Anyone caught practising welfare fraud in Ontario will face a lifetime of consequences, beginning April 1.
"We in the County of Renfrew are taking this very seriously," warns Mark Darroch, Renfrew County's director of community services and the Ontario Works program.
Under the new rules, anyone convicted of social assistance fraud will be banned from receiving benefits for the rest of their life. Previously, a first-time conviction resulted in a three-month ban from benefits and subsequent convictions meant a ban of six months. "This is part of the province's drive to stamp out welfare fraud," says Mark Darroch. "It's a zero tolerance policy, and that means no second chances, no hearings and no appeals."
He and Stephen Lyon, Renfrew County's social services eligibility review officer, point out that the vast majority of people who receive assistance will not be affected by the new rules.
"The majority of our clients are upstanding, law-abiding citizens who will not be affected by this," says Lyon. "The deceptive character is the one who should really be concerned," he adds.
Under the new rules, anyone convicted of fraud will be permanently ineligible for benefits from either the Ontario Works Program or the Ontario Disability Support Program. Fraud investigations are initially done by social services staff. If a criminal intent is found, the case is turned over to the police and Crown attorney for a full criminal investigation and court proceedings. It is when a conviction is made in court that the lifetime ban takes effect.
If the person convicted of the crime is a parent, assistance will continue for their children only. Social assistance workers will have the discretion to pay that assistance to a trustee when there is concern regarding how the funds will be spent.
"It's a lifetime of consequences," says Darroch. "We want people to get the message, loud and clear, it's just not worth the risk." "Our social assistance programs can only continue if everyone plays fairly," he adds. "We want to be able to help the people who truly need the support, and we can only do that if we weed out the cheaters and abusers of the system."
Darroch points out that the new zero tolerance policy is part of Ontario's overall welfare reform. Renfrew County staff have been intensively trained and equipped with state-of-the-art technology which allows them to share information with offices throughout the province to confirm applicants' eligibility for assistance.
"It's important for everyone to be aware of how the system works," he says. "We're taking this seriously, and we expect our clients to do the same."
Information regarding the zero tolerance policy is included with the current issue of assistance cheques. (For more information, contact Mark Darroch, County of Renfrew, 735-7784)