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Bountrogianni Promise Broken

July 4, 2005 permalink

When Marie Bountrogianni promised to return custody of severely disabled children to their parents, we speculated on ways the promise might not be kept. Here is one we never suspected: a cabinet shuffle excuses the minister.



The Globe and Mail

Ontario minister's departure leaves disabled in limbo

Parents fear treatment crisis will continue

By KAREN HOWLETT, Monday, July 4, 2005

Ontario MPP Marie Bountrogianni is taking on a new role in Premier Dalton McGuinty's cabinet, leaving a long-standing crisis involving severely disabled children in the province far from resolved and raising concerns among families about further delays.

Ms. Bountrogianni was transferred to Intergovernmental Affairs from Children and Youth Services last week as part of the Premier's cabinet shuffle.

As Minister of Children and Youth Services, she had promised to begin restoring legal custody to families forced to relinquish guardianship over a severely disabled child to get access to treatment. She made the pledge after Ontario Ombudsman André Marin accused the government of turning a blind eye to the problem.

Anne Larcade, whose son has brain damage and a degenerative neurological condition, has seen several ministers come and go during the five years that she has struggled to find treatment for Alexandre. She said she is worried that Ms. Bountrogianni's departure will delay any resolution and lead to another round of empty "we're-working-on-it" promises.

"It's unfortunate because I think she was coming around to wanting to do the right thing," said Ms. Larcade, whose son is in a group home in Huntsville.

Ms. Bountrogianni's successor is Mary Anne Chambers. While the change in ministers might buy the government more time to deal with the problem, it is not going to stop the Ombudsman from pursuing the matter, said a government official. "I think they understand very clearly that André Marin is not a pushover."

Ms. Bountrogianni rolled out her action plan last month after Mr. Marin called the government's failure to address the crisis "unjust, oppressive and unfair."

The problem dates back to the late 1990s when the Progressive Conservative government abandoned legislation designed to provide a safety net for severely disabled children.

The government stopped entering into special-needs agreements with families, forcing them to give up custody of a child to get treatment or manage on their own.

Ms. Bountrogianni's office has identified 83 families that had to relinquish custody of a severely disabled child on either a temporary or permanent basis. So far, 35 families that entered into temporary agreements with a Children's Aid Society have had legal custody reinstated, spokesman Andrew Weir said.

Some of the families do not want to get back custody of a child, he said. But the process will not be as straightforward for the 34 families that do. These are the families whose child has either been taken into temporary care through a court order or been made a permanent Crown ward.

Mr. Weir said the government is working with the Children's Aid Society to go to court to unwind custody agreements for the remaining families.

Cindy Cameron of London, Ont., is one of the parents who has regained custody. She and her husband have signed an agreement with a community youth services group that pays for their son Jesse's treatment in a group home.

Ms. Cameron said she and her husband are relieved that they no longer face the spectre of permanently relinquishing custody of Jesse, something they feared would give them much less say in decisions involving him.

But Linda Limon, mother of a severely autistic son, said it is not just a matter of restoring legal custody to parents. Her son Andrew is in a government treatment centre in London, near the family's home. But the centre has no room for him after the end of August, and she has no idea what will happen.

Douglas Elliott, a lawyer representing a group of families suing the government over its treatment of disabled children, said many of the community agencies that are entering into agreements with the families are inadequately funded. If the government really wanted to solve the problem, he said, it would make special-needs agreements and settle the lawsuit.