Province appeals injunction in fight over benefits for young adults leaving government care

·3 min read

The provincial government argued before Alberta's highest court Thursday that it does not have a financial obligation to support young adults transitioning out of the child intervention system until they are 24.

"It's not a continuation of the welfare system," lawyer David Kamal, representing the government, told the court. "These are adults. There is no fiduciary relationship. There's no parent-child relationship. And the director ceased to have any sort of trustee or guardianship relationship with these individuals when they reach age of majority."

The Alberta government is fighting to overturn an injunction granted by Court of Queen's Bench Justice Tamara Friesen in March.

The injunction was granted just as changes were about to kick in that would have reduced the age eligibility of the Support and Financial Assistance Agreements (SFAA) program — from 24 years old to 22 — and cut off hundreds of participants.

In total, Kamal laid out five grounds of appeal. Kamal also argued that an alternate program exists that can provide financial support if needed after participants age out of the SFAA program.

The Appeal Court has reserved its decision.

The appeal is the latest battle in a constitutional challenge that has pitted a young single mother against the province.

The woman, who turned 22 in August, argued that the abrupt end to services and support from her SFAA social worker — an individual akin to a parent — amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Identified as A.C. in court documents, she said the change would force her to abandon her six-year educational plan to become employable and return to sex work, which could result in the apprehension of her daughter.

But on Thursday, Kamal told the court that before A.C. launched the court challenge, she had stopped attending college and communicating with a newly-assigned social worker — allegations her lawyer Avnish Nanda refuted.

'Serious harms'

Nanda said program participants were told they were entitled to benefits until the age of 24 and that they had built their work plans accordingly. The changes meant what they thought they had years to accomplish, they now had to do in weeks, he said.

He said when A.C was informed of the changes in February she was understandably overwhelmed.

"And she was not as communicative with this new interim worker that she hadn't dealt with before," Nanda said.

But eight months later, Nanda said A.C. is still attending NorQuest College and, with the support of her social worker, also got her driver's licence in the summer.

Nanda argued the SFAA program was set up to offer the natural support participants who grew up in government care lack so they can overcome trauma and adversity to create sustainable healthy lives — something other financial assistance programs cannot provide.

Pointing to expert evidence, Nanda said without the program, participants would likely be criminalized or require other government interventions.

"Without SFAA they will be subject to serious, serious harms," Nanda said.

But Kamal said Friesen did not take into consideration that the contract between SFAA program participants and the government can be ended by either party at any time.

"The agreement signed by the respondent in this case explicitly states that SFA benefits may cease before the age of 24," he said.

Public interest

Kamal also emphasized that participants experienced varied levels of government intervention including some who are never removed from their parents' homes.

He argued that governments should be free to extend and withdraw benefits as they see fit, as a matter of public interest, especially in the current economic climate.

"The point is that the government has to be able to expend it's very limited resources across a broad spectrum of programs for all Albertans, and certainly for vulnerable Albertans as well," Kamal said.

Nanda said the government did not prove the change was in the public interest because it did not provide evidence of whether money is being saved and how much.

"Alberta tendered no evidence of the purpose of the amendments so we don't even know what is being achieved through this," Nanda said.