HALIFAX, FRIDAY, APRIL 6, 2018
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
Mr. Chuck Porter
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. I’d like to get the estimates under way.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Would you please call the estimates for the Department of Community Services and the Minister responsible for the Advisory Council on the Status of Women Act, Resolution E4.
Resolution E4 – Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $989,698,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Community Services, pursuant to the Estimate, and the business plan of the Housing Nova Scotia be approved.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Community Services to give her opening comments.
HON. KELLY REGAN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I am honoured to be here to present the 2018-19 budget for the Department of Community Services. With me today on my left are Lynn Hartwell, who is the Deputy Minister for the department; up in the gallery we have Dan McDougall, who is CEO for Housing Nova Scotia; to my right is Peter Newbery, Director of Budget and Results for Community Services - and he is growing a budget beard. I just wanted to point that out.
Mr. Chairman, at the Department of Community Services we know that Nova Scotians want to be able to provide for themselves and their families. We know that people who struggle to provide food, shelter, and transportation for themselves want to be self-sufficient. They want a chance to build a better life, control their own lives and well-being, and contribute to the prosperity of their province. We know this because over the last three years we’ve reached out to hear directly from the people we serve.
We listened as our clients shared their fears with us, fears of not seeing any way out, clients who wanted to improve their job prospects through training and education, but had no means of doing so. We also reached out to hear from advocates, groups and organizations, communities, individuals, and our own staff who see first-hand what poverty does to lives. They told us the system was complex, the delivery of programs and services inconsistent, the basic needs of clients were not being met, and government policies discouraged people from looking for jobs.
Mr. Chairman, poverty affects people in different ways. Individuals are often in crisis when they come to us - some are managing mental health challenges or fleeing domestic violence; some are trying to get back on their feet after losing their jobs; or they are fighting to become and stay addiction-free. Still others, especially children and youth at risk, don’t have role models to show them what success in life can be or how to reach their potential. People in need, need our support - what they don’t need is a system that judges and polices them.
Mr. Chairman, we want all Nova Scotians to have the dignity, self-esteem, and self-confidence they need to propel their lives forward. That’s why we’ve been transforming the way we work with Nova Scotia’s most vulnerable people. This work is not for the faint of heart, it takes time to bring about the necessary changes so people in need can see and benefit from the results. However, we’re making good progress, progress that I will outline for you now.
Mr. Chairman, when every day is a struggle to feed, clothe, and house yourself and your family you don’t have a lot of time to think about, let alone improve, your job skills so you can find work or better-paying work. But that’s the situation that many of our clients face. As a government, we want to provide vulnerable Nova Scotians with the resources they need and, for those who can, the supports to help them join the workforce. That’s why we’re working to build income security for our clients, income security that will meet the basic needs of vulnerable Nova Scotians.
Our work is comprised of several elements - this year we will begin exempting child support payments from income assistance calculations. This exemption means our clients will no longer lose some of their assistance because of the maintenance payments they receive to help raise their children. We’re also introducing part of the standard household rate and that’s a new wage exemption. That allows people on income assistance to keep more of the money they earn before seeing a reduction in their assistance. This will help our clients stabilize their income while they transition into the workforce. It will also make it easier for them to work - the more they work, the more financially stable they will become.
Mr. Chairman, the fastest-growing group of applicants for income assistance is young, single adults without children. People without children do not have access to the same levels of supports as people with children. That’s why this year we are doubling the poverty reduction credit for single individuals and couples without children. Next year we’ll introduce a standard household rate which will increase the rates for all people on income assistance to the maximum level they’re eligible for. Then we’ll further increase rates by 5 per cent for some clients, and by 2 per cent for all others.
Mr. Chairman, together these changes are helping to build the income security our clients need. The changes we are introducing through ESIA transformation are some of the biggest in a generation. We’re building income security for Nova Scotians in need, and we’re doing it in a way that the province can sustain.
Mr. Chairman, there is more - providing our clients with easier access to their payments and reducing the amount of paperwork they have to complete makes their lives a bit easier, and it reduces stigma and it promotes independence; now people on income assistance have the option of receiving two monthly payments instead of just one a month; and we’ve also implemented an electronic funds transfer so clients can get their payments seamlessly and reliably. These changes, together with our work to build income security for our clients, are helping Nova Scotians on income assistance meet their basic needs and those of their families.
Another key component of government’s work to help all Nova Scotians grow and succeed is the $20 million dollar, four-year poverty reduction blueprint, which we announced last year. The blueprint is founded upon the importance of collaboration within and across governments and communities. Poverty is everyone’s issue, so collaboration is fundamental if we are to effectively break its hold on Nova Scotian lives.
Poverty reduction initiatives focus on community oriented innovation and breaking down the barriers that prevent Nova Scotians from improving the quality of their lives. Projects that receive funding through the blueprint are tested by a variety of sectors including non-profits, community groups, post-secondary institutions, First Nations, as well as municipal and provincial governments.
Over the course of four years, the results of the funded projects will be analyzed to determine their effectiveness at addressing poverty in Nova Scotia. Concepts proven to be effective at reducing poverty will become part of an action plan for reducing poverty still more in the years ahead. This ensures that future poverty reduction efforts will be grounded in approaches that have been proven to work right here in Nova Scotia.
Last year was year one for the province’s poverty reduction portfolio, and the annual themes focused on food security, transportation, and helping youth lead independent adult lives. Poverty reduction projects are supported through three funding streams: community-led projects that aim to reduce poverty in communities; government-led projects through provincial government departments; and social innovation labs designed to tackle food security and worker transportation.
Recently my colleague, the Minister of Communities, Culture and Heritage, and I had an opportunity to announce the first group of community-led projects to receive funding. Projects ranged from community gardens and employment workshops for youth to literacy programs and projects that break down barriers to transportation. Take the Harbour View Elementary outdoor rink, for example. Thanks to the community’s initiative, led by the Take Action Society, the unused rink will not sit idle any longer; instead, it will be transformed into a winterized greenhouse where families and children will learn how to grow food, and it will provide children with year-round access to fresh produce.
There are also two social innovation labs that are tackling complex poverty related issues. One is focusing on ways to provide transportation for CBRM residents so they can get to work; the second is targeting ways to sustainably improve food security for Nova Scotians.
An example of our government-led innovation under the poverty reduction portfolio is a partnership between our colleagues in the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, the Department of Justice Accessibility Directorate, and the Halifax Regional Municipality. The mobile food market will expand to reach communities in need outside metro Halifax, thereby increasing access to quality vegetables and fruit at reduced prices.
Another project is community transit in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. With the help of blueprint funding, a community transit system will be piloted in CBRM to help more people gain access to affordable, accessible, and reliable community transportation. Whether it’s older adults, international students, or our most vulnerable citizens, we need a community transportation system that helps people get to their jobs and to their appointments, and helps them connect to their communities.
I can’t underscore how important it is that people have access to transportation. Without it, people in need can’t get to school, they can’t get to work, they can’t make their medical appointments or participate in community events. Currently, people on income assistance have to provide proof that they require transportation for health and safety reasons, to attend medical appointments, or to participate in employment-related activities before they can receive a transportation allowance. This is an administrative burden for our clients, our caseworkers, and the medical system.
Through blueprint funding and other initiatives, like our agreement with Halifax Regional Municipality, we’re changing that. Soon, we will launch our project with HRM to provide free bus passes to people on income assistance who live near a bus stop. Their spouses and dependants will receive bus passes too, so thousands more people will benefit as a result.
Mr. Chairman, as a person’s immediate need for food, shelter, and transportation are taken care of, people on income assistance who are able to work can focus more on improving their job skills and opportunities for employment. Being gainfully employed not only helps to pay for necessities, it gives people dignity, it increases their sense of self-worth, and it improves the quality of their lives and the quality of their family’s lives.
This department’s ongoing work to transform programs and services is rooted in two priorities - the need and the desire to help transform lives. Our work with young people is all about helping them find a pathway out of poverty, or about finding a way to avoid it all together. Giving vulnerable youth opportunities to further their education and gain practical work experience helps them develop their job skills. It also opens young minds to possibilities and helps shape futures filled with prosperity instead of poverty.
Last summer, 12 employers and 26 high school students participated in the Agricultural Leadership project, which was developed in partnership with the department and the Nova Scotia Co-operative Council. The project supported youth in care and dependants of ESIA clients as they learned employability skills, earned wages, connected to their community, and helped employers meet their local labour market needs.
Mr. Chairman, that project had a lasting impact on both the youth and their employers. For many of the young people, it was meaningful for them to hear that they were good at something and that they brought value to a place. For all of them, it was their first paycheque and they experienced the value and reward of hard work. I have to tell you, the employers, they a saw meaningful way to make an impact in the lives of young people in their communities and they embraced it - several employers even refused the wage subsidy that we provided and they committed to funding the salaries themselves.
Robert Bedard of Scotian Gold, in Coldbrook, Kings County, said it was a win-win opportunity for him. He told us “We were so pleased to offer young students an opportunity to gain work experience, build their confidence, and develop new skills. Supporting our youth and our community is part of our co-operative values.” And one of the youth participants told us “I’d definitely recommend this project to other youth. There are many struggles for teens looking to find jobs and working while they’re enrolled in school. This project removed those struggles, and made it easy for us to get work.” Another one let us know “In the beginning, I wasn’t sure I wanted to learn about farming, but it was a positive experience. It made me feel good, and it really opened my eyes to things I might want to do career-wise. I was able to gain experience working on a local farm, where I learned farm safety skills. The farmer has since hired me to do odd jobs, which is great.”
This year the project will expand to a full program with funds from the Blueprint initiative, so another 60 students and employers can benefit. Mr. Chairman, last year we provided support through the Youth Development Initiative to community organizations including ISANS, Hope Blooms, Whitney Pier Youth Club, Pictou County Roots for Youth, Slate Youth Centre in Truro, the Portal Youth Centre in Kentville, Youth Art Connection and Undercurrent Youth Centre in Glace Bay. With these funds and the leadership of these organizations, young people were able to build their confidence, explore career paths, and gain valuable work experience. We’ll provide similar support to other organizations again this year.
Through our Educate to Work program for dependents, 38 dependents of people on income assistance received financial support to study at the Nova Scotia Community College. Now, this is the first year of the program and we’re optimistic about the impact it will have on supporting these young people to reach their career goals, many of whom are the first in their families to attend post-secondary school.
The program is the first of its kind in Canada and works proactively with young people to provide a continuum of supports starting with funds through our Youth Development Initiative, which I just mentioned, to support career exploration and determining a career goal to funding for a work placement in their field of study, which gives them critical work and networking experience. The support then transfers to the Educate to Work for dependents where 50 per cent of tuition is covered and 100 per cent of all books, fees, and health and dental, for the duration of study. After graduation, we’ll continue to support these young people so they can attach to full-time jobs. We’re confident that by investing over the long term in our young people it will set them up on a better and brighter path toward self-sufficiency and independence.
Mr. Chairman, our clients and others told us about the barriers facing post-secondary students. So, we increased support for the Career Seek program that allows students to remain on income assistance while they attend university. Funding now covers the cost of one year’s tuition, home Internet, books, and student fees. It provides funds to supplement child care and transportation costs, as well as money to help with campus integration, and this reduces the stigma associated with being a student on income assistance.
The department also funds ESIA clients to attend NSCC programming, covering all school-related expenses in order to minimize or eliminate student debt for our clients. In 2017, 198 clients enrolled in programming at the NSCC and I’m always proud when I hear success stories. I’m thinking of a client who is studying social services and is set to graduate in excellent academic standing - I have no doubt he will make important contributions to the social services field throughout his career.
Our post-secondary programming also helps young people and others on income assistance find work in their field of study between semesters, and after graduation by providing job search and wage subsidy support. Building networks and work experience are key to future success. However, post-secondary isn’t a path every person wants to follow and our department needs to have a variety of programs and supports to meet the needs of a diverse clientele. As I mentioned earlier, youth and singles are the fastest-growing portion of our caseload, and we know we have to do something differently in order to start to reverse this trend.
Our preventive work with youth at risk is part of this but we also need to build the right supports for the young people who come to us as our clients. This is why the government invested $1 million to develop an early intervention pilot program for ESIA clients, ages 18 to 24. They are youth who are either ready to work or require only short-term supports to attach to work. We want to support them to move into a youth-focused environment that’s tailored to meet their specific needs, which helps them achieve independence more quickly.
So, when we were building the program we used a human-centric design approach. We engage with ESIA youth clients on the design and validation of the pilot. We want this program to best meet the needs of our youth clients - and who better to tell us how to do this than the people who will actually be using it? The program is set to launch early this summer in two test sites, where it will serve 100 ESIA youth.
Mr. Chairman, helping children and youth in crisis is paramount at Community Services and that’s why we are redesigning Nova Scotia’s child welfare system. Children and youth are often disproportionately the victims of poverty and violence. They are at their most vulnerable when they come into care, and our ability to effectively respond to their needs directly affects the likelihood they will have successful outcomes. We must ensure the supports and placements they need are what they receive.
To this end, the department will expand and diversify placement options for children and youth in care. We are examining opportunities to repurpose existing government facilities and developing specialized services and supports for sexually exploited youth and children with cognitive challenges. Increasing capacity will help ensure that the least restrictive and most appropriate placement is provided for children and youth rather than the placement being based on what is available.
We’re also providing financial support to family members for children who are not in the care of the province but whose parents are temporarily unable or unwilling to care for them. This financial assistance will make it more financially viable for relatives to look after them so these children do not have to come into care of the minister. It also makes more placement options available for children who don’t have family or guardians who can care for them.
Mr. Chairman, we want all children to know and feel the care of a loving home, and that is why we have steadily increased supports for foster parents. Our work to transform our programs and services is making a difference for Nova Scotia foster families who now have more help funding recreational activities for children - there’s a mentoring program for new foster parents, and there’s an on-call peer support program for foster parents seeking advice. We also have increased the respite rate that gives foster parents the opportunity to get much-needed rest or to attend to their family, medical, or personal needs.
I am pleased to report that we now have 665 foster families - that’s 100 more than this time last year.
Mr. Chairman, I want to extend special thanks to the Nova Scotians who open their homes and their hearts to vulnerable children and youth. Their love and caring makes a world of difference to these children, and I thank them.
Mr. Chairman, we recognize that residential supports for people with disabilities need to change to offer more opportunities for community living. Through our investments in the Disability Support Program, we’ll be able to help more people move out of institutions, improve respite care, and provide more support to individuals with complex needs. We are committed to developing eight small options homes, as we heard this morning, as part of a broader initiative to help people transition from larger facility-based supports to community supports. Soon we’ll issue a request for proposals to start development on five of them. This move towards smaller community-based homes will allow residents to live safely and actively within their communities.
