Marika and Barry Vandewater, both 75, of Oshawa, have cared for their grandson Danny, now 15, since he was 5.
By Andrea Gordon
Living Reporter–grandparents-cheer-big-victory

An Oshawa grandmother says she is relieved and “absolutely thrilled” after a tribunal ruled the province must continue to provide the monthly benefits she has counted on to raise her grandson.

“It’s a tremendous victory,” Marika Vandewater said Thursday. She and her husband Barry, both 75, have cared for 15-year-old Danny for the past 10 years.

But like many seniors, they are living on a fixed income that was not designed to support children.

The couple, who raised three kids of their own, had counted on the province’s Temporary Care Allowance to help cover the costs of caring for their grandson.

The benefits, provided to any grandparent or other family member who steps in to look after children when parents are ill or incapable, includes $230 a month and drug and dental coverage.

But in November 2008, Vandewater was suddenly told her benefits would be stopped because her caregiving arrangement was not considered temporary.

She appealed the decision and last month Ontario’s Social Benefits Tribunal upheld it, calling the sudden cancellation “unfair” and reiterating the need for a “broad and liberal approach” when deciding who is eligible for the social assistance.

“This decision is a great result for the family and potentially all grandparents facing similar challenges,” said Douglas Stewart, lawyer at Fraser Milner Casgrain in Toronto, who handled the case pro bono.

He said it sets down the framework for how future cases should be decided.

Grandparent advocates also hailed it as an important win and called on the province to reinstate benefits for any families who lost them for similar reasons.

They say many grandparents struggling to make ends meet have had the allowance cut off in the past four years as program administrators narrowed the interpretation of what arrangements qualified as “temporary.”

But the tribunal has sent a signal that the province is “out of step with the law,” Pro Bono Law Ontario said in a statement.

Decisions will continue to be made on a case-by-case basis, Madeleine Meilleur, Ontario’s minister of community and social services, said Thursday.

Meilleur wouldn’t comment on the specific case, but she said there has been no change in eligibility rules and that recent policy directives were aimed at ensuring they are applied and interpreted consistently.

“What we have done is clarify the policy,” she said.

The ministry does not keep statistics specific to grandparents.

But Betty Cornelius, founder of the grandparent support group Cangrands, says she knows at least 20 families who lost benefits, affecting 30 to 40 children.

There are roughly 11,000 children in Ontario being raised by grandparents and other relatives who step in on a temporary basis in hopes the parents will one day be able to resume their responsibilities, says Esme Fuller-Thomson, University of Toronto professor of social work.

“One in three of those households are living in poverty,” she said.

Many of the children have had traumatic early years and face health or behavioural problems that require medication or therapies.

The temporary care allowance makes a big difference to those who are most in need. For the Vandewaters, who have an annual household income of about $35,000 from pension and other benefits, the fear of losing that funding was daunting.

“I was just so devastated,” said Marika Vandewater. “We are struggling. We would have lost our house. I’m so grateful that I got reinstated.”

Vandewater said she hopes the decision will also help the other grandparents who have been unfairly cut off.