maintain benefits. Dillon’s worker told us that this requirement was part of the plan she had set up with him, that other workers suggested 80% attendance as a good target, and that Dillon had signed his case plan, thereby agreeing to 80% attendance.
While this may be a reasonable requirement in many cases, it is not policy. The worker did not ask Dillon what level of attendance he thought he could achieve, but took his signature as agreement to 80%. For a vulnerable young adult trying to cope with difficult living arrangements, his level of desperation may easily have outweighed his inclination to challenge her assumptions or explain his situation in greater detail. As a result, the matter was unexplored, he did not have a stable place to live, he failed to attend enough classes, he lost his benefits and then had no income to pay rent, so lost his ability to find another place to live.
In past cases, we have heard reference to a requirement for 80% attendance, so it was clear that this was not a unique target based on Dillon’s needs. There was also no mention of the target in policy, so it was essentially an unwritten rule.
1. That the Ministry ensure its general reception staff have an understanding of the appeal process provided by The Saskatchewan Assistance Act and Regulations to allow them to provide accurate and factual information to the general public when required.
The Ministry confirmed that it will also ensure that all Income Assistance Service Delivery (IASD) staff are reminded of the appeal processes available to clients and that there are processes in place that clients can use to arrange for an appeal if they do not have an address.
2. That the Ministry review the current unwritten rule with respect to school attendance for the adult student receiving benefits while attending high school in consultation with the appropriate officials in the Ministry of Education and respective school divisions to determine if school attendance should be a factor in the continuation of income assistance benefits for the adult student attending a high school program.
The Ministry confirmed that the Saskatchewan Assistance Program manual’s guidelines about case planning are flexible enough to ensure appropriate discretion be used on a case-by-case basis.
3. That the Ministry of Social Services ensures that all high schools across the province are aware of the supports available from the income assistance programs for adult students and that this includes information about the available appeal avenues.
The Ministry sent a letter to senior school board officials to ensure that all high schools across the province would be aware of the supports available from the Income Assistance Programs for adult students, including information about appeal processes.