When a person is placed in a small options home it is based on priority and that takes into account many factors. As these factors can change at any point in time, it’s impossible to determine an average wait time. A person who is not high on the priority list today could move to the top of the list tomorrow if his or her medical condition or situation changes.
We continue to work with the Adult Residential Centre and Regional Rehabilitation Centre Association and staff to fully understand what we need to have in place as we move away from larger residential settings and transition people safely into the community. This work will continue over time as we are able to ensure the necessary community-based supports are in place.
Mr. Chairman, we know there are children and adults with disabilities whose needs can be more challenging and we want to help them and their families. Our direct support programs help families hire support workers who have specialized training, education, or experience related to the needs of their family members. These programs help families who care for loved ones with a range of physical and/or intellectual disabilities.
Children or adults and their families applying for support and who meet income eligibility receive up to $2,200 per month for respite services. Under the enhanced program, qualifying applicants who are assessed as having greater needs may receive up to an additional $1,600 in support, bringing the total to a maximum of $3,800 per month.
In February, we eliminated the wait-list for the enhanced program to provide families with additional support to care for their loved ones at home. Now children and adults with disabilities, and their families who qualify for more support at home, will receive it without having to wait.
Mr. Chairman, because many families who receive respite funding struggle to find qualified, reliable, respite workers to fulfill this role, we’re also implementing a respite coordination program that will help match eligible participants and their families with potential respite workers. This new program will improve the consistency and effectiveness of respite funding and services of eligible DSP participants.
Mr. Chairman, we are also advancing funding to Autism Nova Scotia to help people with ASD better transition into the workforce. Job coaching will help address the unique needs of people with autism, some of whom have university degrees but are unable to find, and keep, employment.
We’re also working to reduce our wait-list in our community disability support programs so more people will have the supports they need to lead independent lives and participate in their communities. For many of the people we help, our programs and services are an interim solution on the path to self-sufficiency. We’re making that path easier and more efficient.
Mr. Chairman, everyone wants and deserves to live in a stable home where they feel safe and secure, but too many Nova Scotians struggle to find safe, affordable housing. Housing Nova Scotia remains committed to helping seniors, persons with disabilities, and Nova Scotia’s most vulnerable to access affordable housing. In partnership with the federal government, our funding will go toward increasing the supply of new affordable housing units, offering more rent supplements, and investing in home repair and adaptation programs to help low-income homeowners stay in their home.
Our strategic investments and partnerships with communities and private partners are paying off. We’ve reduced our wait-lists by more than 20 per cent since March 2015 and are committed to reducing it by an additional 30 per cent over the next three years. Rent supplements are an effective tool that will help us reach this goal. Through this budget we’ll be able to offer 400 more rent supplements to low-income Nova Scotians. It’s the first year of a three-year commitment to expand the rent supplement program.
Our budget also includes funds to continue helping first-time homebuyers with their down payments. It’s a pilot program we initiated last year and it enjoyed tremendous success. Of course, we need to maintain public housing units and many are in need of renovations. Through the funding provided in this year’s budget, we are able to improve the condition of many of these units so we can ensure these good, affordable homes remain available for those who need them.
Mr. Chairman, 51 per cent of the people in our province are women, but women do not have the same access to economic opportunities and personal safety as men - we need to change that. The Status of Women Office is developing a new action plan aimed at preventing domestic violence. The plan will include engaging with communities to align with current efforts, build on what works, and examine the collective impact. This includes working with victims and others to improve our legislation and infrastructure to help victims of violence get the supports they need to heal, and to put in place policies and interventions that promote gender equality.
Domestic violence is a complex issue that affects all of us and it will take all of us standing together to develop new ways of preventing domestic violence in our communities.
Mr. Chairman, the Community Services budget for 2018-19 is $989,698,000, an increase of $40,077,000, or 4.2 per cent over last year’s budget. I am very pleased to say it contains significant new investments and reflects the real cost of supporting existing participants in our many programs. It also builds on the improvements we’ve made in recent years to help all Nova Scotians grow and succeed.
Before concluding I will extend my personal thanks to the department staff, some of whom are with us today in the gallery. They are devoted to their work on behalf of our clients, and who, through their work, may encounter situations and circumstances that would be unfathomable to most of us. Staff commitment to this work, together with the initiatives in this budget, are helping to transform lives.
I look forward to discussing this budget with my colleagues. I’d like to start with Community Services and Status of Women, and then we can move on to housing-related questions because we will have to bring our CEO of Housing down for that. Mr. Chairman, most Nova Scotians want to be able to provide for themselves and their families; as a government, we want the same for them. Our work to transform how we work will continue to make a difference in the lives of our clients as they build their independence.
Mr. Chairman, I wonder if you could jut let me know what time we started?
MR. CHAIRMAN: We started at 11:00 a.m.
MS. REGAN: Okay, I just want to make sure I get that resolution in at the end.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We will now begin with the PC caucus for one hour.
The honourable member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage.
MS. BARBARA ADAMS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak directly with the Minister of Community Services. When I first got elected we had a wonderful orientation through the Department of Community Services with respect to all of the programs and services, and funding that was available. I want to echo her compliments to all of the departments that work under Community Services and housing, income support, children, youth and families, and the Disability Support Program. These are some of our most vulnerable members of our province. The challenges that they face are often not one-off issues, they are months- and years-long challenges that people face.
I know that the department has been undergoing a tremendous review and renovation of all the programs that they offer. So, last time when we had this opportunity I spoke in more generalities, but since we’ve been here in this position for several months now, the questions are going to be a little different this time. So, the first thing I want to reference is the report from the Office of the Ombudsman, Annual Report 2016-17. I have copies I’d like to table, as well to provide a copy to the minister and to the member for Dartmouth North.
One of the things that I’m aware of is that my constituency assistant, Lisa Rochon, mans the office and gets the majority of phone calls from constituents. When I ask her and other members of my caucus, what are the greatest number of complaints, concerns, and calls you get, and which department do they relate to, they will tell me they relate to Community Services. That’s no surprise - and I’m seeing nods from across the aisle.
When I reviewed the Office of the Ombudsman Report from 2016-17, and I’m referencing Page 28 in particular, the number of Community Services complaints in 2014-15 was 224; in 2015-16 that had increased to 364; and in the year 2016-17, the last one reviewed, it was 460. So, over the last two years the number of complaints has doubled. It certainly doesn’t reflect all complaints, because I know how many my office gets every year.
I know that we are asked to split this discussion into community services and then housing, but I just want to reference a couple of numbers. The number of complaints for three of the four departments remained fairly steady over those two years; the number of complaints for children, youth and families in 2014-15 was 43 complaints; in 2015-16 the number of complaints was 174. So, I don’t know how much that is, but that looks like at least a 300 per cent increase; and in 2016-17 it was 276 complaints. So, out of 460 total, more than half were for children, youth and families, and we went from 43 complaints two years before that, to 276.
So, I appreciate that the department is working very hard to try to bring in new programs, oversight, but children, youth and families are calling our office in record numbers. In particular, I have five sets of grandparents who have had major issues with custody, visitation, and fostering of their children.
The first thing I want to talk about and the first question I have for the minister is I know what we’re getting called about in terms of complaints, but I wonder if the minister for the record, could she describe what the complaints are that she’s getting for income assistance, to start with?
MS. REGAN: At Community Services, we deal with often the most intimate details of people’s lives, so you know I’m not surprised there are complaints. There can be a variety of different reasons why there are complaints. If we look at Employment Support and Income Assistance, I would say that we would see complaints sort of being grouped under two different areas.
The first would be simply around the amount, and there’s often advocacy from people around that - they want to receive more income assistance, special diets, things like that. The second area where we would hear from people would be around the decision made - why was the decision made, not understanding what the process is. So, I think what we have been encouraging our caseworkers to do is develop relationships with our clients so that they can have those conversations with people. Also, we need to make sure that we’re explaining the process how we determine things, because often people don’t understand what the process is and they may have certain expectations that we’re simply not able to meet.
MS. ADAMS: I appreciate that some of the calls and complaints may be that people want more money - and I’ll look up to my assistant to see if I’m incorrect - but the majority of calls we get is that someone’s income has been cut off without any warning. Their rent has been cut off without any warning and, as you were talking, I had another text from someone who is not a constituent, but they were giving me permission to ask not a specific question about this person, but the last statement that they made was this person had been cut off because they were being asked by their caseworker to provide a document on any update in child support payments.
The person had supplied them with the latest documents from the court with respect to child support payments. The caseworker kept saying you have to give me more information, I need the latest case, and they’re saying there is no more latest case, so the caseworker - I just had this, it says the physician who is involved in this case, who is deeply worried about this particular person’s mental health as well as their physical health, gave permission to talk to me and for me to talk to them and to talk to the caseworker.
So, the doctor, after being given permission to speak to the caseworker, the caseworker refused to speak with the doctor and they have suspended this person’s benefits, have not answered this person’s emails, and will not take any phone calls. So she is now without income. This is not a one-off; these calls come in all the time. They are not asking for more money. They were given benefits; they understand the limitations of those benefits - they want to know why they got cut off. These people are getting cut off from benefits and there’s no warning. If a letter goes out, it doesn’t come for weeks after the benefits have been cut off. I don’t know if anyone in this House could live like that, with their income being cut off.
So, I’m going to ask again, with respect to the complaints about benefits getting cut off, what is the department’s policy on notifying people that their benefits are being cut off - is it in writing, is it an email, is it a letter, is it a phone call? And is there some opportunity to improve this process, because I guarantee you if I’m getting these phone calls, so is every other MLA’s constituency assistant.
MS. REGAN: Sometimes it’s a letter and sometimes it’s a phone call; if we’re not able to reach someone by letter, it may be whatever works best in that particular situation. It would be highly unusual that someone was surprised by income assistance being cut off; usually, folks will know in advance that something is happening.
I would, just as a suggestion - and this is what I would have done before I became Community Services Minister - but if I had a call in my office where I had someone who was saying to me, I’m being cut off, I don’t understand why, I’ve done nothing wrong, and I’ve provided everything I possibly can, I would contact my local Community Services office and ask to speak to a supervisor or a manager, particularly if the honourable member has the consent form. The supervisor or manager can walk you through what is happening in this particular case, and she’ll be better able to understand what has happened because often, when we’re MLAs we only hear one side of the story, and I think it’s just important to know what is going on in that case.
If there is continued concern about that decision, of course you can move on up the food chain, but that’s why I’m here, that’s why my assistant is here, if you need assistance in a case like that where you feel that something is not happening properly. I would just say that I don’t think I ever had a case when, I was a private member, or even when I was Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, where I didn’t get an answer from DCS that made it clear to me why things were happening as they were.
MS. ADAMS: I am going to reference what the minister just said, that it would be highly unusual that people wouldn’t know that their payments are going to be cut off, and my assistant in the gallery is nodding that we get a lot of calls from people who are shocked that they’re being cut off. So, if there’s a policy where sometimes it’s a letter, sometimes it’s a phone call, I would suggest to the minister that there should be a standard policy that you should not be cut off unless you have been notified, and there’s a time period with which you can make the request to have that reviewed.
One of the other things that my assistant reminded me of just today, is that in almost every case, if not all cases, when she makes the phone call to Community Services on behalf of this person who is distraught by the time they call us, it gets reinstated almost immediately. So, it begs the question, why did it get cut off in the first place? We don’t believe for a minute it got reinstated because we made the phone call, it got reinstated because there was glitch in the process along the way. I don’t want anybody thinking an MLA has the power to call up Community Services and get their benefits reinstated, but in all of these cases, and there’s quite a number of them, we have called on behalf of the person who is upset and those benefits got reinstated right away.
Of course, there was one we’ve talked about during Question Period that made the news, where somebody was cut off and there was no explanation given, and when it hit the news and then I called the office and they re-evaluated it, right before they were set to be meeting with me, those benefits got reinstated. I will suggest that it’s not highly unusual at least for my office, and perhaps I get - and these are not people from around the province, these are my constituents calling me to talk about it. It’s fairly rare that I get calls from around the community, but certainly that is changing.
So, the next thing that I want to talk about is getting cut off without warning is one of the most traumatic things that happens to people, but the other thing that is happening is that people are bringing to our attention, in terms of complaints, that they are getting letters that have no names of a caseworker on them, they’re unsigned, it just says Department of Community Services. I brought this up to the minister before. So, that’s one of the things.
The other thing is there is sometimes a hostile attitude towards people who are calling. I am certainly well aware that there is equal hostility at times from people calling in to Community Services and I personally could not do the job; I don’t think my heart could take it - I think telling somebody they’re not eligible for benefits for various reasons would be gut-wrenching.
I am just saying I know this is a contentious department, but I do know that even sometimes when I call in there is a bit of an attitude talking to me, and certainly I hope I’m speaking respectfully, but I do think there can be continued work in this area because we do hear that a lot.
One of the other issues I had raised by someone - this person was left homeless so when they wanted to apply for benefits they couldn’t apply because they had no fixed address, so they were temporarily having to say they were living at a parent’s home in order to have a fixed address, and I’m just wondering if the minister can clarify for me, if someone in our province is homeless, what the exact policy is for them to apply? This person had applied when they were temporarily living with a friend, but that friend said you can’t stay here so their application through one department was now closed and they were now living with another friend. They were in metro so they applied through them and it got turned down for a couple of reasons and they were dealing with those, but now they had to leave that person and go live with somebody else temporarily but they were told they couldn’t continue with the application for the original department - they were going to have to start a whole new application.
I’m just wondering for the homeless of our province, whom I would argue would be the most vulnerable, how do we have it that if you are homeless you can’t apply unless you have a place to live?
MS. REGAN: There was kind of a lot in there so I’m going to try and move through there. In terms of notification that you are being cut off benefits, it’s always in writing, and there may be a phone call in addition. Sometimes people don’t open their mail and sometimes caseworkers know that so they will follow up with a phone call, but it is always in writing.
I would say that as our system exists currently, sometimes decisions, it’s subjective. These are human beings who are making a decision, and I want to make sure the honourable member knows that you can get an administrative review of a decision if someone disagrees with it and then from that we can work our way up through - there’s an appeal process as well. I understand that people are waiting, but there is an administrative review and you can ask to have a decision looked at.
Part of what we’re trying to do through transformation is to move from a mindset that has existed throughout society that people who end up on social assistance that they’ve done something wrong or there’s something wrong with them, or they don’t want to work or whatever. We’re trying to move from a system that was designed that way to one that starts with yes - we want to find out what a person’s needs are and move on from there. So, we’re moving from one that looks at your current situation to what your needs are, to an entitlement system that you are entitled to X, not this is what your rent costs, but this is what you get for rent, and everybody gets the most.
It used to be that we would look at who you were living with and that kind of thing - we are trying to move away from that.
