Instability In Care

Written by Ingrid Palmer, a member of the Children In Limbo Task Force

Rosemary, Sue, Sandy, Brenda, Janet, Sharon, Peggy, Beverly, Jennifer, Suzanne, Lynn, Jen, Erika, Thelma, Katherine, Karen, Catherine, Susan, Magi, Angela, Debra, Holly, Honore, Wanda, Justine…..

These are the staff whose names I can remember from my time in a girls group home in Parkdale. The list of names would be even longer if I could remember all of their names,and if I included the names of board members, students, volunteers, or the relief and casual staff that passed through, not to mention the bevy of social workers, lawyers, and other professionals that a child or youth in care may have to deal with.

More than 30 years since I moved out, the instability of staff retention in group homes remains largely unchanged.

Although there are many factors at play, the root of the issue is systemic. Ontario has no legislation governing the educational requirements of staff working with vulnerable youth in group homes.

Young people in the child welfare system have often led lives characterized with some form of instability. it is a prolific failure therefore, that it remain a prominent feature in a system that should be counteracting the negative affects of their pasts experiences, not reinforcing them.

Can you imagine a daycare functioning effectively with similar staff turnover rates? Of course not. It would be devastating, and unacceptable.

The chronic complacency of our government on legislating mandatory educational requirements for front line staff is appalling, and goes against the very idea of a progressive and advanced society.

High turnover rates result in inadequate and inconsistent service delivery. It is crucial that post secondary courses in social work contain mandatory training in the child welfare system n order to ameliorate staff competency,and retention. This simple change will go a long way to adding stability into the lives of foster kids.

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Prepare the Ombudman for the Job

Written by Gail Aitken, Professor Emeritus Ryerson, Members of the Children in Limbo Task Force

Apparently no later than May 1st, 2019, the Ontario Ombudsman’s Office will assume many of the responsibilities of the Ontario Child Advocate’s office. This is an additional heavy responsibility to thrust at the Ombudsman. It is essential that the Ombudsman Office is properly funded and well-equipped to accept this additional role.

The Ontario Child Advocate (OCA) has been effectively advocating for the very most disadvantaged children in the province for over 40 years. Since 2007, the OCA has been independent of the Provincial Government, free to go to bat for the over 12,000 children and youth in the care of children’s aid societies and many in the correctional system, who do not have family capable of advocating on their behalf. Many of these children and youth have histories of abuse and neglect, have lived without loving parents and a secure home, and have experienced many traumatic moves. In some instances, they are the children of people facing addiction challenges who are unable to parent effectively and are without relatives to assume the caregiving role. Among those helped by the OCA are many young people with special needs, including those who are blind, deaf or disabled.

The question is, will the Ombudsman’s Office have the resources and expertise to effectively fill the Provincial Advocate’s role of advancing the rights of all children and youth, enabling them to gain independence and to acquire the necessary education to reach their full potential and make a positive contribution to society.

The OCA has been especially adept at hiring staff who are experts in child welfare, often former youth in care, who have grown up in the child welfare system themselves. The staff has the knowledge necessary to implement the provisions of the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Canada ratified in 1991. If Ontario must join other parts of this nation without a self-standing independent Child and Youth Advocate Office, let us ensure that the Provincial Ombudsman’s Office is well resourced and staffed with sufficient child welfare experts to protect and promote effectively the rights and interests of Ontario’s most disadvantaged children and youth. Otherwise this supposed cost-cutting measure will leave many of these vulnerable young people in positions of dependency, resulting in the escalation of provincial costs in the long run.

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Eliminating the Ontario Child Advocate’s Office a mistake

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.

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Kids at Risk

Written by Ingrid Palmer. Ingrid is a member of the Children in Limbo Task Force and submitted this letter to The Globe and Mail, where it was originally published

Re Ford Puts Vulnerable Children At More Risk (Nov. 19): I write as a former Crown ward and a current advocate for children in the child-protection system.

