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Income support program for parents of missing, murdered children draws weak uptake

By Michelle Zilio | Apr 2, 2014 5:00 am As the government prepares to roll out its long-anticipated Victims Bill of Rights this week, new documents obtained by iPolitics show an income support program for parents of missing and murdered children has had extremely weak uptake. A government press release from April 2012 said the Federal Income Support for Parents of Murdered or Missing Children was expected to support an estimated 1,000 families annually by providing $350 a week for up to 35 weeks to parents of missing or murdered children who have had to take time off work to cope. But, according to Access to Information documents obtained by iPolitics, only 12 applications have been received for the program since its inception in January 2013. The ATIP did not indicate how many applications have been approved, and Employment and Social Development Canada could not share this information for privacy reasons. The ATIP also shows that a total of $68,250 has been provided to eligible applicants or 195 weeks worth of weekly $350 payouts. While victims advocacy groups generally support the intent behind the program, they suspect there have been problems with outreach to potential applicants. What were finding is that families are not aware of it, said Sharon Rosenfeldt, president of Victims of Violence. Rosenfeldts son, Daryn Johnsrude, was a victim of serial killer Clifford Olson. Following her sons murder in 1981, she founded Victims of Violence, which provides long-term support to victims of violent crime and their families, as well as families of missing children. Speaking from experience, Rosenfeldt said outreach is key for victim support programs such as the Federal Income Support for Parents of

Murdered or Missing Children, as parents are often too distraught to seek available resources. If youre the major breadwinner in the family, it really means a lot to be able to have a program that you can depend on for the first six months, said Rosenfeldt. This program would definitely would have been of much benefit to us. In an email to iPolitics Monday, Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenneys office said the government is working with stakeholders to find ways to raise awareness of the grant. Our objective is to make this as accessible as possible for families who are going through this difficult time. We encourage families to contact us if they have any questions about applying, said Kenneys spokeswoman, Alexandra Fortier. Like Rosenfeldt, Executive Director of Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime Heidi Illingworth has one main concern with the criteria for the program. Our agency would prefer it to not be restricted to children under 18, said Illingworth. No matter how old the parent is, when you lose a child, its a horrific experience and having some income support at any age is helpful. Under the current requirements, parents must have made at least $6,500 income in the previous calendar year and be on leave from work in order to apply. Their child must be younger than 18 years old and have been missing or murdered as a result of a probable Criminal Code offence after January 2013. And in the case of murder, the child must not have been a willing party to the crime that led to his or her death. For former Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime Steve Sullivan, there is some truth to the awareness issue, but, for him, the strict criteria are mostly to blame for the programs poor uptake. First, he has a problem with the governments initial expectation of supporting an estimated 1,000 families annually.

We dont have that many children under the age of 18 who are murdered, who are abducted and not returned, said Sullivan, who served as Canadas first ombudsman for victims of crime. Were looking at a relatively small group to begin with and I think the governments estimation of 1,000 families was really out of line. Im not sure where they got their numbers from. iPolitics was told the department estimated the program would benefit 1,000 families annually in an effort to err on the side of overestimating the number of applicants. Sullivan also raised concerns about the requirement that a murdered child must not have been a willing party to the crime that led to his or her death. Even if your 16-year-old son is murdered, if he was involved in something like gang activity or drugs or that kind of thing those parents might not even be eligible. While Sullivan acknowledges the program has helped a handful of people, he says an expansion of the criteria could help a lot more families. Even though that would likely cost the government more money, Sullivan adds that the money spent is peanuts in comparison to other federal programs. It is not clear exactly how many children are currently missing in Canada. According to the RCMPs National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, 45,090 children were reported missing in 2012. Of that total, the centre notes that 65 per cent of missing children and youth reports were removed within 24 hours, while 86 per cent were removed within a week. It is also not clear how many children were murdered in recent years. At the time of publication, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS) had not responded to iPolitics inquiry requesting this data. NDP Justice critic Franoise Boivin said, sadly, she is not surprised the program has had such weak uptake, given its narrow criteria. A former labour lawyer, Boivin said she has always believed the program would not apply to many parents. She accused the government of using the program to

appeal to voters. You know why they are doing this? Because it wont cost that much money, but at the same time, its a sensitive issue, said Boivin. I remember Senator Boisvenu doing some big press conference at the time minister and the prime minister and everyone just saying how good they are. The program was announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in April 2012. He was supported by Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, who became a victims rights activist after his daughter was murdered in 2002. The news comes as Justice Minister Peter MacKay prepares to roll out a Victims Bill of Rights in the coming days, according to a Canadian Press report. In past interviews, MacKay has said the Victims Bill of Rights would involve victims throughout the entire process from the initial offence to sentencing. The legislation will expand on the Conservative governments tough on crime agenda.