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Marin Wants to Examine CAS
June 21, 2011 permalink
Ontario's ombudsman André Marin asks again for authority to look into the operation of the province's children's aid societies. He tears apart the contention of Laurel Broten and every CAS executive director that there is already oversight. For example, the coroner can offer little relief, because parents have to wait until their child is dead.
Who oversees children’s aid societies?
Just over five years ago, I was granted the opportunity in these very pages in the Star to argue for something I care strongly about: the need for independent oversight of Ontario’s children’s aid societies. Specifically, the need for that oversight to be conducted by my office, the Office of the Ombudsman of Ontario.
As I prepare to release my sixth report as ombudsman Tuesday — the first of my second five-year term — I’m glad to be back, but for a regrettable reason: children’s aid societies are still immune from scrutiny. They are still shielded from independent investigation of serious complaints about their treatment of children or conduct of their staff — either by my office, or any other.
Every year, my office is forced to turn away hundreds of people complaining about children’s aid societies. We are powerless to investigate these cases, but we keep a record of them and refer people elsewhere for help if we can. Since I first raised the issue in the spring of 2006, and counting the cases I’ll be reporting on today, we have received a total of 2,587 complaints about children’s aid societies. That’s more than 2,500 people we have been unable to help.
It is, of course, up to the government to change this situation — and since the first ombudsman, Arthur Maloney, made this same argument in 1975, Ontario governments have said no. This, despite the fact that every other province in Canada allows its ombudsman to oversee child protection.
Let me be clear — this is the government’s choice to make, and if its choice is to shield children’s aid societies from independent oversight, so be it. However, in the interest of openness and transparency, it should clarify the somewhat murky status quo.
Just last month, Child and Youth Services Minister Laurel Broten stated in the Legislature, as others have before her, that children’s aid societies are already subject to “rigorous oversight.”
“I think it’s important for families right across the province that might be watching to understand that we have a very rigorous variety of oversights that allow you, as an individual, to come forward with a complaint if you do have one with respect to a children’s aid society,” she said.
A comforting statement, but sadly one that does not reflect the reality confronted by the thousands of parents who have complained to my office — precisely because they found their efforts to “come forward” thwarted.
The problem lies in the details of the various oversight mechanisms cited by Broten. She named the family courts, the auditor general, the office of the chief coroner, the pediatric death review committee, and the Child and Family Services Review Board.
Consider those first four. The courts are an adversarial and usually costly option. The auditor general follows the money. And the coroner and pediatric death review committee? To suggest these as oversight options is chilling — after all, they cannot become involved until after a child is dead.
That leaves the Child and Family Services Review Board, which my office does oversee. But the board can only look at procedural issues. It does not investigate the kind of concerns parents bring to us — serious allegations of abuse and neglect of children, and even of threats against parents by CAS staff. Rather, it dismisses complaints or orders the CAS in question to respond to them. And only those actually “seeking and receiving service” from a CAS (not concerned family members or others) can complain.
At a time when the public increasingly expects openness and transparency from government, children’s aid societies — recipients of $1.4 billion in government funds each year — remain cloaked in secrecy and subject only to limited oversight, even from the government itself.
Successive private member’s bills proposing to expand ombudsman oversight in this area, including one just last month, have failed over the past 35 years. But I’m confident that one day this will change. One ray of hope lies with the province’s Commission to Promote Sustainable Child Welfare, established in 2009 and expected to issue its recommendations in the fall of next year.
Any comprehensive review of options to improve Ontario’s child welfare system must surely look at how every other province allows ombudsman oversight. It’s high time Ontario joined them.
André Marin is Ontario’s ombudsman. His annual report will be posted Tuesday at www.ombudsman.on.ca
Source: Toronto Star
Addendum: Here is the ombudsman's 2010-2011 annual report (pdf). Starting on page 15 is his commentary on children's aid societies. It is enclosed below, along with a chart showing that children's aid societies generate more complaints that the police.
