How to fix Ontario’s fragmented child welfare system

Published on Jan 28, 2016

It isn’t surprising that people get passionate debating the best way to protect vulnerable children. Unfortunately, as the emotional fervour rises, the general public’s understanding of child welfare is shaped by provocative language and melodramatic snapshots that create an inaccurate and incomplete picture. Such is the case with the ongoing debate around how to improve Ontario’s children’s aid societies.

Contrary to widespread perception, the system of children’s aid societies is not an unaccountable array of private corporations. They are non-profit agencies fully funded by the government, heavily regulated and monitored. They are subject to thousands of standards, measures and directives that guide or dictate their activities. They must apply for court orders on the most serious decisions and they are subject to various administrative tribunals. They are obliged to submit to a burdensome and dizzying array of program, licensing and operational reviews, audits, and evaluations by the government of all Crown ward cases.

In fact, there is an excess of regulatory requirements, sometimes internally inconsistent and many with no demonstrable value that unintentionally distract attention and resources from timely, quality service. So accountability mechanisms for children’s aid societies are not in short supply. While it is true the accountability regimen is seriously flawed and inadequate, better accountability is needed—not more of it.

Children’s aid societies are also often talked about as the entirety of the child welfare system. They are not. Just as the police rely upon community support to protect and serve, children’s aids societies do so as well. Children’s mental health services, local schools, police services, service clubs, hospitals and community-based health care providers, the court system, along with church groups and municipalities, and many others, have roles in serving children and families.

As Martin Regg Cohn wrote in the Toronto Star, the children’s aid society sector is indeed fragmented and “divided along regional and religious lines that are a legacy of history.”  It is likely that further amalgamations and centralizing some services would be beneficial.  But while much is made of the continued segmentation along religious lines, there are only three agencies out of 47 that focus on a faith community and the financial and volunteer support they receive from those sectors far outweighs any arguments about fragmentation.   

Sometimes mistakes are made and services are not what they need to be. Those deficiencies must be examined and addressed. But, based on any objective analysis, it is unjustified to conclude that children’s aid societies are failing those they serve. The performance of children served by children’s aid compared to the general population is often cited, but it is not valid. Children who come into care are more likely to arrive with social and academic deficits and their own progress needs to be the measure of success. And about 90 per cent of the children served by children’s aid societies are living with their family with CAS support. That is one important kind of success that has never been recognized in assessing the capacity of children’s aid societies.

We should reject answers to perceived deficiencies in the child welfare systems that do not resolve actual problems. For example, the auditor general’s recent finding that children’s aid societies are not making “crucial” checks of the Child Abuse Register in half the cases reviewed, creating “serious jeopardy” for children, is inflammatory and uninformed.

The child abuse register is outdated and ineffective. It has been eclipsed by other tools that are used for the same purpose. And in no case has the register been shown to help protect children.

Similarly, critics, including the auditor general, report that the length of time to complete an investigation often exceeds the 30-day regulatory limit. But is that a real problem? The police routinely require months or even years, to complete investigations.  Is it unreasonable then, that some children’s aid society investigations take longer than 30 days?

If the complexity of a case, or locating a parent, or getting access to mental health records are part of the investigation, should the investigation be prematurely concluded in order to conform to an arbitrary time limit? Quality of service – not compliance – should drive decisions.

Children’s aid societies are criticized for taking too long to complete too few adoptions. These criticisms have merit, and the government and the societies are addressing the issue. But it is often assumed that adoption is the answer for all Crown wards and could be achieved more quickly by removing the responsibility to complete adoptions from children’s aid societies. That ignores that for children in CAS care there can be legal, developmental or psychological impediments to adoption that need to be addressed in the child’s best interests before committing to adoption.  

Also, other approaches to achieving permanency may be more suited to the child’s needs and wishes. If adoption is the best path, alternative models of adoption may be preferable (such as custom adoption for First Nations, Métis and Inuit children). Public adoption services are in need of improvement. But any changes to public adoption need to retain a paramount focus on the child’s needs.

The child welfare system in Ontario needs to be improved. And it can be.

Accountability of children’s aid societies can be made better by reducing the number of requirements to those that are based on outcomes – in other words, things that actually make a difference, and are internally consistent. External oversight mechanisms should be examined and those that have value should be consolidated wherever possible. Reviews should be reduced and scheduled on the basis of agency performance rather than annual or fixed cycles.   

Fragmentation has been correctly identified as a problem. While greater coordination can be achieved through shared services and further amalgamations of children’s aid societies, the greatest gains would come from local service planning and co-ordination across levels of government, and sectors such as child welfare, youth justice, education and developmental services. Simcoe County’s Child, Youth and Family Services Coalition is an example of integrated planning and joint work to improve services. Creating more multi-service agencies by amalgamating the separate agencies delivering child welfare, youth justice, developmental services and others, (similar to the one in Chatham-Kent) would also help integrate services while reducing the overall number of agencies across the province.

And finally, in the public debate, those who offer opinions and advice on changing the child welfare system need to be well-informed.  They need to correctly define the issues. And the solutions they propose should be grounded in that base. Otherwise they risk being at best unhelpful and at worst, harmful.

Barry Lewis was a member of the Ontario Commission to Promote Sustainable Child Welfare from 2009 to 2012. He works as an independent consultant in social services, specializing in children’s services and particularly child welfare.

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