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March 3, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The Province of Ontario is forcing its child protective agency into the open. As of March 1st, the Children’s Aid Society will be subject to oversight by the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children. Pursuant to an amendment to the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Act of 2007, the advocate will now be empowered to investigate claims against CAS and foster care licensees. Perhaps more important, the reports of its investigations will be a matter of public record. Read about it here (Northern Life, 3/1/16)

This means the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth now has the authority to investigative matters concerning a child or a group of children receiving services from a children's aid society (CAS) or a residential licensee where a CAS is the placing agency.

This includes systemic investigations into child deaths and critical injuries.

Irwin Elman, the provincial advocate for children and youth, said the goal of the legislation is to strengthen the child welfare system in Ontario.

"My Office is committed to carrying out fair, thorough and transparent investigations with the goal of ensuring young people feel heard, empowered and protected in the child welfare system," Elman said in a news release. "We will also look for ways to support those who have been entrusted to care for the province's children and youth so we can strengthen the child welfare system and help young people reach their full potential."

Public reports, including findings and recommendations, will be made available following investigations, the office said.

In short, anyone can file a complaint with the provincial advocate and have it investigated. The public, including the press, will then have access to the reports, their findings and recommendations.

I’ve long argued for greater transparency for children’s welfare agencies. My guess is that much of the malfeasance we see from caseworkers and supervisors alike comes from the secrecy in which they work. It’s the most basic common sense that, the greater the oversight, the greater the impetus to do a good job. By contrast, if only employees of the agency know what employees of the agency are doing, the chances of poor performance are enhanced. Caseworkers are bound to be sympathetic to each other in ways the press and the public aren’t.

The argument that publicity will harm kids involved in published cases is bunk. A black felt-tipped pen is all that’s needed to keep their identities out of public view. Who the kids are isn’t important; what happened to them is. The latter is what the advocate will be providing from now on.

So, there are three pieces of good news. First is that CAS will henceforth have someone looking over its shoulder. That alone will encourage greater care on the part of CAS employees. Second is that the advocate’s reports can be made public.  From now on, in cases about which there’s been a complaint, the public will have a right to know what happened. Third and last, anyone can file a complaint. It doesn’t have to be someone in an official capacity, so residents of Ontario can take action on their own behalf. That’s called democracy in action.

There are a couple of downsides to the new legislation. The first is this:

Anyone who has a concern may request an investigation from the Office, but they must exhaust all other available complaint processes. For CAS services, this will include the local CAS's internal complaints process or the Child and Family Services Review Board.

That of course makes it in CAS’s interest to delay its in-house complaint process. But if that happens, the delay itself could become another cause for complaint. I won’t be surprised to see exactly that occurring.

Then of course there’s that bugaboo of all oversight bodies – they tend to become captives of the very entities they’re supposed to be overseeing. As a recent example, just yesterday I saw an article complaining that, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration is in the pocket of “Big Pharma.”

The more officials charged with oversight do their jobs, the more communication they have with the people they’re supposed to be overseeing. A natural sympathy tends to build up during those communications. Relationships are formed. The givens and assumptions of the people overseen become the givens and assumptions of the overseers. So it goes.

But that’s the natural course of oversight bodies. They require continual monitoring themselves to ensure that they’re protecting the public interest.

What it’s not, however, is an argument against oversight. The fact that the overseers may do a less than perfect job isn’t a reason to allow the agency – in this case CAS – to act without oversight. Indeed, the welfare of kids cries out for exactly that. Throughout the English-speaking world, children’s welfare agencies are time and again caught in the most egregious acts of incompetence and malfeasance. We need to know what they’re doing and they need to know we know. Ontario’s Advocate for Children and Youth now has the power – and the obligation – to give residents information they’ve long needed and deserved.

Well done, Ontario.

Thanks to Paulette for the heads-up.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

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