You can apply for social assistance if you don’t have a fixed address. If you are living in a shelter, your needs, according to the system as it currently exists, are already being met - you are receiving shelter, you are receiving food. You are not going to get money for that if you are living in the shelter; however, we’re trying to move to a more seamless system where people don’t have to reapply if they move to a different place. We’re trying to remove some of the stigma for our clients and make it easier for them. This is a change, it’s not happening overnight, but we’re working on that path.
MS. ADAMS: I thank the minister for that answer. I will ask, when a letter is sent out to someone saying that their benefits, whether it’s rent, food, or whatever, are being cut off, is there a notice period so that - you know, your rent or whatever will be cut off in 30 or 60 days, or how much notice does somebody have?
MS. REGAN: There is, in fact, a policy manual. It’s online, but I don’t have it here with me. There is a notice period, but I just cannot tell you, off the top of my head.
MS. ADAMS: I look forward to hearing how long that delay, grace period, is and I would encourage the minister if it is very short, such as a week or two, that perhaps look at it being extended, because of all the phone calls we get I don’t know what it is costing the government to have every MLA in the province answering those questions - but an extended grace period for people to make alternate arrangements or to appeal and to have an administrative review would certainly be appropriate.
One of the questions or issues that comes up quite a bit is that the application for Community Services benefits has to be initiated by a phone call. There is not an online application, that I am aware of, and for those who are quite distraught, who don’t have the ability to come in to our office for assistance, I am wondering why, for every other program under the sun that I can think of where you can make an application online, why do we not have an online application process that can, at least, start it so that the person is aware of what documents they have to write down? I know that when I have constituents come in, they have to call in front of us and then we help them get a list of what it is they need to collect.
I’ve asked Community Services a number of times, how come there is not a list already online so that somebody can just be sent, here’s all the documents you are going to need for an initial consult, because it seems to be the only department that is not doing that already, and with the advantages in technology I think it is something we should be moving towards.
MS. REGAN: I could not agree with the honourable member more and, in fact, we actually have a digital transformation project under way to do exactly that because, first of all, it’s much easier if you know everything that you are going to have to have. In fact, we heard from our clients when we went out to consult that this is something they wanted; that they wanted to be able to access this information online.
We think it is part of good government and I think - and I don’t know if the RFP has gone out, but we expect that the digital transformation will be ready in early 2019, so I am happy to share that with the honourable member, and could not agree more.
MS. ADAMS: Well, that was easy. Thank you very much. I appreciate that. It is always good when we agree.
The second thing that I want to move on to, although I could stay on that one for quite a while but I’m mindful of time, the budget that was documented in the Estimates and Supplementary Detail, on Page 6.7 for Community Services, talks about the budget for the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
I remember when I had first been told that the budget was around $9 million, that I thought it was too little money, although the Advisory Council for the Status of Women makes no bones about the fact that they are doing great work with that amount of money - and I want to acknowledge that.
Of course, there is an additional $2 million for the provincial Domestic Violence Action Plan, and as we’ve talked in the Legislature during Question Period a number of times and as the Community Services Committee meets, we had met with the group who had been responsible for the $6 million, three-year grant for a strategy to reduce sexualized violence and, as we know, their funding ended. I realize that we are having $2 million for an action plan to prevent domestic violence, the grant for the previous $6 million has now ended, so I’d like to ask the minister, what is a new sexualized violence strategy going to look like and when might that start?
MS. REGAN: I want to let the honourable member know that we’re actually continuing sexual violence prevention grants in this budget although the strategy ended. We did see value there. What we did hear when we were out in the community was there were certain groups that - had not been ignored, but we weren’t reaching in terms of sexual violence prevention and that was young people.
We know that young people are disproportionately more affected by sexualized violence, and women in marginalized communities. So, we are actually just in the process of rolling out another round of sexual violence prevention grants - $775,000 I think we have under sexual violence prevention this year. Those grants are going out and they will be focusing more on those issues that have previously not received the kind of attention.
I would just say off the top that I was talking a bit about some of our staff who are here, and up in the gallery today we are joined by Heather Ternoway, who is a bright young woman who works at the Office of the Advisory Council on the Status of Women. There are some really terrific organizations that are being funded. I think this morning, on the radio, I may have heard from a teacher who was doing one of the Girl on Fire projects that is getting funding. There’s one at Sackville, there’s one at Millwood, and those are the ones that sort of stuck in my mind from going through that list - there are a number of them that are rolling out over this next little while.
We are continuing that work while we are also focusing on the issue of domestic violence; so that work continues, too. It will be along the same kind of work where we have grants going out in community to mobilize the community against domestic violence. I often think of the MADD campaign and how it took a number of years to change attitudes around an issue like drinking and driving - it was once widely accepted; it is no longer. Part of that was around educating the population. I think that is something that we continue to have to work on in terms of sexual violence obviously because it still exists, and domestic violence. If you told me that I would be standing here today in 2018 still talking about the issue of domestic violence I think the 20-year-old me would be shocked.
I have a book sitting in my desk here at the Legislature and it is on the beginnings of the transition house movement in Canada and talking about the role that Chatelaine magazine played, for example, which at the time was extremely progressive and they didn’t have anything like that in the United States - that was sort of a mainstream women’s magazine that was bringing to the forefront those issues.
I honestly hoped that we would not be here still talking about sexualized violence and domestic violence in 2018 but, unfortunately, we are, so we will continue to focus efforts on combatting sexualized violence with communities because they know what works in their area and what the issues are in their area, and we’ll be rolling out the domestic violence strategy as well later this year.
MS. ADAMS: I echo the minister’s comments, it would be a wonderful thing if we didn’t have to talk about any kind of violence in this House, but of course that’s not the reality of today.
I’m a little - not confused, but wondering, you mentioned that you were going to have the $775,000 grant to address issues that were not necessarily addressed by the previous grants.
I know that the minister, as well as the rest of us, received letters from Georgia Barnwell, the coordinator of Women’s Centres Connect, asking for the Department of Health and Wellness to expand the existing specialized sexual violence trauma therapeutic counselling program. I’m also aware that Minister Casey received a letter from the same person saying that they have identified as a first priority the expansion of a specialized sexual violence trauma therapeutic counselling service across the province.
I’m just wondering if that therapeutic counselling service is still included in this budget. Are they going to have to apply for a grant?
MR. CHAIRMAN: I’ll remind the honourable member not to use the name of a minister here in the House, but their department.
The honourable Minister of Community Services.
MS. REGAN: Previously there was $300,000 that had been transferred over to the Department of Health and Wellness for trauma counselling. That has gone there to the Department of Health. They have that divided up among four different organizations that provide the trauma-centred counselling. So that exists there.
I did want to share with you that, in addition to the sexual violence grants that we are continuing to roll out under prevention and early intervention initiatives, there’s also nearly $400,000 that we have historically always given to Avalon and the Colchester Sexual Assault Centre. There is money for that in our budget this year, in Community Services.
Over at Justice, there’s $90,000 for an independent legal advice program. It’s a pilot and training for Crowns on sexual violence. I would note as well that we hired two sexual assault prosecutors - the Prosecution Service did. Because that’s always arm’s length, we don’t say “we.” The Prosecution Service has hired two sexual assault prosecutors, and they’re responsible for not only prosecuting cases of sexual assault, but they’re also responsible for training other Crowns in how to do this.
As well, over at Health and Wellness, we expanded the SANE program in this province. Back when I was sitting in your chair, it was only available in two locations. Now it’s up to $1.36 million. Then there is also the trauma therapy money as well.
MS. ADAMS: One of the things that we never talk about, or rarely talk about, in the Legislature is men who have been sexually assaulted. Unfortunately, now that we are actually starting to talk about it, the disturbing information is that it’s far more common than we realize.
I know we don’t have a council for the status of men, so I don’t know who exactly is going to take on that issue. But I know, from talking to counsellors who work with men who are abusers, that that is often one of the contributing circumstances - men go from being abused sexually, not just physically, to being violent abusers, especially in domestic cases.
I know that we don’t have a council for the status of men, but I’m just wondering if the minister is aware - well, I know she is aware of that issue. I’m wondering how the Council for the Status of Women can help to address this growing issue with men.
MS. REGAN: In fact, there is trauma counselling money available through the Department of Health and Wellness for New Start and ManTalk. There is counselling money there.
So much of life has been dominated by men that I don’t think there would be an advisory council on the status of men, because that’s everyday life, right? But I don’t want to make light of the fact that men can be assaulted. We particularly see this with vulnerable groups. LGBTQI young people are at more risk, for example. Some of our sexual violence strategy grants, in fact, went to organizations that work with more vulnerable young people.
There is definitely money out there. I don’t know if I have the list of all of the grants that are going out. It’s probably here somewhere in a pile on my desk. There are grants that are going out to work with vulnerable groups, and that includes young males, as well as young people who have been involved in the sex trade. That can happen with any gender.
MS. ADAMS: I did have an opportunity to go over to New Start and to meet with the director. If I understood her correctly, their department is quite small. I believe the budget has not been increased for quite a number of years.
They have a very small staff - I think it’s only two full-time counsellors - and they have a huge wait-list. The number of people they’re able to take in is incredibly small. They have independently tried to expand what they’re doing from treating the men who are (Interruption) New Start Counselling.
It’s one of the few organizations that is actually trying to work with the men - it’s the majority - who are the abusers and are referred to their department by the police department and by physicians.
I hate to say it, but it was exciting to hear that there was prevention of future abuse going on. They have also tried to expand that to work with the women of the abuser - not necessarily to try to preserve the relationship, but maybe even to protect the relationship as they separate. As we know, the separation time is the most critical and worrisome time for future abuse.
They have recently also started to treat the children because they’re looking 30 years down the road. The child who is witnessing the abuse is the very person who may become the abuser down the road. They’re trying to expand their services without having any increase in funding. Yes, I know that they can apply for grants, but you can’t consistently hire people on short-term grants.
I’m just going to ask the minister if she would consider looking at increasing their funding. I believe this type of program is only available in four locations around the province. Given the cost to society and the fact that you introduced legislation last night to protect women who have been abused and want to leave, programs that are actually trying to prevent this abuse seem to me a worthy place to increase our budgets.
MS. REGAN: I also wanted to reference the expansion of our Domestic Violence Court. It began up in Sydney. I got to go up there when I was sitting in the honourable member’s shoes and see the court in action. Then we recently announced the opening of the Halifax court here. It’s a more family-centred process that happens. Again, I’m not happy that we have to have a Domestic Violence Court, but I’m delighted to see that we have been able to do this expansion because I think it works better for families.
We do fund men’s intervention programs. There are five of them across the province: New Start, in Halifax; the Family Service of Western Nova Scotia, which is in Bridgewater; Bridges, which is in Truro; New Directions, which is Amherst, Cumberland County; and New Leaf, which is under Pictou County Opportunity for Men. They do receive cost of living increases, as negotiated.
That’s not funded out of the Status of Women, which is not a department. It is an office. It doesn’t get the kind of funding that a department gets. It is an office.
That actually comes out of our Child, Youth and Family Supports budget. That’s where you’ll find that money.
MS. ADAMS: Thank you for the clarification that it’s five programs. According to New Start, they haven’t had an increase beyond the cost of living in 10 years. I guess what I’m wondering is, given the huge economic, health care, and societal costs of abuse, would it not be time for these departments to get a budget increase beyond the cost of living?
MS. REGAN: We have lots of organizations that do work like this for us, and I’m always happy to consider that. We also are in the same situation with transition houses, for example. There’s lots of important work being done around this province, and they all do very worthy work.
I would say that there will be opportunities for a number of these organizations to get grant funding. We just spoke about grant funding, but there will be opportunities there under the domestic violence strategy for them to be able to do additional meaningful work and see more come into their organization.
MS. ADAMS: I just want to state that I know that we provide funding to treat people after the abuse has happened. But as a health professional, I know that sexual and physical abuse that happened 10, 20, or 30 years ago still manifests itself in chronic pain, depression, and anxiety. Programs that are actually helping to prevent future violence, to me, should have a priority all of their own because then we would hopefully reduce the rate of abuse. Right at the moment, we’re not winning that war in any way.
I’m going to encourage the department to continue looking at that in the next budget year. I’ll certainly encourage all of those who do provide that kind of prevention of abuse to apply for all of the grants that they can.
You wanted to separate housing out, and they’re not here, so I can’t ask those questions because my time is going to be this hour.
I want to move on to Child, Youth and Family Supports. The majority of the complaints that were filed - 276 out 460 - were for that department. As I have mentioned during Question Period a number of times, if we’re not getting income assistance questions, I have been getting a whole slew of them from grandparents of children in care. The majority of it surrounds not necessarily the end result but the difficulty in communicating with people from that department.
For example, I was on the phone with somebody just yesterday about a family - I don’t want to give too many details. The gist of the issue was that grandparents who did not have custody of a grandchild but wanted to have visitation had no rights. The department is not their caseworker, and even though they have gone through lawyers to try to gain access, there is nobody responsible for responding to them. They said to me, the person that I’m responsible for as the caseworker is the child. It’s not even the other parent or grandparent who actually has custody of the child. It’s the child that they’re representing. They were encouraged, over a couple of years, to work it out with the other set of grandparents. But there are no rights enshrined. There are no policies.
I asked, what’s the policy? Who gets to decide? The department explained to me that, in the circumstance that I was talking about, it was the mother of the child. Even though she didn’t have care or custody of the child at the moment, she was the one who could determine whether this set of grandparents could have access to the child from the other set of grandparents. When I spoke to someone else yesterday, they said, no, it’s this person who has the right to make the determination. When I talked to a third person, they said, it depends on the circumstance.
I have five sets of grandparents who are confused as to what their rights are. Given the fact that, at least in my case, there seems to be an increased number of grandparents being willing to take on care and custody of children, especially those who are in danger, I’m just wondering if the department is also hearing this concern. What actions has the department taken to make this process less difficult for grandparents of children in the care of the province?
MS. REGAN: I just want to make sure I am understanding whether you mean a custody battle between parents or a child in care of the minister. I’m going to answer as best I can. I think there are two different things going on in some cases.
When a child comes into the care of the minister - let’s say parents can’t look after their child - we would, as part of the process, look at whether there were other options there. In fact, this budget contains money so that we can help families. If parents are temporarily unable to look after their children, we have money in the budget to help grandparents who may not be financially able to do it but who have the ability to do it. There is money there in the budget to help support them through that process. We always do look at whether there are other relatives who might be able to look after these children. At the very centre of the decisions that are made is what is best for the child.
