Written by Marv Bernstein and Birgitte Granofsky. Marv and Brigitte are members of the Children in Limbo Task Force and their op-ed was submitted to the Toronto Star, where it was originally published

Waking up to the news Thursday morning that the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Act, 2007 would be repealed, and that the Ontario Child Advocate’s Office would be closed, and its duties transferred to the Ombudsman’s Office, was like waking up to a whole new reality, one where young people’s voices are silenced and rights curtailed.

Hopefully, this recent announcement is a correctable misunderstanding and the government still means to honour the child-centred practice stipulated in the new Child, Youth and Family Services Act. That act guarantees children and youth in care, or in receipt of child welfare services, a voice and a “right to express their own views freely and safely … and to be informed, in language suitable to their understanding, of the existence and role of [the Child Advocate’s Office] and of how [that Office] may be contacted.”

The decision by Doug Ford’s government to repeal the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Act is hopefully a “correctable misunderstanding,” write Marv Bernstein and Birgitte Granofsky.

It appears to be the government’s plan to expand the duties of the Ombudsman’s Office to include child-related investigations and other yet to be prescribed functions. However, transferring services from one independent office to another is not like shuffling a deck of cards. We are concerned that children and youth will turn out to be the big losers in this bureaucratic transaction.

For one thing, research and experience have taught us that independent offices that don’t have a singular focus on vulnerable children and are not rights-based are less likely to be successful in enabling children and youth to achieve positive life outcomes. When the interests of children and adults are intermingled in independent Offices, the interests of children are usually diluted, and monies earmarked for children’s services often end up being redirected to address weaknesses in adult services.

The new Child, Youth, Family Services Act states that its “aim” is ‘to be “consistent with and build upon the principles expressed in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child,” but the closure of the Ontario Child Advocate’s Office would constitute a serious erosion of Ontario’s obligations under that international treaty, which Canada ratified in 1991.

There is no clear indication in the proposed amendments to the Ombudsman Act that the totality of the noninvestigation functions currently housed within the Advocate’s Office, which promote and protect the human rights of children and youth, will be transferred to the Ombudsman’s Office.

By definition, an Ombudsman is a neutral and impartial independent officer and is not a proactive and partisan child advocate who supports and amplifies the voices of children and young people. As Irwin Elman, Ontario’s child advocate stated in a recent interview, “An ombudsman frankly, tries to make sure that government does what it says it’s going to do. It doesn’t stand with the young person … An Ombudsman’s job is to try and listen to both sides and be impartial. A child advocate’s job is to stand with children. In Ontario, there will no longer be somebody.”

The children, who may be harmed by this unnecessary office closure, are those most in need of strong advocacy supports. They could be in a foster home, in a group home, or other arrangement for their care or in a young offenders’ facility. They are society’s children. They are our children. Most staff in those facilities would be kind and understanding, but there has been enough evidence of abuse, neglect and deaths in various kinds of placements to make the services and investigative powers of the Child Advocate’s Office indispensable.

Cost is an issue for any government and any member of society respects the endeavour to spend as wisely as possible. Having said that, there may be other ways of saving money — such as shared rental premises, or shared reception and consultative services, or even a reduction in the budget temporarily, but certainly not the repeal of legislation that gives life to the Child Advocate’s Office and hope to so many children and youth across this province. It is surely a sound long-term societal investment to maintain an office that has been instrumental in contributing to the health and well-being of our youngest citizens.

In order to safeguard Ontario’s children and youth from physical and emotional harm, and to ensure that their voices are heard, and their rights respected, the Children in Limbo Task Force respectfully encourages the provincial government to reconsider its position and abandon its plan to repeal the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Act, 2007.