Ninety dead children
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Ninety dead children
February 24, 2009
The shocking death of 90 children and teenagers in 2007, all involved with Ontario’s child protection system, cries out for an accounting. Irwin Elman, the province’s child advocate, rightly labels this loss “too high by any standard.” His office is the ideal agency to address these deaths, given its mission to identify threats to vulnerable children and to advocate on their behalf.
But that accounting is being blocked by government officials. Citing privacy concerns, they are refusing to share detailed information with Elman’s office.
In the interests of getting to the bottom of this matter, the barriers to the flow of information must be removed.
The scope of the problem is outlined in the title of Elman’s annual report to the legislature: 90 Deaths: Ninety Voices Silenced. The dead children were teenagers in foster care or whose families had an open file with a children’s aid society or died within a year of such a file being closed. Some were murdered; some killed themselves; some died accidentally. Most of the deaths were very likely preventable.
Responding to accusations of “stonewalling” in the legislature yesterday, Minister of Children and Youth Services Deb Matthews said a protocol on information flow had recently been signed between her department and the office of the child advocate.
While a step forward, that protocol mainly provides a mechanism through which information can be requested. It doesn’t mean that any substantive information will actually be delivered, especially since the information barriers remain in place.
When staffers in Elman’s office tried to look into complaints of physical abuse from a youth held in detention, they were told they had no right to see reports and photographs of the alleged injuries. And when Elman asked to see children’s aid society documents, including a Child Fatality Case Summary Report required after every death, he was again told privacy rules prohibited such releases.
This seems absurd. If this information is available to CAS staff, whose job is to protect and care for vulnerable children, why should it be denied to Ontario’s advocate for children and youth? Ministry officials take the position that they are simply enforcing existing law on privacy. Then the law should be changed.
Fortunately, an avenue to a quick amendment is open, as the legislature is currently considering changes to the Coroners Act. A provision could easily be inserted in that bill giving the child advocate the right to receive detailed information concerning child and youth fatalities.
Queen’s Park should also consider increasing the advocacy agency’s $3.9 million budget. With just 21 people on staff, it is smaller, on a per capita basis, than similar offices in the other provinces.
The loss of even one child is a tragedy. When that loss is multiplied 90 times among children under the government’s care, the tragedy becomes alarming. Privacy concerns and lack of funding won’t silence the alarm bells.