We can’t always share some of the concerns that there might be with grandparents or a situation. We can’t always share that with you. What I can tell you is that we do look at what is best for the child. If grandparents can take custody of children - in a case where the parents are not able to - whether it’s temporarily or permanently, the department doesn’t want to take children into the custody of the minister who shouldn’t be there. That is not what we are about. We are there to make sure that those young people have the best care possible. Sometimes that is grandparents. Sometimes that’s another relative. Unfortunately sometimes, it’s the care of the minister and a foster family. There are always a variety of reasons that go into that.
MS. ADAMS: I totally agree with the concept that it is the children that we always have to be mindful of. I will just share a story. Unfortunately, I have too many of them to share. In this particular case, one set of grandparents had made several attempts to reach the department to discuss the issues so that they could try to gain unsupervised visitation with the grandchild. Eventually, they hired a lawyer and tried to go through that process, and they kept being told to just try to work it out with the other grandmother. Just try to work it out. Finally, they reached out to me, and I wrote a letter to the department on January 11th. I had no response - no response at all. I called and called and called. I finally got somebody to talk to me yesterday. We’re talking two months where even I couldn’t get an answer. This isn’t a one-off. This isn’t an exception - or maybe it is an exception. These are things that are happening, and so I just wanted to draw the minister’s attention to that.
I have another situation I want to draw your attention to. Sometimes when these things happen, I’m kind of like, really? This isn’t right. I have another set of grandparents who had two children taken away from the mother and put into their care. They were looking after the children. They attempted to get foster care status, and I won’t go into why that process never got moved forward. They reached the point where there had to be a decision made, and they weren’t able to apply for foster care status, so they were going to move to adoption status.
These people, one is retired, and the other one is working full-time hours. They had been looking after two very small children - who are adorable I have to say - and they were given a stack of documents to apply for adoption and told, here you go. The caseworker handed it to them and said, if you want, you can have half an hour of free legal advice about how to fill them out. They were like, you’re kidding. This is the biggest decision they’re ever going to make, and it is a very, very complex set of documents you have fill out. They have been looking after those kids so that they don’t have to be in the care of the government because that’s the only last resort.
They called back because we already had a relationship and said, “We don’t even know how to fill these out. We have a free half-hour with the lawyer, but that’s going to go real quick. Will you come with us?” I went with them.
He won’t like me admitting it, but we ended up staying for an hour and a half because I had so many questions. I wanted to be sure that I did the best for them. He was given a half an hour to give them free legal advice to do adoption documents.
They kept them, and they tried to go through them. Then they ended up bringing them back to the office three days before the deadline. They couldn’t fill them out. Together we sat there for six hours, and we filled them out. I pray to God that I did it right. I hope that my not being a lawyer does not impact these people’s ability to do what they want to do.
I just don’t understand why a half an hour of free legal advice is sufficient and why we are not funding them more. If they fail, these children are going to end up in the care of the government, and that’s going to cost us a whole lot more than a half an hour of legal advice.
I’m just wondering if the minister can comment on that half-hour of legal advice and whether she thinks it’s sufficient or whether there’s something more that we could be doing to help grandparents who are willing - even in their retirement - to take on very young children and commit to raising them to the best of their ability?
MS. REGAN: Sorry, I’m not sure I caught the question at the end.
MS. ADAMS: The question is, does the minister believe that that half an hour of legal advice is sufficient for anyone who is looking to adopt a child to take on the permanent role, or whether there is a potential here to increase that funding for the most critical process for children in care?
MS. REGAN: I just want to be clear with the honourable member. If there is ever any problem where you don’t get an answer back from Community Services, I want to know about it because that’s not acceptable. I don’t think that’s the way things usually work. That’s why it’s good to go through my assistant, who will make sure that you get an answer back. I do feel that it’s important that folks have a way in.
We can’t always solve every family problem. Sometimes things have to go to court, et cetera, but I do want to make sure that you do hear back when you write letters.
Again, any time that you want to come in, sit down with a permission form, and walk through a situation with our workers, we’re happy to arrange that. I would make that offer to any member of the House. If there’s a situation that concerns them in their riding, we have a really great team that looks out for children, and we would make sure that you feel comfortable in decisions that are being made.
In terms of the adoption subsidies, we have hundreds that go through every year. We do provide that half-hour as free legal advice. If there were limited financial means and someone needed assistance, you can actually apply for an adoption subsidy. I would just make you aware of that as well. It’s a big decision to adopt somebody. It’s a final decision. When we’re allowing children to be adopted, we want to make very sure that they’re going to the right place.
I’m actually the parent of two adopted children, which is really bizarre because I actually gave birth to them. After I was widowed, when I married Geoff, after six months he was legally able to adopt those children. I had to adopt them too because, otherwise, he would have been the only parent because he would have adopted the children and I would not have had parental rights. I actually had to adopt my own children. That’s just one of those weird, bizarre things in the law, so I get it.
But we weren’t allowed to do that right away. There was a time limit on, and that is because the work that we do is in the best interest of the child.
MS. ADAMS: I would encourage the minister to try to change that rule if she has the opportunity to do so.
My final question with the time that I have here is, I had a circumstance where there was an issue in the home, and child protective services intervened. They implemented a policy that the family had to abide by, which they were doing. There was supposed to be a review after a few weeks to see if they could reduce the limitations of the policy that the family had to go under. I won’t get into the details because I don’t want to reveal any of that.
The review date got cancelled twice. It was going to reach a point where it was going to go over the holiday time period. Instead of it being a three-week restriction with a review and then maybe another three lighter weeks with a review, it was going to end up a three-month pretty significant restriction. When the family that were undergoing it tried to call to get things rescheduled, they didn’t get any phone calls back. Again, they called me, and then I called, and then we got a response.
I’m just wondering, not specific to their case, but given the 276 complaints for Child, Youth and Family Services, what were the majority of the complaints that you received? What did the department do to address those complaints?
MS. REGAN: We actually stay in very close contact with the Ombudsman on that particular issue. The deputy tells me that the majority of our complaints in that particular area are actually young people who are in our residential facilities who don’t like some aspect of what’s going on. They may want to go to a different placement. They may be upset because someone has told them they can’t use their cellphone at a certain time, whatever. Because those complaints now include complaints by youth in care, which happened beginning in 2015, we now have complaints from youth in care, where we didn’t before. So you do see a big rise, and that’s because a new group has been added in. I must say that we work closely with the Ombudsman on issues of this sort.
MS. ADAMS: With the few seconds I have left, do you have any sense of how those complaint numbers for Community Services were for 2017-18?
MS. REGAN: I don’t have a specific number at this time, but I can tell you that the Ombudsman does continue to travel around the province to meet with young people who are in our facilities. That’s part of the work that they do at that office, and so . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the PC caucus has expired.
We shall take a short recess.
[12:31 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[12:34 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: We will now call the committee back to order.
The honourable member for Dartmouth North for the NDP caucus.
MS. SUSAN LEBLANC: I’ll start with a clarification on something that the minister said when the PC caucus was asking questions. There was a question about the Career Seek program. In the minister’s answer, she mentioned that one year of tuition is paid. Is that accurate for Career Seek? Oh, sorry. Maybe it was in your preamble.
MS. REGAN: That is correct. Career Seek provides one year of tuition, funding for all books and fees for all years of study, home Internet, up to $500 per semester for child care and transportation, and $500 per semester for campus integration. It’s one year of tuition, yes.
MS. LEBLANC: How much did the department spend on external consultants last year? I’m wondering if the department or the minister could provide us a list of each contract, the amount, and the types of services that were contracted.
MS. REGAN: Apparently, we had the list last year. We don’t have the list this year. It’s on various lines, so I can’t just sort of pull it out and say, here it is. We can get that to you, absolutely.
MS. LEBLANC: I’m wondering if there is any money allocated in this budget for a review of the child protection cases where Motherisk testing was used. The minister has repeatedly said in the House that if people came forward, they would investigate that. I’m wondering what the process will be and what kind of supports will be made available to the families that do come forward.
MS. REGAN: There isn’t a budget line for the Motherisk review or anything like that. There is a review under way in the department. We are going through cases to find out where Motherisk actually was used so we can see if there are cases where that was the determining factor in a child coming into care. We haven’t uncovered any yet where that was the determining factor, but we’re continuing to go through the list.
MS. LEBLANC: It’s good to hear that you are going through the cases without people coming forward. I’m glad to hear that.
Is there any budget allocation to address the need to develop policies around securing citizenship for children in care?
MS. REGAN: Just to set the member’s mind at ease, as of February 2018, there were 619 children in permanent care and custody in Nova Scotia, and all children currently in the permanent care and custody of the minister are Canadian citizens. Unlike some of my PT colleagues, we don’t have a lot of children who come into our care who are not citizens. I do want to assure the honourable member that we are, in fact, engaging outside legal counsel in issues where we would have an issue of citizenship. We are learning from what we have seen across the country and what we have heard from across country from our PT colleagues as well.
MS. LEBLANC: In my own office and as the spokesperson for Community Services, I have been hearing from an awful lot of families and also workers in the child protection system. They’re worried about the new legislation with the tightened timelines around coming to a resolution about where a child might be permanently, either in their own home, in the home of someone else, or in the care of the province. Given the high caseloads, and the greater complexity of caseloads that we see nowadays, and also the closure of some offices, everyone in the system is worried that the proper analysis of a situation will not be done in time for the tightened timelines.
I’m wondering if the department has given any attention to this in terms of budgetary support so that we make sure that children and families get the proper attention they need before they need to go and have a final decision made.
MS. REGAN: In terms of the legislation, I’m not sure that it’s the legislation that is driving some of the changes that we’re seeing. We do know that our caseload is actually below the national average. The national average is 20 per social worker, and our latest average is 15. Next month, it might spike up. It goes up and down, so I don’t want to say that’s the be-all and end-all.
We aren’t seeing caseloads that are above the national average. What we are seeing are more complex cases, as the honourable member alluded to. We are seeing more cases with addictions and more cases with mental health issues. Sometimes that necessitates a return to court more often than you would see in other cases.
There’s more of a focus now on doing things up front and trying not to get to a place where we are going to court. There is more focus on that. I would say that where we have seen caseloads spike on occasion, we have been able to move in resources from elsewhere. I think we had 14 that we moved about so that we could make sure that offices that actually needed assistance got it. We also have floating managers now. They can come in and help in offices where we see a change. Sometimes you have offices that just have more complex cases, and there’s a lot going on. We do have flexibility to do that.
The other thing I would say is that in the past, it would take a while to hire a social worker. We now have a permanent pool of social workers we can draw from so that those jobs are filled quickly. They are job one because we have to make sure that we are protecting children.
MS. LEBLANC: There is about $6.6 million allocated this year to poverty reduction for the poverty reduction blueprint and transformation projects. How much of that will go directly to people in Nova Scotia who are living in poverty?
MS. REGAN: The grant money that is going out under the Poverty Reduction Strategy, I had articulated the three streams there - the innovation labs, the community grants, et cetera. That money is to do things in communities that will alleviate poverty. In some cases, it may involve transportation money or wage subsidies if that is the project that gets approved. It may be that, or it may be about alleviating the conditions and not seeing actual cold, hard cash.
What we do have in the budget to alleviate the effects of poverty is $5.1 million for the ending of the clawback of maintenance enforcement for that, $3.3 million for the Poverty Reduction Credit, and then $3 million towards the change allowing our clients to keep more of the money they earn if they go out to work. We’re making a variety of different investments around that separate from the poverty reduction strategy, which is about mobilizing community and making changes in conditions, as well as having more money going into the pockets of Nova Scotians so they can choose to do with it what they will.
MS. LEBLANC: Hearing that then, I have two questions. I just want to confirm that there’s no increase in the ESIA personal raise included in this budget. Second, the minister just mentioned allowing people to keep more of the money they earn while they’re on income assistance. When does that take effect?
MS. REGAN: I want to make sure that I answer your question here, so if I leave something out, just let me know.
You asked whether there was an increase in ESIA rates this year. No, there is not.
You asked me another question - oh, yes, I remember, the wage incentive. The wage incentive will come in in October. It takes some time to change regulations, train workers, et cetera.
Just to give you an idea, if we look at our clients, the average that people are earning outside of their income assistance currently is $764. Under the old system, if you earned $764 in outside employment, you would only get to keep $334 dollars. Under the new system with the change, this person would get to keep $598, almost $600. That’s a $264 change per month. That will be coming in in October.
MS. LEBLANC: The much-applauded plan to provide bus passes to people on income assistance and their families is a really good thing. We were very happy to hear that announcement. My concern about that program is that there’s an unintended consequence. You know what I’m going to say. Because income assistance rates are so low, people who have been awarded a bus pass in the past are relying on that money, and they use it for things other than bus passes. There’s a shortfall in their budget, so they use it - I’m not saying everybody, but many people do - for rent, groceries, and utilities. Will the department allow individuals currently receiving $78 a month for a bus pass to keep that money even though they are getting a paper bus pass, to pay for other needs?
MR. REGAN: That’s how we’re paying for the bus passes. I do want to be clear here. This is for people who live within 500 metres of a bus route. I think some people thought that we were going to make people walk long distance or whatever, so I did want to be clear about that. Quite frankly, that’s why we are bringing some other changes as well.
The honourable member, who doesn’t let much get by her, would remember last year we were not talking about things like rolling out the wage incentive early. We were not talking about that last year, we were not talking about the maintenance issue, and we were not talking about the Poverty Reduction Credit. Those changes are coming in to help try to mitigate that.
MS. LEBLANC: We have seen an alarming increase in Nova Scotia of people using food banks since 2013. There’s now 7,500 more people using food banks than in 2013. I’m wondering what specific expenditures in this budget are targeted to make sure Nova Scotians have access to affordable, healthy food.
MS. REGAN: I just want to provide an update to the honourable member. In terms of external consultants in 2017-18, approximately $1.2 million - but a list will follow.
In terms of food security, that is actually a focus of some of our grants that are going out right now. I gave the example in the speech about - I wasn’t sure whose riding Harbour View was in. Is that in the honourable member’s riding?
MS. LEBLANC: Yes, it is, and I am very excited about that greenhouse and all of the gardens there, it’s amazing.
MS. REGAN: Because it was the Take Action Society, right? So, that is about mobilizing the community around these issues as well.
Also, as I just indicated to the honourable member, we’ve doubled the Poverty Reduction Credit, which is basically given to the folks who are the poorest of the poor in this province. They have to earn less than $12,000 a year. Its equivalent is $21 a month, which would then be the largest increase that we’ve seen, because I think, previously the largest increase in income assistance rates was $20 a month, so it is one of the larger increases that we’ve seen – again, recognizing that it is not an ESIA increase.
MS. LEBLANC: I just want to go back for a second and talk again about the CPS system. One of the other issues that I’ve heard quite a lot about is when a child is taken into care, their child tax benefit or whatever it is called now - Canada child benefit - goes with them, obviously, so it goes to the people who are taking care of the child.
