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Make CAS Follow the Law

November 1, 2010 permalink

The Ottawa Citizen has reported on John Dunn's efforts to get the list of members of Ottawa children's aid.

The article contains an example of child protectors saying in public the exact opposite of what they do in private. [CAS executive director Barbara] MacKinnon says it’s easy for former Crown wards to get their personal histories. “We err on the side of giving more.”



CAS under threat over list of members

Advocate wants to lobby children’s aid society members to create membership class for former Crown wards

John Dunn
John Dunn is founder and director of the Foster Care Council of Canada, which advocates for people in foster care and former wards of the CAS.
Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — A former Crown ward is threatening to drag the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa into court unless it hands over a copy of its membership list.

John Dunn, founder and volunteer director of the Foster Care Council of Canada, wants to lobby CAS members to create a new membership class for the society’s former wards, regardless of where they live.

That, he says, “would enable people whose lives have been affected by that agency to advocate for changes in how they operate.”

Dunn, an activist who has been pushing for improved transparency and accountability of children’s aid societies in Ontario for years, asked for the membership list in June 2009. But the Ottawa CAS has steadfastly refused to give it to him.

That led him to file private charges last year against the agency and its executive director, Barbara MacKinnon, under a section of the Corporations Act that requires the release of shareholder or membership lists.

The case is scheduled to be heard in provincial court Dec. 1.

In a failed attempt to dismiss the charge this summer, lawyers for the CAS argued providing the list to Dunn would “cause the society to be in violation of privacy laws.”

Their motion called the charges “malicious” and said Dunn was acting in bad faith, claiming he had laid the charges “to obtain a ‘conviction’ so that he might convince the Ministry of Children and Youth Services to investigate” the Ottawa CAS.

When the motion was argued in provincial court in August, Dunn wasn’t even there to make representations.

“I actually slept in, believe it or not,” he says sheepishly. “And they still lost the motion.”

Dunn, who turns 40 on Nov. 16, has twice been turned down for membership in the Ottawa CAS.

In an interview, MacKinnon declined to discuss the court case or the reasons for rejecting Dunn’s membership applications. “It’s his story to tell, not ours,” she says.

But Dunn, who spent more than 16 years in foster care in North Bay, Toronto and Belleville, says the CAS told him he had “acted in ways that don’t support the objectives of the society.

“If you’ve attempted to advocate legitimately,” he says, “you tend to get the wall.”

Anyone 18 or over who lives within Ottawa CAS jurisdiction is eligible for membership, provided they have the best interests of the society at heart.

That includes former CAS wards. “We have former wards who are on staff here,” MacKinnon says. “We have former Crown wards on our board of directors.”

The membership base is small — just 50 or 60 members. They elect the non-profit agency’s 16-member board of directors.

Dunn acknowledges that children’s aid societies “generally do good work. But no system’s perfect, so whatever issues arise, they should be addressed.”

Expanding the membership base by creating a new class of former wards would make the agency more accountable, he says.

MacKinnon says the society has never been asked “in any formal way” to create a membership class for former wards.

“We’d have to think that through,” she says. “It’s not something we’ve addressed as an organization.”

Dunn also laid charges against the Ottawa CAS in 2007, when it refused an earlier request to provide him with its membership list.

At that time, he wanted to contact members to propose creation of a new, non-voting membership class for current Crown wards.

He withdrew the charge after the CAS agreed to give envelopes addressed to members to the assistant Crown attorney in the case. She mailed out Dunn’s letter, and passed on the responses.

Only one CAS member supported the idea of extending membership to current Crown wards.

Dunn’s latest campaign was triggered by the case of 67-year-old Gary Curtis, a former Crown ward who lives near Winchester.

Curtis had asked to see his CAS file, but says he was only given about 60 per cent of the material in it. “We know they took stuff out.”

Hoping to push for changes to CAS policies on information disclosure, Curtis applied for membership, but was turned down because he lives outside Ottawa.

“They told me I could join Cornwall. What the hell do I want to drive to Cornwall for?”

Curtis is now a director in Dunn’s organization. “We’re not going in to stir up trouble or anything,” he says. “We just want to get them to change their bylaws so people like myself, like John — and there are hundreds of them out there — have the opportunity if they want to join.”

MacKinnon says it’s easy for former Crown wards to get their personal histories. “We err on the side of giving more.”

Only material that deals exclusively with third parties and isn’t relevant is held back, she says.

But Dunn says access to records is a major concern for former wards. Abuse in care is another, though he personally doesn’t have a problem with the processes for screening foster parents or CAS workers.

He’d also like the CAS to make its policies and procedures manual public. “It’s about the way things are supposed to be done, so how are people supposed to know unless that’s made public?” he asks.

The CAS has offered to mail one letter a year from Dunn to its members. But Dunn is resolute. “I won’t be accepting any deals at this point,” he says.

Even if the CAS is found to have violated the Corporations Act, it still wouldn’t have to give Dunn its membership list. At most, it would be fined. “It’s just a slap on the wrist,” Dunn says.

Despite taking a law clerk course at Algonquin College a few years ago, he’s concerned about how he’ll perform in front of the judge.

“I may surprise the hell out of myself and be fine,” he says, “but I’ll probably choke up a lot. I’m hoping I don’t make a total mess of it.”

Source: Ottawa Citizen