The decison to close the Child Advocate’s office harks back to a time when children were not considered as worthy of being heard from. Historically, especially youth in care have had their voices stilled by the situations they experienced before entering child-protection. Those who have been conditioned to swallow hurts, give in, and shut up surely deserve a person dedicated to shining a spotlight on their needs.

The retention of the investigative function of the office is comforting, however, the lack of an outcomes-based, evidence-driven decision-making protocol is quite concerning. When it comes to foster kids, any actions should have a solid backing of data to ensure best practices are maintained. The positive outcomes of their lives depend on it.

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The Importance of Adoption With Openness

Adoption is extremely important in order to provide permanence for children who cannot be raised by their birth parents or relatives. Every child requires bonding with a close caregiver in order to develop at a normal pace, physically and mentally. Every child requires the security of knowing that someone really cares about them. Generally,
infants and children without love and security do not thrive, and fail to meet normal developmental guidelines.

Today there are thousands of children in the care of Ontario’s Children’s Aid Societies who desperately need “forever” families. These children are in the permanent care of provincial child welfare agencies and most are well beyond infancy. The majority are of school age and many are teens.

The situation is unlike that of several generations ago when many single young women relinquished their newborns for immediate adoption. Today, authorities tend to encourage family cohesion and permit a child at risk to stay with birth family members, perhaps with support, in the expectation that the situation will improve. Consequently children available for adoption today often have had numerous placements in foster or group homes, and many have endured some traumatic experiences. Many have family members with whom some continuing connection is important.

For these children, adoption with openness is what is needed.

Adoption with openness doesn’t mean continuous or frequent contact. Guidelines are stipulated and openness orders can be modified as necessary. Some measure of openness subsequent to adoption can be very beneficial to the birth parents, and adoption parents as well as the child. It may be reassuring to birth parents and lessen feelings of guilt. It may be helpful in building the bonds between the child and adoptive parents if the child feels the adoptive family accepts their background.

With all the technology available secrecy about family background is often difficult to maintain. Furthermore, children deserve, within reason, the truth about themselves if they are to develop trust.

In 2017, thousands of Ontario children in care need the permanence of adoption, and adoption with openness is the way to go. The Children in Limbo Task Force believes that adoption is important to provide children in care with a sense of permanence and security. However, adoption with openness is essential if children are to feel that they are accepted for who they are. Even children of only several years of age have memories of important relationships and need to continue valuable contacts with members from their birth families in order to develop their senses of identity and self worth.

Written By: Gail Aitken
Professor Emeritus, Ryerson School of Social Work
Mother of two children adopted as infants
Member of the Children in Limbo Task Force

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The Best Interest of the Child?

Written by a member of the Children in Limbo Task Force with lived experience in the child welfare system.

In the Best Interests of the Children

Some musings on the phrase “the best interest of the child” from a former crown ward.

First off, I would like to start by saying I am not trying to attack anyone who uses this phrase when they talk about the betterment of children and youth in foster care. In fact I often think quite the opposite. I think that someone who uses this mantra in their practice has their heart in the exact right place. I only want to question the simplicity of the statement to achieve the ends to which it aspires…to help open our thought process to what exactly is in the best in interest of the child.

To do this, I would like to share my personal experiences with the child welfare system.

To be brief, I came into the care of my local Children’s Aid Society (CAS) at the age of thirteen with my sibling who was only one. The twelve year gap between us is significant in foster care and adoption. Many parents who are interested in fostering and/or adopting typically have a preferred age range, which is fair (when I try to think about it from their perspective). It usually doesn’t span twelve years, especially for those who are interested in children as young as one.

If I were to try and think on why this is, it would end up a whole different piece. One with a perspective (that of a parent) that I certainly do not have the firsthand experience with. However I think the openness of parents to different ages and special needs is the responsibility of ‘the system’ to some degree. How we prepare our parents to meet the needs of this population (young people who have experienced trauma) comes into play…but I digress.

In foster care, biological parents have one year to meet the expectations of the CAS they are involved with to ‘get back’ their kids. However this only applies to children under twelve. When you are over twelve, the biological parent has two years.*

In some ways, this makes sense. Older youth have likely had more time to develop a relationship with their biological parents. In some ways, we could say that this rule is in the best interest of the child.