When the child is returned to their home, I have heard from several different places that it takes up to three months for the parents to get that back into their bank accounts. Which means that for the three months - the most vulnerable time for that family to be reunited - they are facing evictions because they can’t pay their rent, they can’t afford to buy food for that child, and that puts them in a very vulnerable position to lose their children again.
I’m wondering if the government has thought of a way to work it out so that family can get their payment back immediately when the child returns to their home, even if it means the government is fronting the money until the federal government catches up?
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for bringing that concern to me, because we actually had not heard that before. I will commit to her that we will look into that particular issue and find out where the delay is, whether it’s on the federal end or whether it is our end. I’ll also make sure to mention it to federal cousins.
MS. LEBLANC: I’m wondering about the small options homes again. In Question Period, it was confirmed that the eight small options homes that are allocated in this budget include the four that were allocated last year. I’m wondering if the minister might be able to provide a timeline on that.
Also, I wanted to point out something that I did allude to in Question Period, which was that at this rate, for a year it will take 50 years to complete removing people from the waiting list that currently exists, and that doesn’t even include the people who are not receiving services right now. The Community Homes Action Group has advocated for 25 new small options homes a year. I’m wondering if that is in the long-term view for the department, and when people who are in need of small options homes can expect to be housed.
MS. REGAN: I thank the honourable member for the question. I think I have actually referenced an RFP and I gather that I have committed a financial faux pas - it’s something that’s a little bit different - but that’s for five of them. Three of them were promised previously, and those are under way. We anticipate that the eight will be open by the end of the fiscal year.
In terms of planning after that - there are
a lot of balls in the air right now on a lot of different facilities. We’re
dealing with wait-listed clients and we’re also dealing with folks who have
been in the ARC/RRC for a long time. We are trying to focus on individual
choice about where they live, and also around the issue of compatibility.
I’ve used this example before, so I hope I’m not repeating myself, but if we have a client who vocalizes a lot - really loud, all day long - we can’t put that person with someone who is sensitive to sound.
What we have learned from talking to our colleagues across the country is that making sure you have all of the supports in place - and I fully understand why families would be impatient - but we have to make sure that we have the supports in place. We have to make sure that we have compatible people living together.
Last year, we had some funding to move 25 people out - last year or the year before, we had funding to move 25 people out of their placements and we were actually able to move 47, because what happened was people were moving into situations that required less care, and with that same amount of money, we were able to do more. Sometimes there’s a domino effect and we’re able to move more out.
We are diligently beavering away at this. I can’t give you a date when it will be finished. I can’t tell you how many more will be promised in the future. What I can tell you is that we take this matter very seriously, and we’ve begun to act and that we will continue to work on that.
MS. LEBLANC: Thank you. The budget highlights leaflet mentions improved respite care and funding for more complex cases. How much funding is included in the budget for the more complex cases and what will those supports look like?
MS. REGAN: In terms of just the increase for the Disability Support Program, that’s $10 million and then for specialized placements for 10 people - within that 10 - is $3.5 million, and then there’s also respite care increases, et cetera, as I mentioned in the speech. Just to give you a sense of some of the costs, we have two small option homes that we’re working on outside of the eight that we’re committed to. Those will probably cost $600,000 and $1.1 million, respectively.
The average cost for a small option home is around half a million, and in some cases, there will be fewer services than what there used to be, because if people are in a big ARC or RRC, there may be things that are available there that may not be available in a small option home. So, we need to build community capacity.
MS. LEBLANC: I’m going to go back to another question here. So, going back to the wage incentive program, my understanding is it’s increasing from $150 to $250 - you can keep the first $250 you make - but people under the supported employment program are currently allowed to keep $300. I’m wondering, under the new incentive plan, are those people going to get bumped down to $250, or are they going up more than $300, and could you clarify that?
MS. REGAN: A regular client would normally be able to keep $150 dollars, and then there would be a 30 per cent exemption. So, basically, if they earned, let’s say $500, they wouldn’t be able to keep all of that. Under 2018-19, the first $250 they have 100 per cent exemption; from $251 to $500, they’d be able to keep 75 per cent of that; from $501-$750, they’d be able to keep 50 per cent; and $751 and above, 25 per cent.
With supported employment, in the past, they would get to keep $300 plus a 30 per cent exemption. Now, it will go to $350, they’ll get the 100 per cent exemption; from $351 to $500, it’s a 75 per cent exemption; and the rest will continue on as with the other.
MS. LEBLANC: I just wanted to say that I’m getting close to my Housing questions, so if people from housing want to come down, then it won’t be too long before - are they actually in the House?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. We’re going to try to direct all questions through the Chair. If the honourable member for Dartmouth North would like to pose the question.
MS. LEBLANC: Mr. Chairman, could I just clarify that I don’t think I’ll be getting any more time after this, according to the way I think the time - I might get more - but I’m going to ask my Housing questions at the end of my hour here, and then if I have more time after the PCs go again, I’ll ask other questions. Does that make sense?
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member is suggesting that at the end of the hour that you will be . . .
MS. LEBLANC: So, in about five minutes, I am going to ask questions about housing, and I’ll keep them all together. Then if I get another bit of time after the PCs then I’ll ask other questions, not Housing questions. Is that okay?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Okay. The honourable Minister of Community Services.
MS. REGAN: Just to be clear, we went through this last year, and we had people running up and down the stairs, so I am trying to avoid that. If your caucus has any other DCS questions, if you could ask them now, because the last time we had people running up and down the stairs, trying to answer them.
What I asked the House Leaders to do is all Community Services ones up front, and then we will make a switch and bring in Housing staff and do all of those. That’s why it’s easier to do this over in the Red Room, because everybody can just - right? I just want to make sure that we don’t end up flipping back and forth between DCS and Housing multiple times.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. The honourable member for Dartmouth North, I’d suggest that the request by the minister seems reasonable, and has been the procedure and convention of the House in the past, so I think to be fair to staff - we do have until 3:00 p.m. so you will be reverting back to your caucus for a half hour or so. If you would like to finish up with your Community Services questions, that should get us there to the end of this long, 10-day grind.
The honourable member for Dartmouth North.
MS. LEBLANC: Great, I just need to go back to the question I was going to ask. Here’s the hard question that we’ve all been waiting for, the advocacy groups have been calling for a 15 per cent increase to ESIA rates. Our caucus - the other day, our Leader asked the Premier if he would commit to a doubling of the income supports budget.
The fact is that rates right now are woefully low, and daily I have people in my office who simply cannot afford to make ends meet. The thing is that even if rates increase by $21 a month, or even if they are allowed to keep another $100 or $260 a month of their wages, it’s still really difficult to make ends meet, given the cost of groceries, and given the cost of power, and given the cost of rent, mostly.
All extra money is helpful. I just found out I am getting $168 of back pay from my job at Dalhousie - I’m so excited, $168. Every little bit is exciting and helpful. I’m just wondering when the people of Nova Scotia, who are these vulnerable people in vulnerable situations, when will we see a meaningful increase to ESIA rates so people can afford to feed their families with nutritious food, pay their rent, and not worry about their power getting cut off?
MS. REGAN: I don’t think we can just focus on ESIA rates because that is one part of our system. These are not the only supports, these are not the only opportunities people are going to have to see meaningful increases - again bearing in mind that until now $20 a month is the biggest increase that we have seen in income assistance in this province ever.
We have a number of different tools that we are using to try to increase the support that people are receiving from the Government of Nova Scotia. If I look at a couple - one of whom earns an average of $764 a month with two children - if we look at what they earned in 2015-16, this is what they would be earning at this job where they make $764 a month, and that’s just an average that we’ve pulled out, and we look at that and then we add in the changes that we’re making.
Their monthly income would be $2,616, and then you see personal allowance increase, wage exemption increase, and then adding in the proposed standard household rate, it would actually end up that it would be about a $500 increase over that number of years to $3,059.
When we’re looking at increases, when we’re looking at ways in which we are making sure that Nova Scotians have more money in their pockets to be able to purchase their basic needs, for a couple with two children, that’s an almost $500 increase in the space of from 2015-16 to 2019-20.
MS. LEBLANC: I appreciate putting things into a picture. Earlier in your preamble, you said that the minister suggested that - I don’t mean suggested, the minister stated - that the largest growing group of people on IA is single adults with no children.
I’m wondering if the minister can provide a similar breakdown of how the government’s changes would assist a single person who is not living with a roommate - a single person with no children trying to pay rent in their one-bedroom apartment on their own - with the government’s changes, how would that affect them?
MS. REGAN: If we took, for example, a single person with a disability, no children, and no employment earnings - not taking into account any special-needs diet or anything like that - in 2015-16, it would be $856, and then at 2019-20, it would be $939 per month.
That’s $83 more per month than they received in 2015-16, and I realize that may not be the kind of revolutionary change that the honourable member is looking for, but it is still four times the biggest increase that we have ever seen.
In terms of a single person with no children who was earning the average net monthly income of $764, they would receive $264 more dollars per month than they received in 2015-16. A single parent who is receiving child support - because we are no longer using child support as income - if they were earning $754 per month from working, they would move from $1,892 per month in income to $2,521. So, that’s an additional $629 more per month than they would have received in 2015-16.
MS. LEBLANC: Thank you. Can the minister please provide us with a current organizational chart for the department with all job vacancies clearly identified? I’m sure the minister might not be able to produce it in this moment, but if the minister could commit to getting that to us.
MS. REGAN: Oh my gosh, I have one in my back pocket. No, I’m just kidding. But we will get one to you, as of today’s date, we will absolutely get that to you.
MS. LEBLANC: Can the minister provide information on how much the department spent on services provided by a temp agency last year, and how much the department is budgeting for those services in this current year budget?
MS. REGAN: We actually don’t use temp agencies very much. I think in 2016-17 it was about $16,000 for the entire year for the whole department. We can look for that, but we don’t budget for that because it’s not something that we do.
MS. LEBLANC: Earlier my colleague from Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage was talking about the access to online applications for programs. I remember asking this question last Fall, or asking around it, and talking about how many people who are in the lower income brackets don’t actually have access to the Internet at their homes, and don’t even talk about the seniors. I’m only saying that because I’m thinking about my parents right now, who actually do have the Internet, but they’re not very good at using it. I’m wondering about that.
I agree that access to online applications is a great thing, but only if people can actually access the Internet. Filling out those kinds of applications at community library computers is not - the idea of that is not a good one for many people who want to feel private about these kinds of applications. I’m wondering if there’s any money in the budget allocated to enabling Internet access to public housing or to people in the ESIA program?
MS. REGAN: It’s actually something we are looking at, not just for the Internet but also phones - it’s actually something that I think conversations across government about Internet support and the various different options we have in rural areas, et cetera - it’s something we are absolutely looking at because a lot of our clients don’t have access to phones, for example. So, there are phones, there’s Internet, and this is something we are looking at. We’ve been quite focused on transformation. In fact, this would be part of that, and we’re still looking into it at this time, but I don’t disagree with the honourable member.
MS. LEBLANC: Speaking of transformation, I’m wondering about a couple of things about transformation. We’ve heard a lot about the plans for transformation in terms of the aspect that I have been speaking about today, ESIA and income supports.
I understand that all of the things that have been announced this year are part of transformation. I’m wondering when transformation will be complete, when will we have transformed? Also, could you talk about how transformation will be affecting, or what things are in place to effect transformation in the child protection services program?
MS. REGAN: There was a lot there. In terms of some of what we’ve been up to with enhanced prevention - the short answer is much of the transformation will be complete within 18 months but I do think that as a department, we need to be continuously transforming. The formal transformation, most of that will be continuing over the next 18 months, the changes.
Just to give you an idea of some of the work that we’ve undertaken in terms of enhanced prevention and early intervention programming, we piloted Families Plus, which is a new intensive family preservation program. We piloted that in Sydney, Nova Scotia, and it’s based on what’s called the intensive family preservation model. It’s basically a wraparound of services, and it has proven to be a success in many other jurisdictions. It has been adapted to the Nova Scotian context.
The primary objective of the program is to allow children at risk of significant harm and/or at risk of being taken into the minister’s care the opportunity to stay at home with their families while the parents and the entire family are working with social workers to mitigate risk factors, and services are delivered at a high intensity in the beginning, and then taper as risks to the family and the children are reduced. We’re actually planning to launch a second Families Plus program in 2018.
We had great success with that. If I recall correctly, the families actually did amazingly. It’s a success story, and we’ll have more to say on that when we roll out the second location. We’ve increased and enhanced supports for 150 new families by adding 15 new Parenting Journey programs, some of which are culturally specific.
Parenting journey is an evidence-based home visitation program that provides individual support for families that are experiencing complex, social, emotional, and familial challenges that could impact overall family functioning, parent-child relationships, and the well-being and the development of children. This program is both preventive and restorative, and either supports families to mitigate the need for child-protection involvement or works with families involved in child protection to reduce the need for child protection involvement or more intrusive child protection responses and the families that are involved in this experience multiple risk factors, including but not limited to: domestic violence, substance abuse, emotional and mental health, poverty, social isolation, unstable housing, and homelessness and generational trauma.
So, it covers a wide variety of different issues. The supports include parenting education, supporting positive parent-child attachment, family life management, navigation, and resources and that Parenting Journey operates out of 26 communities and neighbourhoods across the province including programs that target African Nova Scotian and off-reserve Aboriginal and Acadian families.
We also piloted the Nurturing Strong African Nova Scotian Families program which is focused on developing positive self-image in children and in their cultural heritage. It’s an evidence-based, 10-week program developed for African Nova Scotian parents in response to the lack of culturally specific programming for parenting in Nova Scotia. It provides a safe space to address the realities of African Nova Scotian parents and children, and the whole focus is increasing parental capacity, family functioning, and children’s well-being, while providing positive cultural socialization within families and reinforcing their pride in who they are.
During the spring and summer of 2017, we actually piloted this program in three communities - North Preston, Mulgrave Park, and New Glasgow - and had positive results. We plan to expand it to three more communities with an eventual province-wide roll out. Sorry to go onto the list, but there’s a lot going on.
In terms of foster care improvements, in collaboration with the Federation of Foster Families of Nova Scotia, DCS launched a new mentoring program for new foster parents. I alluded to that in my speech, as well as the on-call peer support program.
We increased the respite rate. We automated payments for baby supplies and non-prescription items. We automated quarterly payments for recreation and mileage, and mileage is now monthly. We expanded the after-hours support that is available to foster parents in case things arise outside business hours. We streamlined the process to reimburse foster parents for costs incurred, because it was cumbersome and it took too long and all of that.
We introduced standard reimbursement turnaround times - 10 days maximum - and that increased predictability for foster parents who need to fund upfront costs. We increased rates and auto payments to more effectively reimburse foster parents for their needs. That was $30 a month for non-prescription items and up to $150 per month for infant needs, and there was a respite rate increase of $56.
