‘It’s Creepy’: Ontario Government Wants People To Send Tips About Social Assistance Recipients’ Spouses and Children
Community advocates raise privacy concerns about Ontario’s so-called ‘welfare fraud’ tipline
The Government of Ontario’s self-described “welfare fraud” tipline is collecting information about the “spouses” and “children” of social assistance recipients anonymous accused of breaking the rules, something community advocates describe as an invasion of privacy.
Run by Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, the tipline collects anonymous tips about individuals accused of taking “unfair advantage of social assistance programs.”
“If you suspect welfare fraud in Ontario, let us know,” the tipline website states. “We take reports of fraud very seriously. Please provide as much information as you can about the person you’re reporting.”
In addition to requesting a social assistance recipient’s name, address and other personal information, the attached form also asks informants to record the names of the recipient’s “spouse(s)” and “children.”
Informants providing tips, which are shared with ministry investigators, are not required to identify themselves. “You may choose to remain anonymous,” the website states.
Under the existing policy, once an allegation of fraud has been received, a “fraud control unit,” is set up to review the recipient’s “past and/or present eligibility for assistance.”
Under this policy, the recipient’s “caseworker,” is tasked with preparing a written report. The policy document states that “the caseworker must monitor the fraud referral and follow-up with the police concerning the outcome of the criminal investigation.”
While other provinces have similar website portals for reporting allegations of income and disability assistance fraud, provinces like British Columbia and Alberta do not actively solicit information about spouses or children.
Community groups say the tipline has troubling privacy implications.
“It’s very invasive,” ODSP Action Coalition spokesperson Trevor Manson told PressProgress.
“When you go on ODSP (or OW) you have to sign documents that basically give them permission to shine a flashlight up your ass,” Manson said. “And, clients are very much in the dark about who’s accessing their information and when.
Terry-Lee Marttinen, an Ontario Disability Support Program recipient, researcher and activist, echoes that, calling the tipline website “creepy.”
Under the rules, Marttinen noted, anyone over 18 years of age in the home of a recipient – including children – could be counted as part of the “benefit unit.” Their incomes, in turn, are included in the recipients’ income qualification. The Social Assistance system also has its own definition of “spouse,” which observes whether any two adults who live together for more than three months are in a “marriage-like,” relationship.
“There is a lot of fear about having a guy around, for fear of being charged with fraud,” Marttinen said. “It’s an automatic stigmatization of women on benefits. You are always living hand-to-mouth and you know, if you slip up, you’ll end up homeless – one ODSP check away.”
Reegan Financial advisor Ron Malis said that a larger benefit unit typically means less support.
“As the employed spouse earns more income, ODSP income drops, leaving them to assume more and more of the financial responsibility for both of them,” Malis told PressProgress. “Conversely, the income independence of the spouse with the disability is either compromised or lost entirely, leaving them to rely on their partner for financial support.This can be quite problematic depending on the dynamics of the relationship.”
Because of these rules, Marttinen said, when her 18-year-old daughter took on a part-time job to help pay for post-secondary education, she was at risk of a benefit cut.
“They’re looking at kids as economic supporters,” Marttinen said.“My daughter had her income cut off. I was supposed to take from an 18-year old flipping burgers. Why is an 18 year old given the responsibility to take care of a disabled parent?”
“It takes two adults fully working to survive. It takes a full income. So why are they hyper-monitoring instead of just giving a full benefit to live autonomously as a disabled person?”
Neither the ministry’s spokesperson nor the “welfare fraud” tipline website responded to requests for comment from PressProgress.
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