OTTAWA — Federal officials expressed concerns about possible changes to a grant program for parents of missing and murdered children that only doles out a tiny fraction of its multimillion-dollar budget, newly released documents show.
The July briefing material, crafted for the minister in charge of the program, shows that officials fully expected to go ahead with efforts to simplify the application process and expand outreach efforts to raise awareness about the five-year-old fund, completing both by the end of 2017.
However, loosening what one watchdog described as restrictive eligibility criteria carried "varying levels of program risk," Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos was told. What was meant by that, along with the options presented to Duclos, are blacked out from the documents, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
The government has yet to act on the eligibility criteria — central to the changes advocates had were hoping for after a critical review of the program in August by then-victims ombudsman Sue O'Sullivan, which found grant take-up was abysmally low and that administrating the fund was costing 14 times as much as the grants themselves.
Despite O'Sullivan's findings, "essentially, the grant has been meeting its objectives in providing income support to current applicants," the documents show Duclos was told.
Heidi Illingworth, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, called it disappointing that officials appear to have been "satisfied with the status quo."
"We know that very few parents have accessed the funding overall compared to the costs to run the program," Illingworth said.
Federal outreach efforts since the briefing have done little to boost take-up of the grant, which continues to spend less than one per cent of its annual $10-million budget on grants, and far more on administering the money.
Duclos spokesman Mathieu Filion said the government is still working on changes with the input of stakeholders and the victims ombudsman — a position the Liberals have yet to fill, a delay advocates say has only compounded issues.
"It is taking a bit more time that we intended, but we wanted to make that the changes we will propose will have the best impact," Filion said. "We will make sure this program better helps and supports families who face such tragic circumstances."
First introduced by the previous Conservative government in 2013, the program has never come close to providing the financial support to families the Tories originally touted.
The grant was intended to provide up to $12,250 to parents whose children have either been killed or gone missing as a result of a probable criminal offence in Canada. It requires, however, that the victim be under age 18, the parents neither working nor receiving employment insurance benefits, and the offence less than a year old.
The Tories estimated annual funding of $10 million would help 1,000 families each year.
Since the program came into effect on Jan. 1, 2013, the government has doled out $403,550 of the $53 million available over that time, or about 0.8 per cent of the budget. That figure includes $86,450 spent over the last 12 months on grants, according to numbers provided by Duclos' office.
Only a couple dozen families have received grants over the last five years.
O'Sullivan, the former victims ombudsman, called on the government to raise the age limit for children and allow siblings, grandparents and extended family members to be eligible for funding to accommodate shifting family structures. She also recommended the government make funding available beyond the one-year limit to help parents who need time off for a trial.
Illingworth said less restrictive criteria could help families like those of Ariel Jeffrey Kouakou, who went missing in Montreal one month ago. Police believe the 10-year-old fell into a river, which would make the family ineligible for the grant. Family members remain convinced the child was a victim of foul play.
"This is where the grant should be expanded to include situations where there is an active police investigation ongoing," Illingworth said.
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Jordan Press, The Canadian Press