As I said, there’s a quarterly recreation autopayment for foster children. For children under the age of five it’s $90, and for those who are five to 18 it is $150.
We introduced a new automatic payment in place, $50 per month for a child’s travel. Babysitting - we increased the rate for that. I’m trying to remember the last time there was an increase in the babysitting rate, but it has been a long time. It’s now $10.60 per hour for the first child and then $4.00 per hour for every other child.
There’s a per diem of $19 for children up to nine years of age, and then $27.50 for children age 10 and older, so those were increases there.
The future direction of youth and family support: as a result of transformation, we want to continue to expand prevention and early intervention programming to better support families, because we are seeing good results out of that. We want to create a new alternate out-of-care program so that children in care can remain connected to adults and members of their community with whom they have close relationships, without necessarily having to enter the minister’s care, and then restructured placement and residential options to better support youth in care.
I did speak to that during my opening remarks. We want to make sure we are placing children where they need to be, not where there’s a space, but to do a better job of that and continue to improve the access and transportation services program for families and children in care.
MS. LEBLANC: With the short time I have left, could the minister explain exactly why changing a thing like the child support clawback takes six months? This is not a sarcastic question. I would love to know what exactly has to change, and how they arrived at a six-month timeline.
MS. REGAN: We actually anticipate that it won’t be six months. It will be four months. There’s a variety of factors that go into that change. First of all, we have to do regulation change. There’s a process when you do reg changes. It has to go to Treasury and Policy Board, so that does take some time to create the regs and then have it go through the process. Then hopefully my colleagues will say, “Oh, that’s fantastic,” and all of that and we move on, but sometimes there are changes required to the changes.
We have to train staff in the change, being able to answer questions . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Time for the NDP caucus has expired. I’ll now move to the PC caucus.
The honourable member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage.
MS. BARBARA ADAMS: Mr. Chairman, we have just a couple of questions for Community Services, and then we’ll move on to Housing, so we’ll take a break right after that.
I have had a number of constituents reach out to me who had given their children up for adoption, as well as children who had been adopted and were looking for their birth families. We know that Nova Scotia is one of the few provinces left that does not have opening of sealed adoption records.
I’m going to read something that I received from one person, but it will pretty much echo the thoughts of others. I’m going to quote it. It says: Why has Nova Scotia not opened adoption records yet? It has been said that adoption records in Nova Scotia wouldn’t be opened to protect the rights of parents, but what about the rights of the adoptees? Are they not entitled to find out their history and medical background? The adoption disclosure program has been implemented to help adoptees find out their non-identifying information; however, the process can take months and even years to complete. With the use of DNA testing now so readily available for everyone, isn’t the adoption disclosure program less necessary? If a person can obtain their DNA results and find their birth families, why should Nova Scotia feel the need to keep records closed? Does it not make more sense to open the records willingly and give the parents the choice of a non-disclosure veto form versus keeping the records sealed and adoptees finding other avenues to find the information? Will the Nova Scotia Government even consider opening adoption records?
I’m just going to quote - and I’ll table this document - this is from the New Brunswick Government. It says, “Opening of Sealed Adoption Records: Effective April 1, 2018, adult adoptees and birth parents who have had a child placed for adoption will be able to apply for access to identifying information. This information can only be released upon the adoptee having reached the age of majority.”
I won’t go on to read the rest of the documents, but suffice to say that New Brunswick has moved towards matching what most of the other provinces in Canada have done, which is to open up sealed adoption records.
Many months ago I had a request from somebody who was looking to reach the child they had given up for adoption. Since then I have been discussing the possibility of introducing a bill in this Legislature to bring that forward. Somehow word spread and Parent Finders Nova Scotia and Parent Finders New Brunswick got wind of it, because I talked to them, and now all of a sudden I’m getting emails from all over North America, all asking for the exact same thing.
From talking to Parent Finders New Brunswick in particular - I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but what they said when New Brunswick was looking at this was that they did discuss this with people who had given up children, as well as children who were looking for their birth parents, and that 85 per cent were in favour of opening up adoption records with the proviso that there is veto ability.
They maintain that - the 15 per cent who weren’t in favour, a significant portion of them were concerned about how the process would unfold. It wasn’t necessarily that they were opposed to it but that they wanted to know exactly how it was going to roll out.
I do want to make a comment, because this person wanted the right to medical information, and according to the Canada Health Act, we don’t have the right to disclose medical information on behalf of others. That is a separate issue as opposed to some of the other issues. Although certainly children put up for adoption - it is understandable that they would want to know what their medical history is. However, that is different from some of the other requests in opening up adoption records.
I know she has been posed the question in the past, but the constituents who have been contacting me would like to know if and when the minister might be willing to help Nova Scotia move towards matching the majority of the rest of Canada.
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for this question. I answered it not long ago in a scrum, saying that I wasn’t saying “never,” I was just saying “not now.” Because with transformation, the people who work in our department have been working their tails off dealing with the transformation issue. Before we would go out - and I think this is what New Brunswick did; correct me if I’m wrong - we would want to consult to make sure that this is exactly what folks want. I think there was an adoption bill that happened in the early 2000s, and if I remember correctly, there was a lot of concern from either people who had given up children for adoption or adoptees that they did not want to be contacted by their parents or their child. They were very firm on that.
Now, society continues to evolve. One of the things I have spoken about is protecting women who in good faith gave up a child for adoption back in the 1950s or 1960s, when times were very different. Some of them never told anyone. My concern is that they not suffer any ill effects because suddenly their family discovers that they had had a difference experience than what they thought. My concern around this particular issue has always been about protecting women.
I occasionally get letters too - I had one from a gentleman who couldn’t understand why his mother didn’t want to meet him, but it became very clear to me as I was reading that she had become pregnant at a party - because he was giving me some details that he was able to glean from somewhere else. She became pregnant at a party after drinking a lot, and there may well be a good reason why she did not want to disclose that.
My concern has been around people who gave up children, in some cases, to protect themselves. In advance of making this decision, I would want to have public consultation.
I can tell you that every time this topic comes up, you may be hearing from people who want to know who their parents were or where their child is. I also get to hear from people who are vehement that they do not want their birth parents contacting them or they do not want a child who they gave up contacting them.
I would say that other provinces have moved in that direction and they have been able to safeguard that. My concern right now is more around people who may not follow the news. I saw the advertisement that New Brunswick had in the paper saying that they were making this change. I guess my concern would be that we would have to make sure that there would be enough time and it would have to be very well communicated that this change was happening, if it were to happen. I would not do it without public consultation, because I do honestly feel that there are a lot of people who don’t want this change, and I want to make sure that no one is put in harm’s way because of it.
Your point about the DNA tests is well taken. I’ve had conversations with friends who have found family members as a result of that.
I think we are moving in that direction, but I just want to make sure that there aren’t unintended consequences for a lot of possibly frail, elderly women who gave up children for a reason. So my short answer is “not yet” and “possibly,” but it’s something that DCS will have to take some time to study and consult on before we make any moves in that direction.
I realize we are the last province in Canada to open them up, but what I would say is that the way in which we are slightly open is far more than other provinces were before they made this change. They kind of leapfrogged over us. For example, right now people can get some medical information about their family. But I do take the member’s point that there are people out there who want to know who they are and where they’re from. I certainly understand that impulse.
MS. ADAMS: This is one of the few times where we don’t quite agree. If every other province has already gone through the consultation process and spoken to their stakeholders and found ways to make it work, then I don’t understand why we have not even started the consultation process. It sounds like we are way behind other provinces when it comes to this.
You mentioned DNA testing. The person who wrote those questions for us could not get satisfaction because the courts would not open up her records. She found her birth family through DNA, but that was an expensive and lengthy process. So where there is a veto option, that is in place to protect people who do not want to have their records open if they do know about it. But we’re introducing marijuana legislation, we’re introducing all sorts of other legislation and rules - we can’t guarantee that everybody knows everything.
I’m going to suggest to the minister that if all of the other provinces have talked to all of their other stakeholders, I don’t presume that Nova Scotian parents who gave up children are that much different from the rest of the provinces. I certainly know that children who are looking for their birth parents are probably the same as they are in other provinces.
I appreciate that you may be hearing from the ones who don’t want this and I’m hearing from the ones who do, but I suggest that we move forward with the public consultation instead of just saying “not yet.”
I’m going to turn the remainder of my time over for the Department of Community Services. (Interruption) Certainly, I will allow the minister to answer. I don’t know if I put a question in there as opposed to a suquestion, which is the suggested question, but by all means.
MS. REGAN: I just want to let the honourable member know that right now, if both parties agree to it, we pursue it. We do have that ability right now. We can put them together if both parties agree.
I’m assuming your response is, “What if you don’t know the other person is looking for you?” That is my concern about putting information out there when people don’t know that things are going on. I do have some concerns around that, but this is something that we will look at.
What I will say is that here in Nova Scotia, I think it’s a generational thing. I think those of us of a certain vintage all remember the stories of a young woman who would suddenly go to an aunt’s. She would be gone to an aunt’s and she would have a baby. I have friends who concealed that their brother was, in fact, their own child. So there is a generational thing there. I think today there isn’t stigma around having a child out of wedlock or anything like that, but back then it could ruin a young person’s life.
MS. ADAMS: I’ll just close with one final comment. I certainly know those stories. I had a friend I worked with who on her sister’s dying bed found out she was, in fact, her mother.
Having said that, I do not believe for a minute it’s any different in this province than other provinces. I think that children all across this country have a deep need to know who their biological parents are, and I don’t think Nova Scotia is an exception. If other provinces can figure it out, I’m sure we can. So I’m going to encourage the minister to move towards the collaboration phase.
Now I’m going to turn my time for the Department of Community Services over to the member for Kings North.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Kings North.
MR. JOHN LOHR: I just want to ask a couple of questions of the minister before we go to Housing. I do want to say that my interactions and our office’s interactions with your staff in Kings County have been exemplary. We have a very good relationship with them. I have a lot of respect for the work that they do. I realize it’s extraordinarily difficult. They are working directly with people’s lives. I think as I heard you say earlier, it’s very personal, so there are a lot of difficult circumstances.
I do want to ask a couple of questions about that. I will recognize that 80 per cent of the people who your department interacts with, we never hear from. They’re just happy for the help. So we’re dealing with the 20 per cent who have for one reason or another - I believe that’s who we see - 80 per cent of the people who are receiving assistance of one sort or another, we never hear from. They’re very grateful for what they receive. Your department makes a huge difference in people’s lives.
The concern I have is related to what I would say would truly be a lack of a complaints process. What I understand - and maybe the minister can clarify this - is that if someone has an issue with their caseworker, the process for them to lodge a complaint is to go to the caseworker’s supervisor. If they’re not happy with that, they go to the next supervisor, and so on up the ladder. I think that’s an inadequate process. But if I’m incorrect about that, maybe the minister can elaborate on what that process is. Just let me know.
MS. REGAN: I want to thank you for the nice things you said about our staff in your area. I will make sure that the deputy and I pass that along, because like so much of government, sometimes we only hear about the bad stuff.
I’m tremendously proud to be the Minister of Community Services. I think we do change people’s lives for the better. It’s tough, tough work in so many areas - child protection et cetera. So I’m very proud to be the minister, and thank you very much. I will pass that along.
In terms of a complaints process, complaints can be driven by two things: “I don’t like or I disagree with the decisions,” or “I don’t like how I was treated.” Really, in terms of if I don’t like the decision, we can do a file review, but then you can also go to appeal on that. There is a formal process to go to appeal on that.
If you don’t like how you’ve been treated, or a person doesn’t like how they’ve been treated, they can contact the caseworker’s supervisor, the manager - there is a process for doing that. It does happen. Sometimes people don’t hit it off for whatever reason, but I know that our workers are committed to helping Nova Scotians have better lives, and I know you know that too. There are processes in place there.
MR. LOHR: Right, I do understand what you’re saying. If you do not like the decision, there is an appeals process. I’m probably talking about the appeals or the issues that people would have that don’t fall into “I didn’t like that decision.” Maybe it’s “I don’t feel I was treated fairly,” or “they didn’t hear this” - you know, so it sort of falls outside of the appeal.
I just want to state that I think there needs to be something more than simply going to that person’s supervisor. The supervisor would maybe have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to overturn or react to a decision of the caseworker. There’s a lot in a relationship between a supervisor and a caseworker, and if a client is coming to appeal, it’s more complicated than simply just looking at the case. The supervisor has that relationship already ongoing and maybe it’s a complicated thing for them.
What I would like to suggest is, I think there needs to be an appeals process that maybe bypasses the immediate supervisor right off the bat and goes to another sort of format. I’m just wondering if you’ll comment, Madam Minister. On that issue specifically, do you agree?
MS. REGAN: When we do an administrative review, just so you know, we bring in a supervisor from out of the area so that there’s another set of eyes on it to make sure that it’s okay.
We sometimes do reassignments, but what we like to do is encourage people to work things out, because that relationship between one of our clients and their caseworker is an important thing. We want to make sure that it’s a good one, because it can have a profound effect on people’s lives. We do work to make sure that some supports are in place to help people have a better relationship along the way.
If you are ever concerned about that, please contact my assistant, and we can have a conversation - or more likely, someone who knows a lot more than me can have a conversation with you about that to make sure that the clients are getting what they need.
MR. LOHR: Thank you, Madam Minister. Another area which I think - and I know it’s a complicated area - but child protection services. Obviously, no matter how poor a job you have done at being a parent, very few people want to give up their children. I realize it’s an extraordinarily difficult situation for a caseworker to be dealing with.
I’m sure that 80 or 90 per cent of the time the caseworkers get it right, but every now and then we hear stories of people who have somehow run afoul of child protection services and have lost their children or their grandchildren, have been involved in this, and have been taken by child protection services and everything ends up in court, I suppose, at some point.
Again, would there be a way to have an appeal or a review within the department? It just seems like child protection services workers have so much power, and when you run afoul of them it’s very difficult in the situations. I don’t want to speak about individual cases, but I could.
I’m just wondering if there’s any consideration for a preliminary appeal process that would not involve the court, but just somewhere, an ombudsman within the department, just to look at the case one more time and review it? Would there be any consideration for that type of thing that avoids the lengthy process of court, that gives somebody who feels that they’ve been unfairly treated by child protection services or that their family has been unfairly judged, to sort of do an appeal without the lengthy time that it takes to go through the court process and the painful process that can be? I’m just asking the minister, is there any consideration for that?
MS. REGAN: I think we talked about this issue, about having a child removed from a parent. No matter what kind of a job you’ve done, you don’t want to see your child go. It’s a wrenching decision. Our social workers make the toughest decision ever, but they have to look at the well-being of the child and the chance of future harm.