Children’s aid societies
Ontario’s children’s aid societies (CASs) are responsible for protecting thousands of the most vulnerable members of our society. Ontario is unique. No other province outsources child protection, and no other provincial ombudsman is prevented from reviewing allegations of maladministration relating to child protection.
The cost of publicly funding this system has tripled over the last decade, and at present, CASs spend about $1.4 billion annually in carrying out their crucial task. CASs are powerful agencies that have serious impact on the lives of children and families, and each year, the Ombudsman receives hundreds of complaints about them. Unfortunately, our Office is powerless to assist these people, even in the most egregious cases.
In 2010-2011, the Ombudsman received 386 complaints and inquiries about Ontario’s child protection services (more than the previous year’s 296; less than 2008-2009’s total of 429). These included concerns about:
- opaque investigation and complaint processes, including refusal to investigate allegations of abuse, neglect or CAS staff misconduct;
- biased and incompetent investigations;
- apprehension of children and the care of children in CAS custody;
- inaccurate CAS records and misrepresentation of information to the courts;
- failing to disclose information to parents, or placing unreasonable demands on parents seeking visitation and access; and
- staff misconduct towards parents, including threats and harassment or reprisal actions against parents who challenged CAS decisions.
Some parents also alleged they had been pressured by CASs to relinquish custody of their severely disabled children in order to obtain necessary residential care for them. The Ombudsman has been monitoring this serious, persistent issue since his 2005 report, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. More information on this can be found in the Special Ombudsman Response Team section of this report.
CASs have persistently opposed opening up their operations to Ombudsman oversight. They argue that CASs are already subject to multiple layers of review; by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth (which lacks investigative powers), the Auditor General (which may only conduct value-for-money audits), the Office of the Chief Coroner and Pediatric Death Review Committee (which can only become involved after a child has died), the Child and Family Services Review Board, and the courts. None of these organizations has the broad general authority of an Ombudsman to investigate complaints about serious allegations relating to the administration of CASs and to make remedial recommendations. And no effective mechanism exists to investigate and address serious problems before a crisis occurs.
In 2006, the mandate of the Child and Family Services Review Board was expanded to consider complaints about services provided by CASs. However, the board’s authority extends only to procedural issues, and standing to make a complaint is limited to those actually “seeking or receiving service” from a CAS, often leaving grandparents and other concerned relatives without recourse to complain. The board cannot address serious concerns about the conduct, policies and practices of CASs. Its authority is restricted to dismissing a complaint or ordering a CAS to process or respond to a complaint, comply with the complaint review procedure, or provide written reasons.
This very limited oversight was confirmed in a recent court case. On July 20, 2010, in a case known as Children’s Aid Society of Waterloo v. D.D., the Divisional Court found that the Child and Family Services Review Board had exceeded its authority when it considered a mother’s complaint about CAS conduct during a period covered by an interim court order (the decision is currently under appeal). Our Office received 14 complaints about the board in 2010-2011. Many of those who complained expressed frustration over the limited powers of this agency.
The Commission to Promote Sustainable Child Welfare, established by the government in November 2009, is due to issue recommendations in September 2012 on ways to make Ontario’s child welfare system, including CASs, more accountable, efficient and sustainable. Based on the many supportive submissions we have received from citizens, adding Ombudsman oversight to the accountability framework for child protection would go a long way to satisfying public concerns about the present complaint process.
As with other MUSH sector institutions, the one rare circumstance where a children’s aid society can be subject to Ombudsman oversight is when it is directly taken over by the province through the appointment of a supervisor. On October 13, 2010, the Huron Perth CAS came under supervision after it threatened to close due to a funding shortfall. As of March 31, 2011, the Ombudsman had received 33 complaints regarding this agency. Many raised serious concerns about the treatment of children in care, and inappropriate conduct on the part of child protection officials. All were assessed and resolved quickly.