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June 13, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

After much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, Ontario has finally committed to overhauling its child protective agency (Toronto Star, 5/20/16). As with seemingly every such agency, past practices have proven scandalously bad at doing the job the Children and Youth Services Ministry is charged with. Will the new reforms, assuming they’re put in place, improve the lot of children at risk of abuse or neglect in the province? Good question. My guess? Not much.

Queen’s Park is promising a major overhaul of Ontario’s child protection system after a long-awaited report sharply criticized the government for failing to ensure that vulnerable children are getting quality care.

The government’s promised action — and the report it released Thursday — comes after an ongoing Star investigation found a child protection system that is often unaccountable and secretive, and group homes where high numbers of kids are being physically restrained.

The new report, written by three government-appointed experts, describes a muddled system where the government loses track of children taken into care, has no minimum qualifications for caregivers and allows a growing number of kids “with complex special needs” to be placed in unlicensed programs.

That is to say the Ontario system is pretty much in line with others like it in the U.S. and elsewhere. Underpaid, underqualified and overworked caseworkers do a poor job of assessing and addressing the needs of children at risk. That they often account only to their own supervisors who are as much a part of the problem as anyone doesn’t improve matters. That the whole sorry mess occurs behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes of the press and activists for children virtually insures that children at risk remain at risk.

The report, called Because Young People Matter, lays responsibility for the troubled system squarely at the doorstep of the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, noting it failed to put province-wide standards and mechanisms in place to ensure children receive high-quality care.

The report was embraced by the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies and by Ontario's Advocate for Children and Youth Irwin Elman, who hailed it as a watershed moment for child protection.

“If you see the system as a home, the whole home is in disarray and in need of renovation,” he said, calling the report a “damning” indictment of a ministry with no ability to understand how children in care are doing.

So what does the Ministry promise to do to address such a “damning indictment” of its own incompetence? Well, it’s going to rearrange its bureaucracy, that’s what.

They call on the ministry to create four new units: one of inspectors who conduct spot checks to ensure new quality standards are met, another to collect and analyze province-wide data about the system’s performance, a third that monitors the care individual children receive as they move throughout the system, and an advisory council that gives voice to the experiences of youth, families and caregivers.

That’s both surprising and not so surprising. It’s surprising because, while the bureaucracy of the agency is doubtless a factor in how it operates, I know of nothing to indicate that that’s the major problem facing any child welfare organization. Is it in Ontario? The report by “the experts” says not a word about whether caseworkers are properly paid or trained. It says nothing about their caseloads or turnover rates. It deals only with children already confined to state care, while ignoring how they got there or whether they should be there at all. Face it, improving the “quality of care” in foster and group homes isn’t the first priority to a kid who shouldn’t be there in the first place.

And that’s why the report’s recommendations aren’t surprising. It was written mostly by child welfare insiders, i.e. those who’ve been in the system so long their ability to think outside of it long since atrophied.

The simple fact is that Canadian parents are up in arms about the heavy-handed tactics of children’s aid societies and those in Ontario are no exception. Time and again we see fit parents protesting their treatment by whatever CAS they happen to be battling. Their universal complaint is that caseworkers seem not to care about the facts of the case in their zeal to wrest children from their parents. For example, tell me how rearranging the bureaucracy would have prevented what happened in this case.

Of course aggrieved parents aren’t unimpeachable witnesses against the system, but after a while, when the same issues arise time and again, it’s self-defeating to turn a deaf ear to them.

But that’s what this report does. That the report constitutes the pretense of reform while actually accomplishing little is only reinforced by another issue about which it says nary a word – secrecy. As industry insiders, the authors doubtless take for granted the oft-repeated mantra that caseworkers acting outside of the public eye protect the children involved.

But that is so much nonsense. Secrecy doesn’t shield anything of importance to kids; it shields bureaucrats and caseworkers from the consequences of their own errors and incompetence. As with all of us, that’s just the way they like it. No one wants to be exposed to public judgment, but face it, that’s what’s necessary to keep child welfare agencies from becoming the unaccountable and actually harmful messes currently on view in Ontario.

This report may or may not address real needs of the agency charged with keeping children safe from abuse and neglect. I suspect there are problems there that need solving and following through on the report’s recommendations may help.

But in no way does the report take on the root problems families and children face when the knock on the door comes from the local CAS. Sadly, this is at least as much business as usual as it is “reform.”

 

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