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Bring on the Ombudsman
February 23, 2011 permalink
Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno calls for ombudsman oversight of children's aid.
DiManno: Powerful child welfare authorities must be called to account
When Elaine Campione was on trial for murdering her two young daughters, the prosecution deliberately declined to call child welfare authorities to the stand.
In a strategic gambit to secure conviction — which did, in fact, result — the Crown attorney avoided diluting the case by spreading the blame to anyone other than the accused.
Yet the defendant’s own parents, and her estranged husband, had expressed their urgent concerns about Campione’s mental problems to the local Children’s Aid Society, long before the woman drowned her children in the bathtub in a horrific act of spousal vengeance. The CAS has never been held to account for its decision to return those kids to their mom following her psychiatric hospitalization.
Child welfare authorities in Ontario have immense powers yet are accountable to no one.
The incidents where a member of the CAS or the Catholic Children’s Aid Society or the Jewish Family and Child Service have been charged criminally in cases of youngsters dying or suffering unspeakable abuse while under their supervision can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
The roll call of the dead includes:
- Jeffrey Baldwin: A toddler who was given to his maternal grandparents in a “family adoption,’’ despite the fact his grandmother had been convicted of second-degree murder in the death of her first daughter many years earlier (two other children had been seized) and his grandfather had been found guilty of assaulting children only six years previously.
The emaciated 5-year-old died from shock and bacterial pneumonia brought on by malnutrition. Court heard he was locked in a room surrounded by his own feces and was made to drink from the toilet. At death, Jeffrey weighed just 21 pounds.
An entry from the boy’s case file noted that his grandmother operated as a Society-funded daycare provider “and her worker at the time had no concerns regarding this family.’’
- Randal Dooley: Beaten to death by his father and stepmother 11 months after arriving in their household, he had 13 broken ribs, a lacerated liver and fractured vertebra, and a tooth in his stomach. When his teacher had earlier brought the child’s bruises to the attention of the school principal, that man had called the CAS to report the suspected abuse and was told, as he recounted from the witness stand, that “the CAS was not going to attend.’’
Two weeks after Randal died, the CAS phoned the principal back and asked, retroactively: “Did you expect us to come?’’
- Jordan Heikamp: Five weeks old when he died at the native women’s shelter in Toronto where his teenage mother had been living. The baby had starved to death because his mom had not breastfed him sufficiently, overly thinned the milk formula Jordan was given and been wildly neglectful of the infant’s needs.
The mother afterwards complained that her social worker had not provided the help she required to take care of the baby.
A coroner’s inquest would ultimately rule the death a homicide, though charges against the mother and the social worker were dropped at the preliminary hearing phase. The coroner’s jury, among its recommendations, urged that child welfare workers be reminded it’s the child who needs protection, not the mother.
An internal email allegedly from an executive of the agency, posted online by a children’s advocacy group, describes his initial response to media coverage of Jordan’s death: “I could not understand why this case was causing such an uproar against CCAS.’’
A couple of weeks ago, a Hamilton couple were convicted of abuse and endangerment over two youngsters found living in a locked basement room, after police responded to a 911 call made by the younger boy, who was all of 2 years old. In that case, the social worker had been in the basement mere hours before police arrived and noticed nothing amiss — not the stench of feces and urine, not the two rats caught in a trap.
At trial, the worker said she’d had a bad head cold that day, so was unable to smell anything.
“Her testimony about the basement was not credible or worthy of belief,’’ the judge concluded. “I find that it defies logic that she would not have detected some of the squalor.’’
Yet the Hamilton Children’s Aid Society stands by its employee.
Kids in care, those under agency supervision, are among the most vulnerable human beings in society. And everyone claims their welfare is of paramount importance. In practice, however, there’s a turf war over authority and the playing field is tilted heavily toward the impenetrable secrecy of child welfare agencies.
A Children’s Aid complaint brochure specifically disallows complaints directed at the CAS or the Ontario Child and Family Services Review Board (CFSRB) in matters “currently before the courts or that the courts have already decided,’’ and “matters that fall under other decision-making processes under the Child and Family Services Act or the Labour Relations Act.’’
The province has a Child Advocate office but that department doesn’t possess any investigative powers. It cannot compel cooperation from any agency.
Ontario is the only province that does not grant the provincial ombudsman authority to investigate child welfare agencies such the CAS, the CCAS or the JFCS. Deaths are investigated by the coroner’s office — after the fact, its recommendations non-binding.
There is, essentially, no apparatus for determining whether case workers have been either overzealous or undermotivated in the management of any child’s file and precious little parents can do when faced with the monolith of a child welfare agency scooping up their kids.
“In Ontario, the child protection system is exempt from oversight,’’ says André Marin, the Ontario ombudsman whose annual report this year will again call for changes to the Ombudsman Act, pleading for child welfare agencies to be brought under his office’s jurisdiction.
Marin’s office received 306 child welfare complaints last year, none of which he has the legislative clout to pursue. Ironically, the ombudsman can oversee the policies of the Ministry of Children and Youth Services but can’t investigate how those policies are being applied. “So, we can look into the ministry’s glass tower in downtown Toronto but we can’t reach out to the community that’s being affected.’’
The ombudsman’s office also oversees the operation of the CFSRB — a quasi-judicial entity that reviews complaints made about a child welfare agency’s decisions but doesn’t probe the underlying issues.
“They’re one per cent of the solution, that’s about it,’’ says Marin. “And we have oversight for them. Whoop-de-doo.’’
When a specific case explodes in the public arena — a child’s death, especially — there’s wide discussion of bringing welfare agencies to account, and then the urgency fades away until next time.
“These are powerful agencies that get $1.4 billion a year from the government,’’ says Marin. “They get very defensive, ferociously defensive. And they bring out their well-oiled PR machinery.’’
Marin has long been crying out for government to “plug the hole’’ in the Ombudsman’s Act relative to child welfare agencies. “It’s a legal anomaly that has existed since the ombudsman’s office was conceived in 1975.’’
Last November, an NDP private member’s bill was introduced, yet again, at Queen’s Park to amend the act. “It never goes anywhere,’’ says Marin. “The government always vetoes it.’’
Citizen groups have also been fomenting for legislative changes, holding protests outside some particularly controversial regional CAS offices. “They’re usually portrayed as lunatics or a fringe minority,’’ observes Marin, “but they have legitimate issues.’’
Marin maintains he has the staff to do the job if the province would just remove the shackles.
“I can’t think of any area more ripe for oversight than child welfare. Children die and no one takes responsibility, no one answers the important questions.
“It’s just so sad.’’
Source: Toronto Star
The list of deaths cited by Rosie DiManno is short. Information released by the Pediatric Death Review Committee and child advocate Irwin Elman suggests that the real number of children's aid deaths is in the range of 50 to 100 annually. In twenty years over a thousand children have died in CAS care. Here are a few of the children who have died in Ontario after removal from their parents by force of arms.