Ontario child protection bill criticized for ‘weasel words’

TheStar.com – News/Canada – Provincial youth advocate joins author of key report in seeking changes to groundbreaking Bill 89 the Star reports in an exclusive interview.
March 13, 2017.   By LAURIE MONSEBRAATEN, Social justice reporter, JIM RANKIN, Feature reporter

Ontario’s “historic” promise to put children at the heart of its proposed new child protection law is at risk because of “weasel words” that water down — and even exclude — their voices.

That’s the conclusion of Irwin Elman, the province’s advocate for children and youth, and Kiaras Gharabaghi, director of Ryerson University’s School of Child and Youth Care, after a close reading of Bill 89. They are calling for amendments to the act, aimed at overhauling the system that oversees children’s aid societies and youth justice.

They also want the legislation to set minimum educational standards for staff in group homes for children and youth as a way to help reduce the use of physical restraints that can lead to serious injuries.

The proposed act was introduced late last year by Michael Coteau, minister of children and youth services, and praised by young people, youth workers and children’s aid societies, who called it a “historic” opportunity.

The act begins with groundbreaking language on children’s rights, including the right to be heard and respected, but fails elsewhere to ensure the principles are followed, Gharabaghi and Elman said.

“It is a bill that completely lacks courage,” Gharabaghi said in an interview at Elman’s office. “In every section it builds in limitations that suggest this is what we are hoping for, but it’s OK if it doesn’t happen,” he said. “Everything is ‘should be,’ ‘may be,’ ‘could be,’ ‘ought to be,’ ‘where appropriate,’ ‘if necessary.’ ”

“Young people call those weasel words” and they must be eliminated, said Elman. Language to reform group homes should be included, Gharabaghi added.

Coteau said he is “on the same page” on the need to overhaul a “closed” system in place for more than a century.

“We agree this is the best opportunity we’ll have and we have to get it right,” he said in an interview.

Gharabaghi was one of three authors of a ministry-ordered report published last May on residential care for children and youth. The review echoed at least 10 other reports in the past 20 years, including a scathing assessment by Elman’s office in February 2016, Gharabaghi said.

However, as written, the act fails to enshrine improvements to make group homes safer for youth and staff, he said.

“This continues to be a service system that has no laws about who can actually provide services. I think that’s a disaster,” Gharabaghi said.

“My son just got a job at Tim Hortons,” behind the counter, he said. “There was more required training and orientation for my son to work at Tim Hortons than there is in residential group care in Ontario.

“What does that say to young people?”

A fire last month at a Lindsay-area group home killed two people, including worker Andrea Reid, a mother of three. The unnamed victim is reported to be a resident; a third person was injured. A female teenager has been charged with two counts of second-degree murder and arson causing bodily harm.

Police, called to the home for a “disturbance,” found the house in flames. Other details about the fire and what led up to it have not been made public.

Elman and Gharabaghi say the entire system has relied on the hope that nothing bad will happen, and believe the province has long “abandoned” its most vulnerable young people.

In the legislature last week, NDP children’s critic Monique Taylor praised the legislation’s preamble for giving children a voice.

“But when we get to the actual bill … there’s no teeth to actually make sure that children are listened to,” she said.

Coteau, who noted the legislation passed second reading Thursday with all-party support, said there will be ample opportunity to “tweak” wording while it is under review by the justice policy standing committee this spring.

“I think our government is very open to doing what’s right and what’s best for children,” he told the Star. On changes to the residential care system, Coteau said the government is using recommendations from Gharabaghi’s report to build a “blueprint to reform the entire system.”

“The reforms will happen either through a directive or through regulation.”

An ongoing Star investigation into the child protection system revealed that in 2014, there were 23,263 serious occurrences involving children and youth in residential care. Of those, about 9,000 resulted in kids being physically restrained and pinned to the floor by caregivers.

In Toronto group homes, a Star analysis of serious occurrence reports found police being called in 40 per cent of incidents, often because kids broke house rules or damaged property.

Other problems Elman and Gharabaghi identify in the new bill include:

The bill extends the age of protection to 18 from 16, in line with most provinces. But the language should make it explicit that it is a voluntary arrangement for 16- and 17-year-olds. (If there are capacity issues,the act should spell out how an involuntary apprehension would work, they say.) Children’s aid societies should be obligated to provide support when a young person asks for it, and that support should not end at 18. These teens should have all the supports available to youth in care beyond age 18, including foster care, financial support for independent living until age 21, extended medical benefits and post-secondary tuition.

Although many parts of the legislation include an onus on service providers to include the views of children and youth in decision-making, too often this obligation is negated by phrases such as “where possible” or “where appropriate” or “where it is reasonable to expect the child to understand,” Elman and Gharabaghi said.

“Every time there is a reference to young people’s right to a voice, there is another reference to ‘experts’ determining whether this is the right time for a young person to have a voice, and whether what the young person says matters,” Gharabaghi said.

Another simple tweak that could mean a lot to group home residents involves food. Kitchens are often off-limits. Fridges and cupboards are locked between mealtimes. The proposed act says children and youth have a right to well-balanced meals. Elman and Gharabaghi want it to say youth have that right, as well as a right to food, period.
The proposed changes would require many amendments, but Elman said the substantial work involved is necessary.

“These ideas we have about improving the bill come from young people,” Elman said. “If they approve them, they are just doing child-centred practice. They are living up to the principles of the act they are trying to pass.”

https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/03/13/ontario-child-protection-bill-criticized-for-weasel-words.html

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