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Agencies fear hydro cutoffs will hurt children

London Free Press - March 11, 2003
By Jonathan Sher

Children across Ontario could be driven from their homes into protective services when a flood of delinquent electricity bills come due in April, local agencies fear.

"It appears we have a big problem," John Liston, executive director of the Children's Aid Society of London and Middlesex, said yesterday.

"It's going to present a problem not only with this CAS, but others throughout the province."

At the United Way, which runs a program to help pay heating bills, phone lines have been busy with parents worried they'll lose their children.

"Many parents are afraid if they don't heat their homes, their kids will be taken by CAS," said Estela Quintero, United Way's community services manager.

The CAS has in the past avoided removing children because parents can't pay electricity bills by helping the family find financial help or places they can stay, Liston said.

But solutions crafted a family at a time may not work when an expected 1,700 cutoff notices go out next month.

"We've never had to deal with this magnitude," he said.

There's not nearly enough money left in the city's Heat and Warmth program (THAW) to match the demand, with $152,000 for perhaps 350 to 400 families, Quintero said.

While the THAW program has always had less money than needed, this year is worse because of changes at Queen's Park, Quintero said.

In November, the province forbade utilities to cut off customers until April "(For many) the debts have increased to a level that there's no hope," Quintero said.

But local concerns were brushed off yesterday by Dan Miles, an aide to Energy Minister John Baird.

"At this point it's speculation," Miles said.

Asked if Baird had or would approach the minister responsible for Children's Aid Societies, Miles said instead, "We're urging people to work this out with local utilities."

That's also the message of London Hydro, which today will launch a public education drive to encourage customers to work with the utility and better understand what to expect in the near future.

On April 1 alone, 500 cutoff notices are expected to go out -- more than the 350 notices that usually go out in an entire month, said Vinay Sharma, London Hydro's vice-president of customer services.

The crunch has forced London Hydro to pay temporary workers to deliver notices and a call centre to field phone calls, Sharma said. While more than 7,000 accounts are delinquent, about 1,700 are problematic, he said.

The average bill is delinquent three months and tops $700 -- almost double what THAW will pay in most cases.

Of special concern are students who finish their leases in April, he said.

Sharma and Hydro chief executive Bernie Watts will field questions from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. Saturday on AM 980 and again from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. next Tuesday on Rogers Cable TV.

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