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Children's Aid Reform
March 2, 2011 permalink
Muskoka reporter Alison Brownlee has already written two articles focusing on individual children's aid cases, one each from a dissatisfied and well satisfied client. The third article in the series covers the policy problems. It includes all points of view, from CAS executive director Marty Rutledge to Vernon Beck.
Children’s aid to face continuing challenges.
HUNTSVILLE – The demand for children’s aid services is growing, but so is unrest with the way those services are provided.
Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka, which handles mental health and youth justice as well as child welfare cases, completed about 564 investigations related to child safety issues in 2009-10.
But each year the agency also provides support services such as housing, counselling and access to broader community programs to thousands of families from Honey Harbour to Dorset and Severn Ridge to Novar.
While even critics view many of these services an essential to every community, they argue child welfare cases involving apprehended children often cause the most trauma for families
In 2009-10, Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka had 135 children in care, whether in foster homes, group homes or institutional-care facilities. That number has increased from 115 in 2007-08 to 124 in 2008-09.
Marty Rutledge, interim executive director for the agency, said the number of cases requiring investigation has also increased, with 68 more cases by the end of fiscal 2010 over the previous year.
Rutledge said the uneasiness many people have around children’s aid agencies may stem from the amount of authority the agencies have.
“Part of what we do is policing people’s behaviour and we have tremendous authority. We’re one of the few institutions in our society that has the right of entry without warrant, for example, so we know we have a tremendous amount of power,” he said.
“But we’re all people who come from helping professions – our backgrounds are either family studies programs, child and youth worker programs, psychology – so here we are as trained helpers with a policing role.”
The Harris government’s introduction of the Ontario Risk Assessment Model, with its focus on a strict, forensic approach to child welfare investigations, did not help the societies’ reputations, he said, noting the model was used for about a decade.
The Liberals, he said, created a more collaborative approach between families and children’s aid societies and in 2006 the provincial government introduced the Transformation Agenda aimed at balancing child protection with family preservation.
But some do not believe this is happening.
Last year Muskoka saw two rallies and one meeting held in Huntsville during which participants demanded increased oversight of the financial and operational aspects of the agency. Similar rallies popped up across the province as well.
One of the largest events in the area was a public meeting held in November at Royal Canadian Legion Branch 232 in Huntsville. About 90 people attended the three-hour meeting and heard guest speakers from across Ontario talk about their experiences with various children’s aid societies and the misuse of power they say they witnessed.
Guest speaker Vernon Beck, who has been involved with a group called Canada Court Watch for over 15 years, said he supports the existence of children’s aid societies because there are families and children who do need help.
But he also alleged that some families’ lives were “being devastated” through their interaction with any one of the 53 agencies across the province.
Beck noted that although the agencies receive government funding, the province does not run them. He argued that, as they are private organizations, the societies “need to open cases to stay in business.”
Beck also alleged that many children’s aid workers are violating the Social Work and Social Service Work Act by practising social work without being registered with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers.
Rutledge later commented that on average the province provides the agency with about $97.17 per day per child and while the care of some foster children costs less than this, the care of children in group home care costs more and care for medically fragile children is much more.
While the entire regional organization has an annual budget of about $9 million, the child welfare department works with a budget of about $6.5 million.
Rutledge also said the agency does not go looking for new cases to open, noting that case workers have workload caps in place that are being reached because of increased demand for the agency’s services.
JP Arsenault, who serves as intake department manager of services for the agency, noted workers have to go through months of training and audits before they can be certified as child protection workers.
“The other myth is that we’re all social workers,” said Arsenault. “The mandate doesn’t dictate that you have to be a social worker to conduct child welfare, as long as you meet the standards, as long as you’re certified.”
Rally-goers and meeting speakers also complained that in one year over 90 children known to provincial children’s aid societies died.
According to the Office of the Chief Coroner, 90 children in Ontario in 2007, who were either in the care of children’s aid societies or had their cases closed in the previous 12 months, had died.
In 2009, 135 deaths were reviewed by the office. Of those, the office’s executive committee determined 74 could not have been prevented by children’s aid society or medical intervention, according to Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka.
Thirty-three of the cases were reviewed in detail. Of those, 17 children were involved in open children’s aid society cases, 16 had had their cases closed within the last 12 months, and four of the children were in the care of the children’s aid society – two of which were Crown wards.
Critics object to the fact that Ontario is the only province that does not allow ombudsman oversight of its children’s aid societies.
Bill 131 is a proposed amendment to the Ombudsman’s Act that would give Ontario’s ombudsman the authority to investigate children’s aid agencies, among other organizations. Because the agencies are governed by boards instead of government employees, the ombudsman does not currently have jurisdiction over them.
The proposed bill found its footing in a Toronto riding and has since caught steam with 13 members of provincial parliament supporting it, including Parry Sound-Muskoka MPP Norm Miller.
Miller attended a rally at Queen’s Park last fall and afterward said, “From an MPP’s perspective it’s frustrating because there is not that much that we can do to get information on, or to assist an individual constituent.”
He added that giving ombudsman Andre Marin the authority to investigate these complaints “makes sense.”
According to the Ombudsman Ontario 2009-10 annual report, the ombudsman’s office had to turn away 296 complaints about children’s aid societies last year because it, unlike the ombudsman’s offices in other provinces, does not have the authority to investigate the societies.
The report notes that since 2006 the Child and Family Services Review Board has been taking complaints but the board only deals with procedural issues.
Linda Williamson, communications director for the Ontario ombudsman’s office, said the ombudsman was in favour of having his mandate expanded to include the societies but it could not comment further.
Changes are taking place internally as well. The Ministry of Youth and Child Services, which funds the societies, appointed the Commission to Promote Sustainable Child Welfare in November 2009.
However, the commission is focused on structural changes and paper trail transparency, not individual complaints.
According to the commission, the province’s children’s aid agencies serve about 120,000 families and over 310,000 children per year. Over 18,000 children are in foster, group or institutional care. About 90 per cent of children served are with their families.
Bracebridge-based lawyer Graeme Butler has worked on some cases involving the regional children’s aid society. He said child protection workers are generally in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.
“There are some people that think the CAS is involved too often and too severely and others who think the CAS should become involved and potentially apprehend sooner. So, because of the role they fill, the child protection arm is rarely going to get much feedback,” said Butler.
With caseloads as high as or higher than other regions, he said he does not see the agency creating “make-work projects” by unnecessarily opening cases.
But Butler said “without a doubt” some of the protesters have valid concerns. “There are always things that could be done better.”
He said his counterargument is that the children’s aid workers he has dealt with work hard and are generally good at what they do.
“Presumably they are there because they want to make some kind of positive impact but I think without a doubt there are mistakes that are made, things that are overlooked,” he said. “But I don’t think that would be particular to this children’s aid society.”
He said the same criticism could be made of the health care, education and law enforcement fields.
“I don’t see anything any more negative about the Muskoka children’s aid society than I do about any other organization that I’ve dealt with,” he said.
In Muskoka, a group called Citizens Committee on Public Accountability, which is connected to the rallies held in Huntsville, can be reached at 705-243-1567. Organizers say the group’s aim is to clarify the rights of families who become involved with children’s aid societies.
Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka said complaints are best directed to a case worker, the director of services or the executive director by calling the agency’s head office at 705-645-4426, as well as the Child and Family Services Review Board at 1-800-728-8823, the Residential Placement Advisory Committee at 1-877-535-2299 or 705-476-9790, and the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth by visiting www.provincialadvocate.on.ca.
Supporters and critics alike recognize that families and vulnerable children require the services provided by children’s aid agencies.
Source: Cottage Country Now