August 15, 2011
Susan Roque finds her son’s torn-up socks all over their Sudbury home. It’s an expensive habit she knows 13-year-old Marcus cannot control because he has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism characterized by emotional outbursts and obsessive behaviour.
“If there’s a tear in his sock he’ll start pulling at it. I have socks all over the place with holes everywhere. He just picks at it. He’s very sensory
sensitive. I’m always buying that boy clothes,” said Roque, a single mother of two.
The Canada Revenue Agency has decided, however, that Marcus is “not disabled enough” to qualify for the $2,400-a-year disability tax credit. Roque had been receiving the credit since her son was diagnosed in 2006.
Autism Ontario has heard of two other similar cases in July, raising concerns that legitimately disabled Canadians have become unintended victims of a CRA effort to crack down on dubious claims for the credit.
The executive director of Autism Ontario said it’s unusual to hear of so many rejections in a single month.
“It’s concerning,” said Margaret Spoelstra. “We’re trying to figure out if there’s been a tightening of policy regarding the (disability tax credit).”
In February, a Toronto Star/CBC investigation found companies that specialize in helping Canadians apply for the credit encouraged or exaggerated claims for disabilities they or their family members didn’t have and pocketed commissions as a result. Some firms paid doctors to certify clients’ disabilities.
Then-minister of national revenue Keith Ashfield vowed to “aggressively” pursue tax firms that were submitting dubious claims and “shut them down.”
But almost six months later, not much seems to have changed.
Firms continue to advertise payouts of up to $35,000 for migraines, irritable bowel syndrome and high blood pressure, and charge anywhere from 15 to 35 per cent commission on returns.
One leading Toronto psychiatrist — Dr. Umesh Jain, who runs the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health — says he has received a surge of patients claiming symptoms that would entitle them to the credit. He estimates only one in five cases actually qualify.
Jain is concerned that an influx of claims could collapse the entire program.
The federal tax refund, intended to ease the financial burden of seriously disabled Canadians, allows claims to be filed up to 10 years retroactively. It’s
up to doctors to spell out how an applicant’s claimed disability affects their daily activities.
For her part, Roque thought the agency made an error when her claim was suddenly denied this winter. She filled out the forms again with the required signature and assessment from Marcus’ doctor. His school also sent a letter to describe how he needs “daily support.” But the claim was recently rejected a second time.
“It’s obscene that they denied him the right to this credit. This is a lifelong disability that is not going to go away,” Roque said. “It’s putting his
disability in question.”
CRA spokesperson Noël Carisse said the agency has reviewed “100 per cent” of disability tax claims since 1997. However, Carisse would not say whether the CRA has launched a probe of the tax credit industry as a whole in light of allegations of abuse.
Last September, the CRA raided the office of Winnipeg-based J & J Canadian Grants and found that a single doctor signed forms for 262 clients for more than $2.8 million in disability tax refunds. Court documents said that the company filed claims “containing false or deceptive statements” for a commission on their clients’ returns.
Carisse said the CRA “tracks and investigates suspicious or questionable activities” and “takes any allegation of non-compliance very seriously.”
She refused to comment on the rejected autism claims specifically, but said the credit “is not determined on a diagnosis.” The CRA reviews whether or not a person is “markedly restricted” in their day-to-day life.
Autism meets the criteria, Spoelstra said.
“With autism, we know that if you have that diagnosis, it affects every area of your life,” Spoelstra said.