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Ombudsman's Push for MUSH
July 16, 2013 permalink
Ontario's ombudsman André Marin has released his annual report. Once again he lacks the power to look into children's aid societies, and once again he comments on the need to expand his powers.
Give us a “C” – children’s aid societies
The province of Ontario is the legal guardian to more than 8,300 children and youth connected to child protection services, which are delivered by 46 independent, non-profit organizations run by locally elected boards of directors. Protection of children is a grave responsibility, and one that everywhere else in Canada is carried out by government. Ontario’s system is unique.
Since 2005, my Office has received 3,550 complaints and inquiries about children’s aid societies. Ontario’s children’s aid societies receive provincial funds in excess of $1.4 billion each year, but since they are considered private agencies, they fall outside of my mandate.
Media stories chronicling the deaths and abuse suffered by children involved with Ontario’s child protection system have inspired advocacy groups and successive parliamentarians to call for Ombudsman oversight of children’s aid societies. Since April 2005, some 60 petitions and 7 private member’s bills have been tabled in the Legislative Assembly to this effect. Support for Ombudsman involvement in this area is strong, as evidenced by NDP MPP Monique Taylor’s Bill 42, the Ombudsman Amendment Act (Children’s Aid Societies), 2013, passing second reading in April 2013.
Within the child welfare community, the possibility of Ombudsman oversight is a live issue. This was evident this year, when our Office was asked to do a presentation for the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies on what Ombudsman oversight might mean for them.
The argument against Ombudsman oversight of children’s aid societies has always been feeble. None of the existing oversight mechanisms – 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 – provide for broad-based investigation into systemic and individual issues of fairness and administration. What’s more, the latter two only become involved after a child dies.
Admittedly, Ombudsman oversight is not a cure-all. But it is a powerful and proven method for promoting accountability and transparency. As we do for hundreds of other provincial organizations, my Office can act as an early warning system, proactively monitor complaint trends, expose systemic flaws and obtain speedy resolutions, before a crisis hits. This important resource should not be barred to children and youth in care, their families, and concerned members of the public.
“ I know it’s too late for me, but I want future generations to be protected.... There are too many kids being abused and nobody is being held accountable for it. The Ombudsman should be able to investigate this. ”
— Former CAS ward who was abused by foster father, quoted in the Toronto Sun, March 21, 2013
Children’s aid societies in Ontario also face serious financial pressures, and there is growing recognition that the system requires an overhaul. In recognition of the public funding that they receive, they are already subject to financial monitoring by the Auditor General. The time is ripe to make them accountable to the Ombudsman as well, to give vulnerable children in care and their families the same access to independent oversight as those involved with provincial agencies.
Children’s Aid Societies
This year, the Ombudsman received 472 complaints and inquiries about children’s aid societies across the province. These came from youth in care, parents, grandparents and other people concerned about failures to investigate neglect and abuse, inadequate or biased investigations, problematic child apprehensions, staff misconduct and harassment, lack of information, and denial of access to children in care. In one case, a mother alleged her child was sexally abused by an older foster sibling. Several people also questioned the qualifications of children’s aid society employees who operate without registration as social workers.
Unique in Canada, child welfare services in Ontario are delivered by private agencies. Everywhere else, child protection is administered directly by government. Other ombudsmen have been able to assist families with concerns about child protection. For instance, in March 2013, the Manitoba Ombudsman’s Office released a report emphasizing the importance of risk assessment and case planning in the child welfare system. In Quebec, in 2011-2012, after a child was hospitalized with injuries allegedly caused by his parents, the Ombudsman’s intervention led to enhanced screening to identify neglect and abuse.
In Ontario, defenders of the status quo routinely refer to existing mechanisms to review children’s aid societies, such as 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 these bodies has the Ontario Ombudsman’s broad statutory powers allowing for independent investigation of individual and systemic allegations of maladministration.
While the Child and Family Services Review Board received authority to consider complaints about children’s aid societies in 2006, only those “seeking or receiving service” can request its assistance, leaving many relatives and concerned community members with no recourse. The Board is also restricted to considering procedural issues, such as whether a children’s aid society provided reasons for its actions, listened to parents’ concerns about services, or responded to a complaint. It cannot investigate or consider systemic issues involving staff conduct or practices, or address substantive matters relating to child apprehension or failure to investigate allegations of abuse. And its remedies are limited to ordering that a children’s aid society respond or provide reasons.
In 2012-2013, we received 4 complaints about the Child and Family Services Review Board, including concerns about its jurisdictional limitations.
“ [The Ombudsman] is a stellar investigator and has enormous integrity. His office is there for citizens as a mechanism to sort out problems with governments. He does not invent such problems, but tries to address them with recommendations. CAS oversight is long overdue, in some cases it is a matter of life and death. ”
— Anne Patterson, letter to London Free Press, March 23, 2013