UCC criminology student Sarah Mulcahy was being forced to choose between returning to college and keeping a roof over her child’s head due to an error on the part of the Department of social protection. Sarah Mulcahy, originally from Ballinhassig was informed by the department that she must de-register from UCC or else she would lose her rent supplement payment meaning she faced a choice between her degree and a roof over her child’s head.
Sarah began studying Criminology in UCC in September of 2014 but was forced to defer her course as she became ill in March of 2015. Her situation then arose when she contacted the then Community Welfare officer, Mary Neville, who advised her to fill out a one parent form application and then apply for a BTEA prior to returning to UCC and was also advised to send her sick certs to the Social protection office. After deferring from college Sarah approached the department of social protection for support while she was out of college and was no longer in receipt of a grant. Upon her return to college however she found however that she was been ill-advised by the CWO as she had been placed on the wrong social welfare payment and therefore could not qualify for the BTEA support and would also lose her rent allowance. Sarah believes she was wrongly told to apply for an illness benefit which is intended for workers and not students. This was the main cause of her problem as those on illness benefit must wait two years to become eligible for a BTEA.
Sarah outlined her position in her own words, “I received a letter from the appeals office today which stated. The BTEA is not a statutory scheme and decisions on applications cannot be appealed at the Social Welfare Appeals Office. They advised me to contact my local welfare, however, local welfare office refuse to switch me and direct me back to SWA office.”
“I feel, I truly have a genuine case and can provide proof of everything I have stated. I’m extremely passionate about my education and I’ve had nothing but sad sleepless nights. With all my heart I cannot give up on my course, the work I’ve put in, the future I will have. It has taken me a long time to get to degree stage. I am pleading for the support of the students union in my fight to continue with my course.”
Following on from the above letter a number of other situations arose such as a letter she received from the appeals board stating her case is being reviewed, but this may take many weeks to review and process. In her position if Sarah had been forced to drop out from her course she would have been forced to begin drawing the dole due to the fact she does not have a substantial amount of stamps to be eligible for job seekers allowance. In the long term due to the manner in which the system is set up she would have been invited by a CWO to place her in a training programme which would have begun the whole process for Sarah all over again.
James Upton the UCC SU deputy president who supported Sarah throughout her ordeal commented on the matter saying “This lady is asking for nothing more then what she was previously entitled to which was the BTEA with full rent allowance. The system has failed her in the fashion that she has fallen between the cracks of an ever changing system. When presenting herself to the department for evaluation and filling in all the appropriate forms Sarah was misplaced on the spectrum and now a system is stifling her educational progression and hampering the development of her family into the future.”
James Upton further elaborated on the larger Situation saying, “A situation like this will not be the first to occur and it is not the last. We must stop wallpapering one the cracks, but instead fix the system to prevent circumstances such as Sarah’s where a young mother is finding it difficult to sleep because she wakes up each day with the extra worry of “will I go back to college” along with the stresses of caring for a young child. This situation is nothing more than a compelling case which warrants immediate attention and support.”
Sarah commenting on the matter said that had she been forced to drop out of college and remain on welfare, she would’ve been forced to study other courses. “It makes no sense whatsoever. Where do I go if I don’t obtain my degree?” Sarah brought her case to several levels of the department and had also written to Minister for state department of social protection Kevin Humphreys to try to resolve her case. However in the last week Sarah was successful in her appeal and her BTEA and rent allowance and will be allowed to return to UCC on Monday 8th of February. Sarah is reportedly overjoyed at the resolution of her case and ecstatic she will be able to return to college.