Who oversees children’s aid societies?
Published On Mon Jun 20 2011
Tim Brinton illustration
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
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