The law is very clear on that: if they are concerned about the well-being of that child and the risk of harm, they have to act. They are bound by the law.
I just want to assure you and parents in Nova Scotia that before a decision like that is made, it’s not a social worker deciding one day that she or he is going to take a child. There’s a risk conference that happens beforehand, and their peers and a supervisor are in on that, to make that decision.
There aren’t a lot of children in care of the minister. We have about 1,000 children in care of the minister. I don’t have the sense that people are running around plucking - we don’t have thousands and thousands, as they do in some other provinces. We don’t have that. But every day our caseworkers have to walk this really fine line. They have to be worried about children and they have to be worried about families.
I often think that they’re kind of like police officers. They have to make those split-second decisions that police officers do. Our caseworkers often get more time to think about it than police officers do, but they have very tough jobs. It’s not a job that everybody can do, and it’s not a job that everybody can do for very long, but they have to be certain that those children are not going to come into harm. I think they do a very good job of it.
Do we always get it right? Probably not, because nobody always gets everything right, but I’ve got to tell you, it’s not a job that I would want to do. I think they do a good job at it.
I want you to know that we are piloting some new projects, so that long before it ever gets to the issue of going to court - which is really your appeal place. Going to court is where you get to say your piece in front of somebody else - not us, in front of a judge.
We have a couple of programs that we are piloting to try and intercede earlier so that we get to those families earlier. One of them is Family Group Conferencing, and I alluded earlier as well to another pilot that we’re rolling out to wrap families in supports. We’ve had tremendous success with that in Sydney.
It’s a tough file, and I know, as an MLA, when you get those calls, they’re tough to listen to. But what I do know is that our workers have the absolute best interests of children at heart. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, “I’m going to go take kids today.” They don’t necessarily want to do that, but they have to do what they are commanded to do by law.
MR. LOHR: I recognize that what the minister is saying is true. I do think that there are personalities involved, and caseworkers are only human and sometimes they don’t get it right. I guess maybe the reality is that the only avenue of appeal is court. There have just been cases that I’ve heard of where I’ve wondered if it wouldn’t be better if we didn’t have another part to that appeal process. If we did have, maybe it would be redundant, because there are probably very, very few parents who wouldn’t appeal anyway. I realize that’s a reality. But I do think that there would be a place for that.
I’d like to switch to another topic, Madam Minister. I mean, if you want to reply to those comments you can.
What I would like to switch to that is I’ve had people come to my office on a steady basis who are on income assistance. I think of one constituent in particular. I don’t want to tell you her name, but very frustrated that there’s a $150 sort of amount that you can earn while on income assistance. She’s on disability. She can do some work. She can’t work full time and she would like to have a higher limit.
I realize there’s a sliding scale in there in terms of what gets drawn back, but I think of my years as an employer, and I could probably manage, as an employer, a person coming one day a week - showing up to work for me one day every week. If I had a person come in one day every month, honestly, I’d forget who they were. I think they would forget the job.
So the $150 minimum that they can earn while on income assistance - are there any plans to increase that amount? I will say that as an employer, I think one day a week, to be able, on minimum wage, to work an eight-hour shift - one day every week - would be a logical minimum to me.
I wonder if you will comment on that and whether there’s any plan to increase that minimum before there’s clawback.
MS. REGAN: Just to let you know, once we apprehend a child - back to our previous conversation - we have to be before the court in five days. There’s not a lot of time there to have alternate things, and things move very quickly from that point. I just did want to share that with you.
In terms of the wage exemption - because that’s what we’re talking about - part of our change at DCS is changing the wage exemption. For someone who has a disability and is receiving support, who has supported employment - and I’m not sure if that’s the case with this person - but you said ….
MR. LOHR: No, this person had a disability but ….
MS. REGAN: Okay. So, if we say that a regular client currently could earn $150, and then we would begin the clawback and there would be a 30 per cent exemption on that extra money, we’re changing that. Once the budget goes through and once we bring in the wage exemption - which we expect this Fall - they will be able to earn $250 free and clear; from $251 to $500, they will be able to keep 75 per cent of that; from $501 to $750, they will be able to keep 50 per cent of that; and then, at $751 and above, they keep 25 per cent.
Does this person have any children? Okay. She will see a change from 2015 when we began rolling out a series of changes. Back then she would have earned - and we’re just giving the average here - in terms of a monthly income of $764 that she would have earned in a job, she would have $1,000.41 coming in between her wages, income assistance basics, and tax credits. By the time we add our standard household rate increase in here, she will have $1,305 a month. So, it’s $264 more per month that she will receive over that four-year period change, to the good, if she’s earning $764. That’s just an example.
Because of the wage exemption change, because of the personal allowance increase, and because of the tax credits, she will see not quite a $300 increase but about $250, $264.
MR. LOHR: I thank the minister for that answer. I guess we can go to Housing now. Before that, we can take a break.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We’ll take a short recess for the minister and to get staff organized for the next session.
[2:08 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[2:13 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. We will now call the committee back to order, and I will recognize the honourable member for Kings North.
MR. LOHR: Madam Minister, we have some huge housing issues in the Valley. One of the things we have through your department, through the Middleton office, is grants to seniors to improve their homes. It’s my understanding that there’s a year’s worth of applications for changes to oil tanks and roofs that are waiting.
I would like to ask about the budget. Is there a plan to increase the budget for that program, providing assistance to seniors who want to stay in their own homes, the repairs to their own homes? Are there any plans to address the sort of backlog of applications and see more money into that type of program?
MS. REGAN: There are applications in there right now. As soon as the budget passes and they get word, they start moving those out the door. Any of the applications that are in and have been wait-listed, they can move them out the door right away. That program gets fully expended pretty much every year.
Just so you know, there’s a couple of programs that seniors come under and then there’s emergency funding as well. There’s a Senior Citizens Assistance Program, SCAP, and a Seniors at Home Program, and that provides assistance for necessary health and safety related repairs for low-income seniors. We did 768 units last year for a cost of $4.2 million. There’s also the Home Adaptations for Seniors’ Independence, and that provides assistance for needed home modifications or adaptations so that seniors can stay and continue to live independently in their homes. It’s for low-income senior homeowners or landlords who provide affordable housing to low-income seniors. Last year, we did 87 units with a cost of just over $212,000. So, there are those two.
Actually, I didn’t mention that Dan has now joined me. Dan is the CEO of Housing Nova Scotia and will be heading to Ottawa on Monday for FPT meetings on the National Housing Strategy. We don’t actually have a ton of detail on parts of that strategy yet. I’m hoping we’re going to get more of that on Monday, and then we will go into bilateral meetings as well. So, we’ll have a better picture on what is available to fund different streams under housing after that meeting and our bilateral meetings as well.
MR. LOHR: I will say that I do recognize that the emergency repair part of the program is fairly effective. If there’s a furnace issue or a leaky roof that means somebody is going to have to be forced out of their home, your department responds very effectively to that. It’s the more long-term issues people ask me about. They’ve got issues in their house with windows and doors and things. Seniors would like to apply. There’s a considerable wait-list. Some of the others are non-emergency but still critical to the maintenance of the home.
One of the issues we see with the application program is that if you’re living in one part of Kings County - this is all income-tested, as you understand. The income might be, if you’re below $33,000 in a year, you’re eligible. In another part of the county, it might be if you’re earning $29,000 a year gross family income, you’re eligible. So, there’s little variations, and it’s very geographic. It makes no sense to us when we look at it. For somebody living in the Town of Kentville, the income level that qualifies them is more. Somebody living in out in a rural area, if they are earning $29,000 or $30,000, they are over the limit. Somebody in town might be at $31,000 but still qualify.
A lot of that makes no sense to us. We look at, well, you live here or you live there. The reality is that the cost of doing repairs is the same. The cost of living might even be higher in the rural areas because of transportation requirements.
I’m wondering if you can comment on those issues and let me know why the department has this sort of checkerboard pattern of income test levels for different small jurisdictions within the county.
MS. REGAN: I take the member’s point on that. You should be aware that the income limits are actually based on the cost of housing in a given area, not the cost of living. That’s why you would see those being different. I do take your point that maybe in a rural area you can’t have mass transit or something like that. It’s actually related to the cost of housing in the particular area. That’s why you may see variations between rural areas, even within your riding. That’s why it is. I should just say that it’s based on information that comes to us from the federal government.
MR. LOHR: Madam Minister, I would like to ask your department to look at that policy and look at the cost of living. I can tell you that the cost of living in Kings County doesn’t vary that much from one area to another. If you are in more rural areas maybe housing costs are lower, but transportation costs are higher. It can be true that in more rural areas the cost of the repair is higher. It might be easier to get a contractor in town but, in reality, the contractors do travel fairly well. The cost of the repair is likely the same. The same job would cost the same amount wherever you are. The costs of living are virtually the same.
Is there a consideration that you will change this way of making the decision to something looking more at the cost of actually living in that area versus this, like I said, checkerboard pattern of the cost of the housing itself?
MS. REGAN: I want to thank the honourable member for that question. I should tell him that the member for Halifax Atlantic has been looking into the question of seniors’ programs for me. I understand he has some recommendations for me. I think some of them may have to do with this particular question. He’ll be coming back to me very soon.
I do want to thank the honourable member for raising this particular issue with me because, again, it’s an issue of fairness. We want to make life better for Nova Scotians. I can tell you that my colleague from Halifax Atlantic has been looking into this and other questions relating to seniors’ housing in particular. As the ministerial assistant for Housing, he has been charged with this particular task. Thank you.
MR. LOHR: What I will say about it is that the consequence of the policy as it exists now results in seniors who are aware of someone else in, say, Kentville who has an income of $31,000 or $32,000 but qualified for a repair on the roof and someone living in a rural part of the county who has a family income of $29,000 but didn’t qualify because of where they live.
I would say that the consequence of your policy is truly irate constituents who do not understand what the difference is, who don’t grasp it. I think it’s important. All of us look bad when government programs - government decisions - make absolutely no sense to them. While to somebody somewhere this distinction might make sense, if it doesn’t make sense to our constituents we all look kind of bad and are left trying to explain why this is the way it is. I think a simple means test for the whole area would make more sense at one level rather than what we have now. We would all benefit from it. It would make more sense to our constituents. There’s not really any particular reason a government program should end up truly antagonizing certain people, but that’s the result. People do talk. They kind of know what happened here and there, and the word is out. This is a part of government that just baffles people. It would be very good if the program was more straightforward. I think it would be good for your department and whomever you task with helping you. It would be great to work on this.
The other issue we have in Kings County, which I think is true everywhere, is there’s actually a fair amount of homelessness. Maybe it wouldn’t meet the eye when you drive through. We have a couple of organizations - Open Arms is one - that’s working with the homeless and another organization, in Kentville in particular, the Portal. They are working with two different populations. The Portal is mainly working with youth homelessness. Open Arms is working with everybody else, so adults and seniors.
I know both of these organizations do exemplary work and are incredible. Open Arms, for a long time, has run Inn from the Cold in partnership with local churches. I know that they had an application in for support. They’ve been volunteer-based for more than 10 years now, for quite a long time, but they’re starting to get volunteer burnout. They were asking for a small amount of basic support to run this. From the dollars point of view it would be very effective.
I’m wondering if you could - maybe that’s getting too specific for you - but if you could comment on that and what your department is doing to address homelessness in the Annapolis Valley.
MS. REGAN: I do want to thank the honourable member for raising this issue with me because it isn’t the first time that he has raised it. I know that the issue of homelessness in his area is a concern for him, and I do appreciate that it is an issue he has raised.
One of the things we are doing in this particular budget is we are approving 400 more rent supplements. I realize that that’s not always possible in rural areas where there may not be a good supply of rental housing, but we do have money to reduce the wait-list for housing. Every year we are putting more money into that because we do recognize that for many of the people who live in Nova Scotia, not necessarily our ESIA clients but often them, finding housing that they can afford is an issue. That’s why we have been increasing that.
As well, as I just mentioned about the National Housing Strategy, one of the things that the federal government is particularly interested in is portable rent supplements. So, instead of having buildings where the rent supplement exists, someone gets a voucher basically, and they get to choose where they live. They may want to live close to groceries, or they may want to live close to school or work, transportation, family or whatever. Then the power is in their hands. Again, I’m still waiting for a lot of the detail around this, but I can tell you that we had a lot of discussions about that and that they wanted portable rent supplements. So, more is going on around that.
I would rather be working to do more of that than putting more money into shelters because shelters are a stop-gap measure. I know that the shelter in your area is not the only one that is facing this. I think we just saw a campaign online where a Truro shelter, I believe, was asking for more volunteers because folks were getting tired of doing that. Let’s face it, the people who do this kind of work, often at churches, do it year in and year out. There are lots of churches that do provide a shelter. My church does. I’ve a recipe for a Hope Cottage meal, and there are certain times where we’re making that. I want to commend them for the work that they’ve done and the work that they’re continuing to do.
We did have more money for homelessness in this budget around the Metro Turning Point and Shelter Nova Scotia. There is more money in this budget for that. I don’t think it has gone to your organization and so I’m going to be really up front about that, but I do want to assure you that this is something that is a focus for us, that we want to make sure that we have more people living in housing that they can afford. Thank you.
MR. LOHR: I would like to thank the minister for those questions and turn it over to my colleague.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage.
MS. BARBARA ADAMS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. With the little bit of time that I have left, I’m going to zero in on one program. I apologize, I can’t pull the exact name of the program but I know you will recognize it.
The minister just mentioned that she and her department are interested in more people moving into their own housing. Premier McNeil in an article from August 2, 2016 - the title of the article said, I’m going to quote the title of the article: “Stephen McNeil says housing is Nova Scotia’s biggest issue” He’s quoted as saying if you don’t have a house, which lots don’t, what would you have done. So, he is quoted as saying he wants to find a way to help first-time homeowners who can’t get a down payment together.
There is a program in the department whereby you can help assist with the mortgage for a first-time homeowner. My question is three parts. There was, last year, this program, and I believe it was so successful that you had to stop taking applications in the central zone. I’m wondering how many applicants there were last year; whether you’re going to be able to increase the number of applicants this year, particularly in the central zone since that’s the one that seemed to be run out within two months of the 12-month program; and, the third part of it is - just so I can get it in - I had a couple of seniors whose rent almost doubled, low-income seniors who were on income assistance. They’re both retired. They both have consistent income, but they’re not eligible to apply for that mortgage grant because they don’t have a job.
With the increase in senior population over the next 10 to 20 years, I’m wondering if it’s time to look at changing the qualifications for that program to include seniors who might be on a fixed income but have sufficient income to allow them to qualify for that program, even without having a job. I’ll say it again just because we’re looking a little puzzled. Somebody who has sufficient income, but isn’t working, is not allowed to apply for that program; they have to have a job that they’ve had for a year. Those are the three parts to the question. Thank you.
