A parent of twins is calling for a law change so universal credit can be backdated beyond three months.
Ella-Mae Michalski spent six months in hospital before and after her complicated pregnancy and the premature birth of Bella and Ruby.
More than 50% of twins and 90% of triplets are born prematurely – which can lead to problems after birth.
Yet when Ella-Mae tried to claim UC from the time of her twins’ birth she was turned down by the Department of Work and Pensions.
It said they could only backdate it three months as she had taken too long to report the birth and didn’t fulfil the “special circumstances.”
She took the DWP to a tribunal which said she should receive all payments from the day the twins were born.
Ella-Mae, 34, said: “I feel so angry with the DWP – I told them how awful my experience with premature babies had been, how traumatised I was, and they did not care. I had to go to a tribunal when I should’ve been at home with my children who were on oxygen 24 hours a day.
“To be told that they wouldn’t backdate my claim because I didn’t fall into the special circumstances category was atrocious. If having children fighting for their lives isn’t exceptional circumstances then what is?
“I felt like they were saying I was an irresponsible mother, that I had been negligent by not reporting their birth earlier. I felt angry, sad, annoyed and hurt – that I’d been treated inhumanely.”
Ella-Mae, of Bromley, Kent, was admitted into St Thomas’ Hospital, South London, 14 weeks into her pregnancy due to a weakened cervix.
She was put on bed rest in isolation and gave birth at her twins at 26 weeks.
Her twins then spent 12 weeks in neonatal intensive care fighting for their lives. Bella and Ruby would spend their first year on oxygen around the clock due to a lung disease.
Ella-Mae said: “I want to campaign for the DWP to change their legislation so having babies prematurely is automatically accepted by the DWP as special circumstances.
“When you are looking after children who are severely ill you are so vulnerable. I feel like the DWP penalises parents who are already suffering.
It was callous, uncaring and unethical when parents who have a child in NICU deserve compassion, understanding and support. Parents in this situation should not be thinking about finances and submitting applications when they are just desperately trying to get through the day. Being treated with compassion would have made a big difference to my mental health.”
She added: “Parents should not suffer economically because of their children being in NICU. There is no greater exception I can think of than having your children in hospital treading the fine line between life and death.”
The girls came home from hospital in February 2019 – a couple of weeks before their due date – and a month later Ella reported their birth to the DWP and asked for girls to be added to the child element of her universal credit. Alice Wright, 33, of Norfolk, gave birth to twins George and Alexander after 28 weeks in April 2020, the start of lockdown, and was so traumatised by the experience that she did not feel capable of submitting a child benefit claim until they were two.
Then she realised it could only be backdated by three months. She said: “It was incredibly frustrating, I didn’t know there was a time limit. My focus has been on keeping the boys alive, not filling out paperwork. We need compassion and empathy. We are living month to month – it can be really hard to make ends meet. The child benefit would make a huge difference for us.”
Shauna Leven, of the Twins Trust charity, said: “The system is weighted against parents with twins, triplets or more. Many of our community have experienced the strife of having babies in neonatal care and the web of bureaucracy that follows.”
Lucy Cadd, of law firm Leigh Day, said: “It is inconceivable Ella-Mae could have been expected to organise her universal credit claim. We hope her case will encourage parents in similar situations to challenge a refusal to backdate.”
A Government spokesman said backdating child benefit beyond three months would make it hard to verify and each universal credit case is considered on its own merit.