The Alberta government is appealing a temporary court injunction that has prevented hundreds of young adults from losing benefits meant to help them transition out of the child intervention system.
On March 19, a ruling by the Court of Queen’s Bench suspended the province’s decision to roll back the cutoff age of the program from 24-years-old to 22.
The decision was based on the constitutional challenge of a 21-year-old program participant identified in court documents as A.C.
In her affidavit, A.C. said the abrupt change would force her to return to sex work and put her child at risk of being apprehended.
Justice Tamara Friesen ruled there could be merit to the argument that the amendment made to legislation was unconstitutional and must first be considered at trial.
Friesen said the odds that the challenge would be heard before A.C.’s birthday in August in light of COVID-19 were unlikely and the social, financial and psychological harm she would suffer in the meantime were irreparable.
The change to the Support and Financial Assistance Agreements (SFAA) program was announced last November. It would have impacted nearly 500 young adults when it was set to come into effect on April 1.
‘Absence of evidence’
In the appeal document, Alberta Justice lists 22 issues with Friesen’s decision.
The appeal argues a judgment in A.C.’s case cannot apply to all program participants.
Errors of fact were made in finding that the legislative change would impact the financial and psychological well-being “of 2,100 individuals not before the court, and in the absence of evidence from these individuals,” the government says.
The province argues Friesen legally erred by ruling the amendment was a possible violation of the Charter of Rights under section 7, as well as section 12 which protects Canadians from cruel and unusual treatment.
The appeal also challenges Friesen’s conclusion that the relationship developed under years of government care is akin to that of a parent.
Friesen failed to address evidence that A.C. was on track to receive $1,990 monthly until she was 26 under another program, the province adds.
In an affidavit submitted during the trial in March, A.C. said the SFAA program was helping her complete her education and create an alcohol-free home for her young daughter.
Expert witness psychologist Jacqueline Pei said the abrupt change cut young people off from their support system, leaving them unequipped for life and increased their vulnerability.
Youth worker Mark Cherrington argued that the amended legislation would abruptly remove essential emotional support, where the social worker fulfils the role of a parent — putting youth at greater risk of death, incarceration and addiction.
In her March decision, Friesen said she accepted Cherrington’s uncontradicted evidence as support that the legislative change would cause irreparable harm, which is also being challenged by the province.
Reached for comment Friday, A.C.’s lawyer Avnish Nanda said the stakes are higher now for participants in the SFAA program due to COVID-19 because it would be even harder to find work.
“One of the things that this government said repeatedly is that they’re trying to help folks during this pandemic, emotionally, financially and particularly vulnerable people, but this action seems to be opposite to that,” Nanda said.
“Without these supports, the impact on their lives would be significant and even worse during a pandemic.”
While the appeal questions if A.C.’s evidence can apply to all program recipients, Nanda said Charter case law is clear that it can and the injunction applies to everyone who is impacted.
The appeal alleges that A.C. walked away from the SFAA program in the fall of 2019. Nanda said that is a misrepresentation of what occurred after the government announced changes to eligibility.
“She was devastated … and then she stops engaging because of that,” said Nanda. “It was the impact of what happened, coming to terms with being cut off.”
‘Robust pandemic plan’
The province declined to comment specifically on the case while it’s before the courts.
“We have placed a high priority on ensuring that young adults who had previous involvement in the child Intervention system are safe and have the resources they need to navigate these challenging times,” said Lauren Armstrong, press secretary to the Minister of Children’s Services, in an email.
“That’s why Children’s Services developed a robust pandemic response plan, which includes offering access to supports by making three months of funding available immediately for youth currently in care or receiving services, and youth who may have had past involvement, up to age 24.”
Armstrong said the ministry is also providing the opportunity for young adults up to age 24, whose files were closing, to re-enter into a SFAA arrangement.
In response to questions in March by Alberta NDP’s children’s services critic, Rakhi Pancholi, Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz acknowledged that the reduced eligibility would save $14.3 million to child intervention services in the current fiscal year.