Child advocate gets a boost

Posted on March 13, 2009 in Child & Family Debates – Ontario – Child advocate gets a boost: Ontario eyes new law to improve his access to information on kids in welfare system
March 13, 2009.   Laurie Monsebraaten, Social Justice Reporter

The McGuinty government is considering new legislation to help Ontario’s child advocate gain more access to information about children in contact with the child welfare and youth justice systems, say officials in the premier’s office.

“I can tell you we are reviewing all options on the best possible process to ensure the child advocate is getting the information he needs,” a spokesperson for Premier Dalton McGuinty said in an email yesterday.

Irwin Elman, who became the province’s first independent child advocate last summer, raised the issue in his annual report to the Legislature last month. Entitled 90 Deaths: Ninety Voices Silenced, the report highlights the deaths of children and youths known to the child welfare system in 2007.

Everyone involved in the lives of these children, including schools, public health, children’s mental health, youth justice and child welfare, should be learning from their deaths, the report said.

But privacy legislation has made it almost impossible for the advocate’s office to get even basic information from government and child welfare officials about their lives, Elman said.

Elman had planned to seek an amendment to the Coroner’s Act that would give him access to the pediatric death review committee’s detailed reports concerning children who had open child welfare cases or whose cases had been closed within 12 months of their deaths.

But he put his request on hold yesterday after a meeting late Wednesday with staff from Community Safety Minister Rick Bartolucci’s office during which Elman said he was assured the government will address his concerns in legislation “soon.”

“I can’t tell you how pleased I am,” he told the legislative committee on justice policy, which is currently considering other amendments to the Coroner’s Act.

“There are improvements that need to be made and we are very serious about making them,” Bartolucci’s spokesperson Laura Blondeau said in an interview.

The government is considering a range of options including legislation, she said.

Last month in the Legislature, McGuinty vowed to help Elman get the information he needs.

“I’d rather err on the side of providing the child advocate with more information rather than less information because I’m counting on the child advocate to bring these kinds of issues to light so that governments of all political stripes on a go-forward basis can properly respond to them,” the premier said.

Children’s aid societies and the coroner’s office have criticized Elman’s report as factually incorrect and misleading. They have said 36 of the 90 children became known to child welfare agencies only when they died and that a further 14 deaths were due to fragile health and were expected.

But Elman defended his report during the committee hearing, saying all of the children who died were under his mandate and that Ontarians should be concerned about all of them.

“The coroner’s role is to understand how children died. I want to understand how children live,” he said. “It would be unfortunate if my report became a blame report and not a call to action.”

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