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Ombudsman's Report

June 19, 2012 permalink

Ontario's ombudsman André Marin issued his annual report today. It contains several paragraphs mentioning efforts to expand his jurisdiction to the MUSH sector, including children's aid societies.

Push for MUSH
One of several citizen-initiated efforts in support of increased Ombudsman scrutiny of the MUSH sector in 2011-2012: This woman created her own t-shirts and handed out flyers to passersby on Bay Street in October 2011.

Here he acknowledges the grass-roots efforts to get oversight of the MUSH sector.

It is long past time for the government to erase that line and allow this Office to follow administrative decisions of government right through to their delivery to the public. Ontario citizens appear to be growing weary and cynical of the government’s use of buzzwords like “transparency” and “accountability” – as has been evidenced in their growing demand for Ombudsman assistance with MUSH-related issues, and reflected by acute interest from some parliamentarians.

Since 2005, there have been nine private member’s bills calling for expanded Ombudsman oversight over various MUSH areas. To date, none have progressed into law. The last effort was Bill 183, the Ombudsman Statute Law Amendment Act (Designated Public Bodies), 2011, introduced by NDP MPP Rosario Marchese on April 19, 2011. This bill provided for Ombudsman oversight of hospitals, long-term care and retirement homes, school boards, children’s aid societies, universities and the Office of the Independent Police Review Director. It was defeated at second reading on May 5, 2011.

Nevertheless, momentum for modernization of the Ombudsman’s mandate continues to build. Thousands of Ontarians have signed petitions supporting Ombudsman oversight in the MUSH sector. Some 65 such petitions have been presented in the Legislature since 2005, 16 of those in 2011-2012 alone. Citizens have also promoted increased scrutiny of MUSH organizations by holding public rallies, distributing flyers and campaigning via social media.

A few pages later, here is what he has to say about children's aid societies. Children’s aid societies as well as government administrators continually argue, much like a broken record, that multiple review mechanisms already exist to ensure adequate accountability of child protection services.



Children’s aid societies

One MUSH area that continues to attract considerable attention is child protection. Ontario remains the only province that delivers child protection services through non- governmental agencies, with no ombudsman oversight.

In 2011-2012, advocates organized protests in dozens of cities, calling for increased accountability over children’s aid societies. The Ombudsman received 491 complaints and inquiries about children’s aid societies across the province. Concerns were raised about many compelling issues, including failure to investigate abuse allegations, inadequate investigations and problematic apprehensions of children. As well, there were two complaints from parents who were pressured to relinquish custody of their severely disabled children to children’s aid societies in order to obtain care for them – an issue the Ombudsman investigated in 2005. An update on this can be found in the Special Ombudsman Response Team section of this report.

Other ombudsmen across Canada have been able to help families with their concerns about child protection authorities. Last year, the Citizen’s Representative of Newfoundland and Labrador helped a father set the record straight after a flawed investigation by child welfare officials, and the Alberta Ombudsman persuaded officials to respond to the concerns of a mother whose children had been apprehended. On April 1, 2012, Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate also became a legislative officer, with increased resources and new powers to investigate serious injuries and deaths of children and youth in care.

In Ontario, there continues to be no provision for independent investigation of the conduct of children’s aid societies. The only exception is when a government- appointed supervisor takes control. In 2011-2012, while the Huron-Perth Children’s Aid Society was under supervision (up to September 6, 2011), the Ombudsman received 11 complaints, which Ombudsman staff resolved through inquiries and referrals and by dealing with the supervisor.

In response to calls for expansion of the Ombudsman’s mandate into this field, children’s aid societies as well as government administrators continually argue, much like a broken record, that multiple review mechanisms already exist to ensure adequate accountability of child protection services. In making this claim, they typically refer to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, the Child and Family Services Review Board, the courts, the Office of the Chief Coroner and the Pediatric Death Review Committee. However, none of the existing review bodies enjoys broad general authority to investigate complaints about allegations of maladministration, and the latter two only become involved after a child is dead. The May 2, 2012 sentencing in the 2008 murder of 7-year-old Katelynn Sampson highlighted problems of miscommunication and delay on the part of child welfare officials – issues that are well suited to Ombudsman consideration. While some improvements have been made in the wake of Katelynn’s death, Ombudsman oversight would provide a layer of accountability where none exists, to expose systemic issues before disaster strikes.

The Child and Family Services Review Board gained jurisdiction in 2006 to consider complaints about children’s aid societies. However, the board only deals with procedural issues and can only look at complaints from those directly receiving or seeking services from a children’s aid society. It cannot deal with the type of complaints the Ombudsman typically receives, concerning problematic child apprehension or failure to investigate abuse. Although the board successfully appealed some of the restrictions on its authority in June 2011, its powers remain very limited. In 2011-2012, the Ombudsman received 18 complaints about the board itself, many criticizing the constraints on its jurisdiction.

Children’s aid societies are in a state of flux. The government has committed to work with them to improve outcomes for children and youth, while containing costs through agency amalgamations, back-office consolidations and shared service delivery. As the number of local societies is reduced and a new funding model is introduced, there is increased potential for complaints and even greater reason to extend Ombudsman oversight into this area.

“We need to make sure that, when families are yanked apart, when processes are brought to bear, everything is done in a way that is above reproach. The law has to be seen as fair not only to the child, but to the families and to the prospective people who may adopt them. We need to have an oversight which is not there.

The full report is at 2011-2012 Annual Report, and our local copy, both pdf.

The next day Andrea Horwath questioned premier Dalton McGuinty on expanding the ombudsman's mandate. video link (mp4).