Changes are needed at Ottawa Social Services to better serve recipients

by Reuel S. Amdur

Ottawa Social Services is not doing all it should to help people on social assistance get the provincial rate. There are two programs in Ontario, Ontario Works (OW), administered at the municipal level, and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), administered at the provincial level. A single person on OW in private accommodation receives the normal maximum of $733 per month. On ODSP, the amount is $1,169. Although the ODSP rate is not a luxury, trying to live with OT is a real challenge.

Before describing what should be done to get more people transferred to ODSP, we need to touch on a bit of history and philosophy. To begin with, we should note that the two programs have not covered the same customer groups over time and have had different titles. A group will be moved from one program to another.

In 1969, the normal amounts for a single person on municipal and provincial programs differed by only a few dollars. The difference was related to the different building blocks that the rates were composed of. Yesterday’s and today’s rates have no significant relationship to the cost of living. Rene Brunelle, the minister responsible for the program under Prime Minister Bill Davis, was asked about this and replied that at one point they were linked to the Toronto Social Planning Council’s Family Budget Guide. However, he said, the justification has been lost over the years. That was in the 1970s and it still is today. The amounts are political.

During Bill Davis’ years as Premier of Ontario (1971-1985), a conscious decision was made to increase provincial rates more and municipal rates less. Since then, the rates have generally been increased by a percentage, thus constantly increasing the gap between the amounts of the benefits. A minor change occurred when Ted McMeekin was responsible minister. He gave a small extra amount to singles on OW. Why was the provincial recipient chosen over the municipal recipient? The answer is philosophical, to distinguish between the worthy poor, on the provincial program, and the unworthy poor, on the local program. ODSP recipients “can’t help it,” while those on OW need to be pushed. This philosophical position is found in an earlier phase of the provincial program. For a time, the provincial program was called Family Benefits and covered, as well as people with disabilities, single-parent families (mostly headed by women). Divorced, separated and single mothers and their offspring transferred after three months to the local program. However, widows were accepted immediately. Apparently it’s the woman’s fault.

It has been incorrectly claimed that OT is short term and ODSP is long term. The government has found that the median duration of OT – half above, half below – is five years. Some cases date back decades. Whatever the current rationalizations, it’s always the worthy poor versus the unworthy. Social services are ill-equipped to determine disability. Many disabilities are largely invisible and can even pose a challenge to physicians, including psychiatrists.

Although it has nothing to do with social assistance, one thinks of the case of a client who injured his head because he was hit on the head with a stick. However, he is also a paranoid schizophrenic. A judge had him assessed by a Royal Ottawa psychiatrist, who identified brain damage but not schizophrenia. To identify schizophrenia, salient issues should have been addressed. If the psychiatrist had asked him who was working against him, the doctor would have made this diagnosis. Similar situations arise from time to time in social assistance cases.

There are things Ottawa Social Services can do to move more clients to ODSP. One question concerns record keeping. Many years ago, the Department moved to store records offsite. As a result, thick records have become invisible to social workers. In addition, computer dictation has been reduced to a minimum. Ways need to be found to make case histories more visible to workers, and computer content needs to be more inclusive.

Then there is the issue of clinical records. Social workers must order clinical records. These can have a major influence on the referees. When dentist Dr Aaron Burry headed the department, beginning in 2004, he ordered workers not to order clinical records. Incidentally, when commissioned by social services, hospitals usually provide reports free of charge.

Social services have developed a mythical explanation for why hospital records are not ordered. He claims records were ordered until Bob Rae’s government (1990-1995) ended a form colloquially known as the layman’s doctor, which a social worker could fill out in support of a claim provincial benefits. There are two problems with this myth. First, it does not explain why one thing would follow the other. Second, it’s just plain wrong. During the Rae years, hospital records were commissioned, both before and after this change by the Rae government. It had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to stop ordering records.

After 1999, in one case, the arbitrator noted a lack of hospital records. Ten have been identified and applications prepared. The welfare supervisor, with the applications in hand, did not act, until then-head of the department, Danielle Massé, told him to do so. The files have been ordered and the client has been granted. This was well after the Rae era and shortly before the Burry era.

In summary, social services need to make client information more transparent to social workers, and workers need to make a significant effort to submit requests for hospital records.

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