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Province maps out children’s aid overhaul
Sept. 20, 2016
By Sandro Contenta and Jim Rankin

The Ontario government plans to raise the top age of child protection in the province from 16 to 18, exert greater control over children’s aid societies and set minimum care standards for group homes, according to a blueprint for sweeping child welfare reform obtained by the Star.

The proposed changes come after several reports sharply criticized the Ministry of Children and Youth Services for failing to ensure that vulnerable children get high-quality care when they are removed from families that neglect or abuse them.

The scrutiny was triggered by an ongoing Star series, which has found a child protection system that is often unaccountable and secretive, and group homes where high numbers of kids are being physically restrained.

The reform proposals are contained in a ministry PowerPoint called “Next Steps in Child Welfare and Residential Services,” distributed to executive directors of children’s aid societies late last week.

They would give youths a voice in the child protection system through the establishment of a “youth panel,” and place a greater focus on supporting families so that kids don’t need to be removed.

The ministry document describes a system where “children, youth and their families have access to a system of services and supports that is integrated, quality-focused and accountable.”

The most contentious reforms are likely to be the ministry’s attempt to get greater control of Ontario’s 47 privately run children’s aid societies. The Liberal government wants to amend the Child and Family Services Act to reverse a trend that for years saw the ministry reduce its oversight and quality control responsibilities.

The children’s minister would be given the explicit authority to essentially take over the running of a society by appointing someone to oversee it. The minister could also appoint people to a society’s board of directors, including the board’s chair.

The minister would also have the power to reduce the number of societies through forced amalgamations - a move that has smaller societies fearing they’ll be force-fed to bigger ones. Religious-based societies, including Toronto’s Catholic Children’s Aid Society and Jewish Family and Child Services, also fear they’ll be made to disappear.

Most of the work behind the blueprint document, dated last June, was conducted under then children’s minister Tracy MacCharles, who has since been replaced by Michael Coteau. The document is vague about when the reforms will be put in place, stating only that they are part of a “multi-year action plan.”

Some of the proposals are inspired by a government-commissioned report earlier this year, which described a muddled system where the ministry loses track of children taken into care, has no minimum qualifications for caregivers and allows a growing number of kids “with complex special needs” to be placed in unlicensed programs.

In 2014-15, an average of 15,625 children were in foster or group-home care due to abuse or neglect from parents, and thousands more were investigated for possible protection. Children’s aid societies received about $1.5 billion in government funding last year.

Youth can decide to leave care at age 16, but the government wants to raise that to 18. Societies have been concerned about 16-year-olds leaving care with few supports to finish school, get jobs or find housing.

Increasing the age limit “will enable youth aged 16 and 17 who are in need of protection to receive age-appropriate services and supports they need to reach their full potential,” the reform blueprint says. It would also bring Ontario in line with other provinces.

The ministry is silent on whether it will provide more funding to implement this change, or any other.

The changes would have societies “focus on prevention” while supporting families in a “holistic way.” Services to help families in crisis need to be better co-ordinated. The ministry also proposes “evidence-based programs to strengthen families,” including pilot projects where mentors help families and young mothers get “intensive supports.”

A major reform would see standards established for licensed group homes and other residential care settings. They would set out how children and youth in those settings should be treated and the quality of care expected.

Group homes would have to meet the new standards to get licences renewed. The ministry plans more inspections of group homes, and would have the authority to publicly report on those that haven’t fully complied with the standards.

A Star investigation found that group homes are quick to call police on youths in their care - sometimes for minor violations of house rules - raising concerns about kids being funneled into the justice system.

The reforms also promise “a different approach for indigenous communities,” including reducing the number of children placed in non-aboriginal settings outside their communities.

A committee to advise the children’s minister on how to improve child protection would be set up, and a new working group would develop training and qualifications for staff in group homes and other residential services.

A “centre of excellence” would provide “system-wide leadership for child welfare quality,” conduct research and “monitor and report on system performance.”