Child advocate is a cruel target for Tory cuts

Posted on in Child & Family Delivery System – Full Comment – In just three months, the agency found 19 children in care had died. Of the two suicides, one was on a waiting list for mental healthcare.
November 19, 2018.   Chris Selley

Amidst the flurry of announcements accompanying Thursday’s Ontario fiscal update, by far the most surprising and least explicable was the elimination of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, which advocates (hence the name) for children in care, wards of the youth justice system, First Nations children and other vulnerable groups.

Irwin Elman, the province’s child advocate since 2007, has helped bring to light some of the most universally abhorred abuses of children in Ontario’s recent history — perhaps most notably the beating, torture and starvation of seven-year-old Katelynn Sampson, who could have been saved if caseworkers had simply asked to see and speak with her. That led to new legislation requiring children be put at the centre of all decisions made on their behalf.

The Progressive Conservatives haven’t traditionally been hostile to the advocate’s office — quite the contrary. “My party … is proud to have been the first to introduce the child advocate in Ontario, who was Les Horne, under the premiership of Bill Davis in 1984,” Lisa MacLeod told the legislature in 2007, speaking to a bill establishing the advocate as an independent officer of the legislature. (They had previously reported to the ministry.)

That bill passed unanimously. So did a 2015 bill strengthening the advocate’s mandate.

MacLeod’s enthusiasm did not wane when she took on the child services portfolio under Premier Doug Ford. “I’ve loved working with you for the past 10 years,” she tweeted at Elman in September. “I am excited to now be Minister so we can bring in some long-awaited changes!”

The agency spent $10.6 million in 2017. But finance minister Vic Fedeli wouldn’t even confirm the move will save taxpayers any money. The advocate’s responsibilities aren’t being eliminated, after all; they’re being transferred, in theory, to the provincial ombudsman.

That might fit the Tories’ “efficiencies” narrative, but an advocate isn’t the same thing as an ombudsman. “It outrages me that we’ve removed somebody who (people) can call who will stand beside them,” says Elman — “not an ombudsman, who’s going to look at both sides and decide whether the policy was adhered to properly, but somebody is going to stand beside that parent and be with them, or beside that child in the group home and say, ‘We’ve got you.’”

The advocate does all kinds of outreach work, encouraging kids to empower themselves and others to speak up for their rights. Children in care are entitled to call an advocate immediately, and they are required to be told that. The advocate’s office fielded 2,146 calls last year for case consultation and dispute resolution; in the latter case nearly half were in the child welfare system.

If the Tories had some problem with the advocate’s office, or with Elman, now would have been the perfect time to shake things up. Elman’s second and last term is up before the end of the month. “I’m not arguing for my job,” Elman insists. “I was hoping somebody else would come in and take the office from where we left it.”

“I can assure everyone in this legislature that the fiercest child advocate in this province will be me,” MacLeod said during Question Period Thursday. But no matter how pure her intentions, a politician is still a politician — as rather nicely illustrated by the position she now finds herself defending.

There is certainly no shortage of problems to address. The advocate’s first “serious occurrences report,” which compiled data from mandatory reporting, found 19 children in or recently in state care had died in just the first three months of 2014. Of the two suicides, one was on a wait list for mental health care.

During that period there were 334 serious injuries, 123 of them self-inflicted, including 48 instances of cutting. There were 944 young people reported missing, of which 258 had not been found at the end of the reporting period. There were 206 reported mental health crises.

If the child suicide rate in Northern Ontario were transplanted to the big cities, people would lose their minds. There are some 8,000 young people whose lives may have been impacted by the shoddy drug testing at Sick Kids Hospital’s disgraced Motherisk lab; the government stole at least 56 kids from their mothers based on garbage evidence. It’s not even planning to contact everyone affected.

Kids kept in solitary confinement for outrageous periods; kids in care sleeping on floors with jackets for blankets in bed bug-infested homes; kids shuttled through literally dozens of different facilities; kids dying. The overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black children in care and in the youth justice system defies any defensible explanation. This is all just a random Google search away. Somehow it never blooms into the government-threatening scandal it ought to be.

Until it does, so long as kids who have done nothing wrong continue to suffer inhumane treatment in one of the wealthiest places in the world, taking away their one phone call just seems cruel.

Chris Selley: Child advocate is a cruel target for Tory cuts

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This entry was posted on Monday, November 19th, 2018 at 11:51 am and is filed under Child & Family Delivery System. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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