OTTAWA — The opposition New Democrats say some women who are fleeing domestic abuse are being told they need to get a form signed by their abuser in order to collect the Liberal government's child benefit.
The NDP says constituents have been coming to their offices with letters from the Canada Revenue Agency, which oversees benefit payments, asking them to verify that they are eligible for the monthly allowance.
The agency has multiple ways to determine which parent should receive the benefit in cases of separation or divorce, including having a parent provide documents from a doctor, dentist, social worker or religious leader to identify the primary caregiver.
The agency's website says that "a female parent who lives with the child" is usually considered to be the primary caregiver.
One New Democrat from B.C., however, says none of those avenues was open to one of his constituents.
"When there's an abusive relationship, which led to this split, this puts the woman in a position of having to go to her abusive partner and get him to formally sign off on a piece of paper," said Wayne Stetski, who represents the riding of Kootenay-Columbia.
"That's potentially dangerous physically for that woman. But it's just absolutely wrong on principle."
Stetski said the situation in his riding has been repeated in others, including the NDP-held riding of Saskatoon West, where two different women have come forward with similar stories.
When Stetski's staff checked with CRA officials, the answer that came back was that the agency needed the signature from the other parent. "They wanted to see that signature on a piece of paper."
The government is promising to look into the issue as quickly as possible after being alerted to Stetski's concerns during Friday's question period.
"It is a significant issue and I assure the member we will get a specific answer to the specific issues," Adam Vaughan, the parliamentary secretary to the social development minister, said in response.
"That is an issue which has just been raised today and I am happy to sit with the member and get the proper results."
Vaughan later tweeted that no government policy should put a woman in danger.
The Canada Revenue Agency said it accepts copies of a police report, restraining order, or a letter from a shelter confirming the woman lives at that location in cases of women fleeing domestic violence when making tax or benefits decisions. A spokesman said the CRA doesn't require clients to obtain a signature from their spouse or partner in order to receive the Canada child benefit.
"The CRA would not ask clients in these situations to contact an abusive spouse," Patrick Samson said in an email.
The Liberals brought in the child benefit last year, rolling three benefits into one income-tested benefit that costs the government $23 billion a year.
The benefit provides on average an additional $2,300 a year in payments to families, compared to the system it replaced. Finance Department calculations of tax data from 2014 estimated that 87 per cent of families with children were better off under the new benefit than the previous child benefit system — about the nine of out 10 figure the government publicly touts.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked about the child benefit during a stop Friday in Vancouver where he was pressed about the extent to which it helps middle-class Canadians, particularly where housing prices and other costs were rising.
The benefit is not indexed to inflation, which means it does not increase with the cost of living. Indexation, as it's known, is set to happen after 2019, the year the next federal election is scheduled to take place.
Trudeau said the government is trying to give families the tools they need to succeed, but acknowledged that the Liberals know there is more that can be done.