For my sister and I, it meant that our mother’s rights were terminated just before her third birthday. After becoming a Crowd Ward, and especially at such a young age, it made sense to start pursing adoption for my sister. To find a home for her to grow up and grow old in. To find her permanency.

Many would say, that this was in her best interest. It’s hard to argue that permanency is not in the best interest of every child/youth.

However what this meant was, my sister’s adoption plan was being rolled out and families were being looked at while I was still in limbo. At this time, I was told that there was a good chance that my sister’s new family may not be interested in keeping contact with me. Though it wasn’t said to me back then, I know now that my then age of almost fifteen was also a deterrent. Families who wanted toddlers didn’t want teenagers as well. Families who wanted toddlers wanted to start a brand new life with their new family formed through adoption.

To tell you that this was one of the most devastating experiences of my life would be an understatement. After losing my father (I was not in contact with him) my mother (who I had been apprehended from), my home, my school, my friends…losing my sister was something I could not even fathom.

Maybe her permanency was in her best interest…but if it came at the cost of our relationship…was it truly in mine? Was her best interest so important that it should come at the cost of mine? Was losing me for permanency really her best interest? Was losing permanency so that we could keep our relationship…at the cost of growing up in foster care together and never achieving permanency in our best interest?

As is usually the case, it seems that there is no right answer here. That we put the expectations on CAS to make the least harmful decision, because maybe there really is no ‘good’ one.

I want to step back to how we prepare our parents for a moment. I was being told that I might lose my relationship with my sister because her new family might not be interested in keeping me in the picture. Whether it was because of my age, or perhaps the family only wanted to grow by one doesn’t matter. I want to ask the question; are we preparing our families to meet the needs of these children? My sister and I are not the only sibling group in the care of CAS. Siblings in these situations are common, many of us come into care with them. Many of us forge these bonds with other young people we live with or meet through this experience. Prepping our families and really helping them understand the importance of these bonds is an integral part to meeting the needs of these kids.

Let’s come back to my sister and my situation. Just before her third birthday, and my fifteenth (our birthdays are very close together) she gets adopted. I stay in foster care with the goal of going home to my biological mother. For a while I don’t see my sister, however there is a small light for me. Her new parents have expressed interest in keeping in touch with me. They think my relationship with my sister is important to her and myself (they tell me via email that she misses me). I know this is true because when I get to visit her months later…she cries when she sees me. She cries when she has to leave, reliving the trauma of losing me for the short time that she did, and reliving the trauma of losing her biological mother even if her understanding and memory of this is vague.

Fast forward a year after my sister’s adoption and now I am a crown ward. The pain of not going home to live with my mother is a hole in my chest. I loved and still love my mother deeply. Perhaps at the time, I was bitter about the struggles that she was having in her own life, but now I understand why she had them, and how it had come to her losing parental right over both her children.

However there is more light now, as my sister’s adoptive family wants me to come live with them. They want to make me a part of their family, and so I get to keep my relationship with my sister. I get to grow up with her. I get the same permanency that she has.

Though it seems to work out in the end, I want to take a moment to honour that did not come without sacrifice. That it did not come without the loss of a life we could have had with our biological mother. That even though my sister and I and our twelve years between us found somewhere to call home together, many siblings groups like mine will be separated. Many children and youth will not move through ‘the system’ quickly, many will not achieve this permanence.

That sometimes the best interest of the child is just attempting to make the best out of a terrible situation. That sometimes making these decisions will leave white lines across our hearts in the form of scars that we trace with our ‘what ifs’. That even though you are making the best decision you know how, and even though it might be happy…it may also hurt, and to honour that as well. To not take offense that I am asking you to think about this, because I know that your heart is in the right place when you make decisions based on the best interest of the child.

*This timeline is not held in all cases of apprehension. Many young people end up ‘in limbo’ due to unique circumstances of their cases, or judgement calls made by the CAS they are working with.

Read more about the Best Interest of the Child as a guiding principle in Canadian family law.

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