MS. REGAN: We fully expended the money, 154 loans. I have the breakdown at January 31st, and it was pretty evenly distributed, but it slowed at a certain point outside of metro, so I was able to move some of the allotment to metro, once we weren’t seeing the pick-up in other areas. It was pretty much Halifax-Hants, 41 loans; Cape Breton, 32 loans; South Shore-Annapolis Valley, 40 loans; northern region, 34 loans. That was at January of this year. There was some change after that, but that’s where it was.
In terms of the senior loan, in order to get this you have to qualify for a mortgage. I don’t know whether seniors, once they are on a retirement income, can acquire mortgages at that point. Program requirements don’t require to have a job; you have to have sufficient income - so it may be around that.
MS. ADAMS: I thank the minister. In one particular case where I called in for a couple, they had sufficient income. I don’t honestly know if they would qualify for the bank mortgage, but there was a requirement in there for a job for a year, I do believe that’s on the website. Either way, I think it’s a question to consider.
The last question is, just in terms of housing repairs for low-income housing, one circumstance; this is not indoors, but it’s outdoors. In Ocean View Manor out in Eastern Passage, the way they built the parking lot is it slopes downhill. Half of the parking lot, when it rains and then freezes, it literally froze seven cars into the parking lot.
So, I get a call. I’m at my son’s wedding out West, and I get a call from an 80-something who is only about four foot nine. She is out there with a little hammer and chisel, trying to get her car unfrozen. They had the problem last year. They had the problem this year, only more seriously: a VON nurse fell, walking into the building.
When this person called again to maintenance they were told, well just sprinkle salt on the way out. You could skate on it, it’s that thick. I said, well that’s great for all the little old ladies who are in Ocean View Manor - and I know most of them - but it doesn’t help anybody who is driving into the building and has to walk from their car there.
I’m just wondering about the process when somebody calls in with a complaint like this and they don’t get satisfaction. Where do people go when they’re talking to the maintenance person from that area and he says, there’s nothing we can do?
MS. REGAN: For a minute I thought it was that time when there was the flash freeze and everybody’s cars got stuck, but it happened more than once, you are telling me, right? In fact, Dan McDougall, our CEO, just informed me that we have more money in our budget for repairs to some of our buildings this year, so we absolutely can do that. The manager for the building had made him aware of it, so we do expect it to be fixed this Spring. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.
MS. ADAMS: Thank you, Minister, I will be delighted to relay that on to the members over there.
One final thing that I brought up last time, and I’m going to bring it up again. Because you said it was a good idea, I’m going to repeat it again. It’s a question. We were talking the last time about having exercise equipment in the low-income housing buildings and looking at the insurance liability issues.
I have spoken with the head of the Metro Regional Housing Authority, and we know there are barriers, but I’m just wondering if we can all work together to perhaps move that forward? Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the Progressive Conservative caucus has expired.
The honourable member for Dartmouth North.
MS. SUSAN LEBLANC: I want to say, before I begin my questions, that in my office a good percentage of the cases we work on are housing related. I want to say to Mr. McDougall that my experiences at MRHA and Housing Nova Scotia have been really great. I really appreciate all of the excellent assistance that they’re giving people in very tough situations. If you could pass that on, that would be great.
A table we received from the department to a freedom of information request shows the average monthly rent in regions across the province. According to CMHC, the average rent for a one-bedroom in Halifax is $845; $631, in Cape Breton; $577, in Kentville; and $639, in Truro. My question is, is the shelter allowance for recipients of income assistance linked in any way to the average rents for the area? If they’re not, how do you determine the rates in accordance with average rents?
MS. REGAN: I’m so sorry, this is actually an ESIA question - but I do have a partial answer at least. We did see rental costs go up in Halifax, for example, over the last while. There has been an influx of building of high-end buildings in metro; I think in cases like that you do see the average rent go up. I can tell you in my own riding we have a lot of new buildings, and we have a lot of seniors in there. A lot of them are quite expensive compared to what we used to have 10, 15 years ago. I don’t think that the two are actually linked, but it is ESIA.
MS. LEBLANC: I was anticipating that answer, in fact, because I was thinking about it, and I was doing some little internal calculations on it. I understand that there are a lot of new buildings and a lot of new higher-end rentals. Even if you look at the numbers, the averages across the province without metro - but even if you look at metro. I mean, I live in rental haven - well, I don’t live there but Highfield Park is in my riding - you can’t get an apartment in Highfield Park for $600, or barely. Anyway, it’s an ESIA question, and I’ll ask it at another time.
How many people are currently on the wait-list for rent supplements? A supplementary question to that is, does the department keep track of the number of people who apply for support who aren’t eligible?
MS. REGAN: You don’t go on a wait-list for rent supplements. You go on the list for housing. It’s everybody in there all together. We don’t keep track of people who apply but are not eligible. Thank you for raising that for me because that could be an area where we could be keeping information on that and serve people better.
Just to give you an idea of the wait-list count: at March 31, 2015, three years ago, it was up 4,600. Then two years ago, it was 4,045. Then March, a year ago, it was 3,866. In February of this year - so not quite a full year - it’s at 3,421. So, we are seeing a reduction in the wait-list, but we still, of course, do have a way to go.
MS. LEBLANC: Earlier, one of my colleagues was talking about the rent supplements, and the minister’s answer included an allusion to the change in attaching the supplements to individuals rather than a unit. I’m just wondering when we can expect to see that policy change.
MS. REGAN: When we conclude an agreement with the federal government, first I have to go to Treasury Board for permission to negotiate and the parameters around that. Then, we get down to the nitty gritty. Then I have to go back and get permission. We haven’t concluded our bilaterals yet so I don’t have that. I’m hopeful it will happen this year, but I don’t have a timeline for you because I don’t know. If you told me that I would still be going to Toronto next week not to do the bilateral but to continue on the main part, I would’ve been surprised. I would’ve thought we would be further along, but I’m hoping that it will be sometime this year.
MS. LEBLANC: When we were in Budget Estimates last year, on October 10th I asked the minister if the department had done a cost comparison of rent supplements, compared with investments and public housing. At that time, the minister said that the department could reach and impact more people with the Rent Supplement Program. Then, our caucus office requested that analysis through FOIPOP. In the response that we got back, there’s a note that says the information was reviewed on October 23rd but there was no analysis complete.
I’m wondering then, has the department completed that analysis, comparing rent supplements to investments in public housing? If so, could the minister table the analysis? If not, when can we expect the analysis to be finished?
MS. REGAN: It’s still ongoing. We don’t have it yet, but we can certainly table it once it’s done.
MS. LEBLANC: Is there any money in the budget to increase funding or expand the programming of the Housing Support Worker program. I have to say that this program is so important to the people of Dartmouth North and I’m sure in other places. The Dartmouth Housing Help actually shares the bottom floor of our office building, so we do a lot of moving people back and forth between our offices. I’ve worked really closely on several occasions with Dartmouth Housing Help and MRHA to get people housed in emergency situations - also Adsum House - but they’re working on real shoestring budgets. Now people are having to book a full month in advance for assistance, even though they’re facing eviction or a housing crisis immediately. I’m wondering if there is any money to increase the funding to those programs.
MS. REGAN: There is no increase in that budget for this year. However, over at the poverty strategy, because of the importance of housing I have thus far approved one youth housing worker and one regular non-youth housing worker for Cape Breton. We were contacted by councillors from that area who were indicating there was an issue in terms of finding housing there, and so we have approved two under the poverty strategy.
MS. LEBLANC: Was there any housing support program in Cape Breton, or is that a brand new program for Cape Breton?
MS. REGAN: Apparently, I misspoke. One was under the poverty strategy and one was under my regular housing money. It’s not a new program. It’s additional bodies doing that work.
MS. LEBLANC: Is there any money in the budget to build new, affordable not-for-profit housing?
MS. REGAN: Yes, there is new money under the new affordable housing program. It’s available to private developers as well as non-profits. We think it’s $3 million; we’re just double-checking. There is money available that is new money.
MS. LEBLANC: I would like to know more about that. I’m wondering if it might be too complicated a question for now, but we could talk about it later hopefully. Is it going to cover so many units completely or is it a percentage of the cost? I’m wondering if you could just quickly comment on that, and then I can ask more detailed questions another time.
MS. REGAN: The grant is for up to $50,000 per door.
MS. LEBLANC: I know that there is money in the budget for improvements to existing public housing stock. I’m wondering if you have a list of the public housing communities that might apply to and, if you do, how you determine what stock will be getting improvements.
MS. REGAN: What we’ve been doing over the last - I want to say year, it might be a little longer - is we’ve actually been inspecting our larger public housing buildings to look at what they need in terms of exterior envelopes and main systems throughout the buildings because we have old public housing stock. A lot of it is in the 50-year-old range. We’ve been going through and making a list.
The reason we’re doing the bigger buildings is, of course, because that’s where a lot of people are housed and if a main building system fails then we have a whole lot of people who have to be re-housed, et cetera. We have a good idea of where there are potential issues or emerging issues in these buildings. When we go through to do the work it will be based on the priority. I can tell you it will be throughout the province. We have public housing stock all over the place. It will be throughout the province.
I ran into someone who had just been over at Demetreous Lane - we did the exterior of that building - and she said to me, residents there are so proud of where they live now. It made a huge difference. I can tell you I was in the manor that’s in my riding and when I drove up - I don’t know how I had driven by there before and I hadn’t noticed - they had totally changed the exterior. It was huge! Of course, we focus on the exteriors because, as I discovered when I put hardwood floors in my family room, if your roof leaks that is not good for what’s inside. You have to make sure the exterior is good before you move into the interiors.
MS. LEBLANC: Yes, Demetreous Lane is in my neighbourhood. It’s a series of row houses actually - it’s not a building - but it does look very nice. Is there any money in this budget to support co-operative housing?
MS. REGAN: That’s actually part of that federal stuff that we’re expecting to hear about soon, very soon. There had, in the past, been a program that did a lot of work around that. We’re actually providing rent supplements to some co-ops to make sure that they can make sure those units are fully utilized until we get the federal funding straightened out.
MS. LEBLANC: Just to clarify then, you are saying that there is action being taken on co-operative housing and we’re just waiting for federal agreement?
MS. REGAN: Again, not having done the final negotiations or even seen the overall umbrella agreement that we’re going to get on Monday, I can’t absolutely swear on a stack of bibles - and I wouldn’t want to say that. My expectation is that that is in there. All indications that we’ve been given is that it’s in there, but I don’t have finalized details yet.
MS. LEBLANC: The agreement that is being sort of looked at on Monday in Toronto, that federal negotiation, is that money already - like money that we’re expecting from the federal government, is that reflected in this budget, or would that be sort of money that would be coming down the pipe for further years?
MS. REGAN: My understanding is there is a co-investment fund that’s available this year. It’s not a big fund but most of the bigger investments kick in next year.
MS. LEBLANC: Thank you. That’s interesting, possibly good news.
So, there’s a housing needs assessment conducted in Shelburne, Digby, Yarmouth, Annapolis, Kings and West Hants Counties this year. Almost 5,000 people responded to the survey, 37 per cent of those reported experiencing housing insecurity, and 36 per cent of those have full-time employment. What measures are included in this budget to address housing insecurity in rural areas of the province?
MS. REGAN: Probably the biggest thing we are doing - I mean all of our programs go across the entire province, but the biggest thing is the rent supplements. That’s a big commitment that we made, $3 million in each of three years increasing, so they are cumulative, so $3 million this year, $6 million the next year, and $9 million the following year. Those are all for rent supplements and not just in metro but throughout the province.
MS. LEBLANC: Something I hear quite a lot and I tend to agree with, but also I know that it’s firsthand information, is when support money for housing increases, then the response is that the landlords increase rents.
You may remember that I tabled a bill about rent control earlier this year. I’m just wondering, in terms of that issue where money goes up and then rents go up, what plans or sort of safeguards does the government have to protect people against that exact situation?
MS. REGAN: Mr. Chairman, I want to make sure that I get my resolution read before the end.
Okay, so I am going to quickly answer that and then I’m going to “MoveOn.org” if you don’t mind. Any of the landlords who are part of the rent supplement program actually have to apply to us for increases. I think that’s one way in which we’re sort of tamping down that increase. So, I’m not aware of any plan at this time to bring in rent controls.
I’d like to do my closing.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Okay, your resolution should be read in the last minute.
MS. REGAN: Oh, okay. If you have more questions, and we’ll just count down to the one-minute thing.
MS. LEBLANC: I don’t have any more questions, I just wanted to say thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. We still have a few minutes of committee left. The honourable minister will take a few minutes to offer some closing comments and thank her staff and, in the last minute, perhaps read her resolution.
MS. REGAN: I had a closing that was five minutes, so everyone is saying to me don’t read that darn thing, because I won’t get it in there.
What I would really like to do, Mr. Chairman, and I did sort of allude to it a little bit earlier about the people who work for Community Services, Status of Women, Housing Nova Scotia - a lot of us meet people on the worst days of their lives and that’s true of MLAs quite frankly. We get to meet people on the best days of their lives and the worst days of their lives I have to say, but at DCS and Housing Nova Scotia, and Status of Women, so often our workers come into contact with people when they really have no place else to turn.
So, I would just like to say to my deputy, to the CEO, to all of the staff who have been here today supporting us, and who support Nova Scotians every single day, I just want to say thank you so much for the work that you do, you make a difference in the lives of Nova Scotians - oops, I’m not supposed to say you, am I?
Those people who work for us make a difference in the lives of Nova Scotians. Mr. Chairman, Housing Nova Scotia remains committed to helping seniors, persons with disabilities, and Nova Scotia’s most vulnerable, access affordable housing. In partnership with the federal government, our funding will go toward increasing the supply of new affordable housing units, offering more rent supplements, and invest in new home repair and adaptation programs to help low-income homeowners stay in their home.
As I said, Mr. Chairman, Community Services is where many Nova Scotians turn to in times of need. We want to give them the support they need so they have greater control over their lives.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall resolution E4 stand?
Resolution E4 stands.
That concludes our 40 hours of Estimates.
Order, please. The time has elapsed for consideration of Supply on the Estimates. We’ll take a short recess.
[3:09 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[3:10 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. We’ll call the committee back to order.
The Chairman of the Subcommittee on Supply.
MS. SUZANNE LOHNES-CROFT: Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to report that the Subcommittee on Supply has met for the time allotted to it and considered the various Estimates assigned to it.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall the remaining resolutions carry?
The remaining resolutions are carried.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. GEOFF MACLELLAN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I move that the Committee of the Whole on Supply do rise and report these Estimates.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
The committee will now rise and report the Estimates to the House.
[The committee adjourned at 3:11 p.m.]