Changes to children’s aid system are a promising start – Opinion/Editorials – A blueprint for change from the Ministry of Children and Youth Services that will profoundly affect how the province’s 47 children’s aid societies operate is most welcome.
Sept. 23, 2016.   Editorial

Removing a child from his or her family home is one of the government’s most disturbing and disruptive powers. So it’s unfathomable that until now that power has been exercised so unevenly under Ontario’s children’s aid system.

How bad is it? Last spring a government-commissioned report described a muddled system in which the province actually loses track of children taken into care, has no minimum qualifications for caregivers and allows a growing number of kids “with complex special needs” to be placed in unlicensed programs. A few months earlier, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk reported that the government pours almost $1.5 billion into a system without even knowing the quality of care provided and how children in its care are doing. And Premier Kathleen Wynne mused last December that she would be willing to blow it up and start from scratch, if that’s what it would take to fix it.

In other words, the overly complex system of 47 children’s aid societies responsible for more than 15,000 kids in foster care and group homes is a mess that puts at risk the well-being, and sometimes the very lives, of children in its care.

Now, finally, after a decades-long hands-off approach, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services has a plan to overhaul the system. And if the bare-bones blueprint for change that was revealed by the Star last week is any indication, it’s a promising beginning.

Among some of the sensible first steps and why they are needed:

– The ministry will better co-ordinate support services for families, children and youth to stabilize their living situations and support them through crises so that more children don’t have to be taken from their families in the first place.

This only makes sense when there is no evidence of willful abuse or neglect. But, too often, poor or racialized children are taken from their homes for less dire reasons.

For example, a study of removal rates in 2013 found that children whose families ran out of money for housing, food or utilities were twice as likely to be placed with foster families or in group homes as their peers. It makes much more sense to help them access support to get back on their feet while keeping the family intact.

At the same time, research found that aboriginal children are two-and-a-half times more likely to be taken from their homes and placed with foster parents or in group homes than white children, while black children are 13 per cent more likely to be taken. Experts have blamed these disproportionate rates of removal on cultural misunderstandings, which could be cleared up with better education of child welfare workers and support programs for parents who are well-meaning but need direction on what disciplinary measures are appropriate.

– The ministry will amend the Child and Family Services Act so the minister can require amalgamations of societies, and even take over some organizations by appointing someone to oversee them.

Amalgamating some of the current mish-mash of 47 siloed societies makes sense, as does replacing the leadership of those found to be floundering. At the same time, the ministry is signaling that it recognizes the importance of children’s aid societies that focus on communities with special needs. For example, it will not amalgamate services focused on First Nations, Inuit and Métis children. Indeed, the government promises a “different approach for indigenous communities,” including changes to the Child and Family Services Act to take their needs into consideration.

– One of the most promising changes is the creation of a youth panel, which would work with the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth. Until now children have not been consulted on a system that affects them most, despite a jury’s recommendation at an inquest that they be listened to. It’s high time to bring in this measure.

– A Centre of Excellence for Child Welfare will be established to provide leadership for the quality of child welfare and monitor and report on performance within the system. That is key in a sector where some 600 agencies provide services, from group homes to mental health programs.

For too long Ontario’s children’s aid societies have been left to operate in silos without sufficient oversight and direction from the provincial government. Now there is not only a blueprint for big changes in place, but a promise of more to come. That’s good news for vulnerable children and their families.

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