Sask. women struggling after Canada Child Benefit payments cut

Many Saskatchewan women receiving federal child benefit payments must now prove they are Canadians, that their children exist and are in their custody. Many said child benefits are cut off for months on end while bureaucrats review their files.

Ottawa asking a growing number of prairie women to prove their eligibility

Kirsten Noelle Ismond was about to celebrate Christmas with her fiancé Brendan and their daughter Molly, when they received notice their child benefits were under review. (Submitted by Kirsten Noelle Ismond)

Many Saskatchewan women receiving federal Canada Child Benefit payments are upset after random case reviews have led to months of delayed payments.

Introduced by the federal Liberal party, the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) was touted as a "game changer", especially for low-income families. It replaced the Canada Child Tax Benefit, the National Child Benefit Supplement and the Universal Child Care Benefit programs.

At the time of the launch, Finance Canada said CBB would lift 300,000 children out of poverty, compared with 2014-15 figures.

Saskatoon mother Kirsten Noelle Ismond went four months before the CRA reinstated benefits for her daughter. (CBC News)

However, even before the programs were rolled together, a growing number of women from across Saskatchewan tell CBC they've received letters from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) demanding proof of their eligibility in these programs.

"It's very invasive," said Kirsten Noelle Ismond, who lives with her two-year-old daughter and her fiancé in Saskatoon. "They wanted a ton of personal information, from health cards, birth certificates … driver's licence, they wanted letters from your doctor, dentist, daycare. They wanted your lease agreement or mortgage documents."

'Terrifying, exhausting and overwhelming'

Other women say they've had to pay anywhere from $25 to $75 for notes from their doctor, confirming their children exist.

Laura Davies underwent the review several times while she was a single parent. (Facebook)

"This happened to me, several years in a row while I was a single mom," said Laura Davies, a mother of three children, now married and living in Warman.

"It was terrifying, exhausting and overwhelming," said Davies.

Ismond said she battled back and forth with the CRA for months, sending in her daughter's growth chart and photographs.

For four months, her benefits were cut off completely after she submitted her first set of forms online without the correct case file number attached.

"We couldn't buy as many groceries," said Ismond, who had to borrow money from relatives until the CRA paid the missing benefits as a lump sum. "We had to be careful with how many diapers we were using or how many wipes we were using."

Stay-at-home mothers struggle to provide sufficient information

"I needed daycare notes, doctor letters, school letters, birth certificates, health cards," said Becky Gray, a Saskatoon mother of two daughters. "I have been a stay-at-home mother since the day my oldest was born and she was only two at the time so she wasn't in school."

I sit here and I struggle every single month because I get nothing from them.- Becky Gray

Gray sent in as much documentation as she could, including notes from previous landlords, and a letter from the girls' father stating the children have always been in her care.

A letter came back from the CRA saying that wasn't enough.

"I sit here and I struggle every single month because I get nothing from them," Gray told CBC, after missing benefit payments for more than a year.

"The CRA owes me over $15,000 and I'm very doubtful I'll ever see any of it," she said.

Becky Gray estimates she's missed $15,000 in child benefit payments, as she tries to prove she is a Canadian resident and has full custody of her two daughters. (Submitted by Becky Gray)

The Canada Revenue Agency does not have any service counters in Saskatchewan, and advises people to submit documents online. 

"It's a painstaking process to call them," Ismond said. "Half the time it rang busy, and you couldn't get through and you'd have to call back again."

'People are suffering': Saskatoon MP

Sheri Benson, Member of Parliament or Saskatoon West, said she's received many distraught calls from constituents who are having a hard time satisfying the CRA. 

"People are counting on this money," she said. "They were having to make decisions. Do I keep my phone? Do I pay for rent?"
(CBC)

Benson's office staff counted 46 people who've come in for help with child benefit reviews as a last resort, after running into difficulties reaching the CRA. Only 17 of those cases have now been resolved.

After pressing the agency, Benson discovered that there were fewer people working at the revenue agency over the summer, and none were designated to assist the Prairie region.

Public service staffing levels 'gutted'

However, Benson believes this problem is much bigger than a summer break.

"The previous government gutted the public service," she said. "There aren't enough people left to do the job."

Benson said she and her staff are stuck as they try to help desperate women. Other New Democrat MPs in Regina, Winnipeg and Edmonton have observed similar frustrations.

"People are coming in in tears. They're not sure when it's going to be resolved. Some people have lost their housing," Benson said, noting at least one CRA agent told a constituent to go to the food bank if she didn't have enough to eat.

"It's not just a matter of trying to get the right documents and everything will be OK, people are trying to survive," said Benson, who noted the requirements for documents tend to be inconsistent.

"People are suffering while they're trying to figure out what we feel should be a fairly simple thing to do."

CRA responds

Many women say they've never received a satisfactory answer about why their files were flagged for review.

For its part, the agency has not said what prompts the reviews, only that they're part of its regular work to keep people accountable.

"In a self-assessment system such as ours, impartial and non-discriminatory reviews are completed to validate information such as residency, marital status and primary care of children, all of which affect benefits and credits," wrote the agency in an email. "The CRA is committed to paying the correct amount of benefits to every eligible individual."

The CRA conducted 196,014 reviews of people getting the Canadian Child Tax Benefit in 2014-15, and 172,040 reviews in 2013-14.

An official said statistics for 2015-16 are not available. A breakdown of the number of Saskatchewan reviews compared to those conducted across the rest of the country was also unavailable.

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