Written By Dr. GAIL AITKEN, Professor Emeritus, Ryerson School of Social Work. Member of the Children in Limbo Task Force
The extremely sudden closing in April of the Ontario Child Advocate’s Office (OCA) is an attack on some of the most disadvantaged young people in Ontario. There are about 20,000 people a year who are served by the child welfare system in this province, but many children, about 6000, are in the permanent care of the child welfare system, living in foster or group homes, or in the youth criminal justice system, usually without family support of any kind.
The Advocate’s Office had, for 40 years since its founding by Premier Davis’s Progressive Conservative government, been a resource to help these young people with abusive family relationships, health and educational issues, major disabilities, and with the youth criminal justice system. This agency explored complaints received from children and youth in custody and care, and had the right to investigate injuries or deaths involving children in provincial care. In recent years the office served several thousand young people a year very effectively. The main purpose was to give children and youth a voice, and to assist them in procuring their rights. Recently their effectiveness was demonstrated in the influence they had in the development of the 2017 Ontario Child, Youth and Family Services Act which emphasizes putting the children’s needs at the centre of decision making.
“Youth Amplifiers” were trained through this office to articulate effectively the needs of children and youth to government in a way that was totally new and effective. They successfully influenced focusing the legislation on the voices and rights of young people in provincial care.
Now the Advocate’s role has been partially assumed by Paul Dubé’s Ombudsman’s Office, with only about a third of the staff from the OCA retaining their jobs. In an interview with Steve Paikin on TVO, it was absolutely shocking to hear Minister Lisa MacLeod stating that the Advocate’s Office had been ineffective. That was an about face for her from previous statements. This is also totally contradictory to what many of us in the field have observed. In recent years under the direction of Irwin Elman the Advocate’s office has been hugely effective, with a staff of only 84, including many well trained young people who have themselves been in care and know the hazards.
The province has assumed a parental role for thousands of children whose birth parents aren’t there for the job. Many of these children have been severely traumatized by the actions of their parents and by the turmoil and abuse of their earliest years.
While in the Ontario’s Government’s care, they need and deserve all assistance available to enable them to emotional support, complete secondary school, obtain further education, stable employment and rewarding relationships. They are not responsible for the situations into which they were born, and they need security in order to become contributing members of our society.
Even from an economic stand point, it is in society’s best interests to provide children and youth in care with the counselling and assistance necessary to become successful independent citizens, rather than dependent, needy people. The Office of the Ontario Advocate for Children and Youth was an essential resource that many of us experienced professionals in the child welfare field witnessed as very effective. It must be restored.
Sincerely, Dr. Gail Aitken, May 20, 2019.