The Children in Limbo Task Force had its inception as part of an organization called “The Sparrow Lake Alliance.”

History of The Sparrow Lake Alliance

The Sparrow Lake Alliance began in 1988 when a group of academic child psychiatrists met with Dr. Martin Barkin, then Deputy Minister of Health, because of the group’s concerns about inadequacies in mental health services for children in Ontario. Together they discussed a two-day residential conference to improve the integration of existing services, but made the point that any such meeting must include members of all professions and service systems that deal with children. Subsequently, the founding meeting of what was to become the Sparrow Lake Alliance was held in November, 1989, at the Bayview-Wildwood Resort at Sparrow Lake, Ontario. Fifty-five people from many disciplines attended, all involved in children and youth issues. The meeting was organized and chaired by Dr. Paul Steinhauer, child psychiatrist, Hospital for Sick Children. Dr. Steinhauer envisioned an organization in which members of different professions, service systems and government ministries involved in the field of children’s mental health would work together towards the common purpose of improving developmental outcomes for all Ontario’s children, youth and families. Dr. Steinhauer’s goal was to found such an organization.

And so the Sparrow Lake Alliance was born, as a voluntary coalition of Ontario professionals who work with children. Dr. Steinhauer led the Alliance until his untimely and tragic death in May, 2000. He was a tireless advocate, and under his inspiring leadership the Alliance thrived for 11 years, growing to a membership of over 200, including representatives from youth, parent, and volunteer organizations in Ontario and beyond. The Alliance held annual meetings, inviting important speakers to educate and update the attendees on current issues relating to children and youth. The meetings remained a forum for learning, networking, meeting people from all service sectors, and provided an opportunity to dialogue with government policy-makers who attended.

However, after 2006, despite the energy and collegiality of the past, and dedicated members who stepped up to lead the Alliance, such as Betty Kashima, Bruce Ferguson and Celia Denov (who served as Co-chairs) and Patrick Lake, interest seemed to wane. The Steering Committee, after considerable deliberation, finally decided to “close” the Alliance, after 16 years of its existence.

The Task Forces

Task Forces were an important component of the Alliance. The participants were multi-disciplinary, representing members of different professions, service systems, and government, with the common goal of improving developmental outcomes for children and youth. As a result of this “mix” they were able to share different perspectives, and educate each other. The participants met throughout the year with various frequencies to discuss issues of current concern and to mobilize their advocacy efforts through heated discussions which sometimes resulted in submissions, papers, and publications. At the end of the founding meeting in 1989, three ongoing task forces were set up: (a) “Treatment Task Force” which undertook to study ways in which the efficiency and effectiveness of interventions could be improved; (b) “Consultation Task Force” which looked at the consultative model to maximize the use and the expertise of the best trained treatment and child welfare professionals in order to more effectively use existing treatment and child welfare services; (c) “Forensic Task Force” which sought to find ways of minimizing unnecessary hardship to children and families caught up in the family court and criminal justice systems. Its role was to find ways to sensitize these systems to developmental considerations, to increase the efficiency of the court process, and to collect data that could highlight problems in existing legislation.

As time went on, child welfare and children’s services were faced with a changing social and political environment, and continuing, and new, issues and concerns. The task forces mobilized their advocacy efforts to meet the challenges as the need arose. Eventually five task forces emerged: the Education Task Force, the Children, Youth and the Law Task Force (formerly Forensic Task Force), the Intervention/Consultation Task Force, the Promotion/Prevention Task Force, and the Children in Limbo Task Force.

The Children in Limbo Task Force

Limbo was originally a Christian medieval term given for the resting place of souls without fault that were deprived of heaven, and is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition.” This concept has been applied by child welfare to the prolonged period of time in which children are deprived of permanency. Although there are many reasons why a child may be “in limbo”, the destabilization of children’s lives while they remain in limbo undermines the development and continuity of important relationships resulting in severe emotional and psychological costs. The goal of the Children in Limbo Task Force was to identify, describe and illustrate the factors and issues both clinical and court-related, which contribute to children remaining in limbo unnecessarily.

The Children in Limbo Task Force is the sole-remaining Task Force of the now defunct Sparrow Lake Alliance. It is, in many ways, a mini Alliance in terms of its mission, modus operandi, and the inter-sectoral and inter-disciplinary composition of its membership. It began in 1993 and has continued to meet monthly. Membership over the years has included children’s aid staff, social workers, therapists, physicians and lawyers (four of which went on to become family court judges). The Chair is Dr. James R. Wilkes who has been the Chair since its inception. Dr. Wilkes is an eminent Toronto child psychiatrist who has been involved with children’s mental health for most of his career, both as Clinical Director of the Shoniker Clinic in Scarborough and as a consultant. He has provided inspiration and energy, leading the vigorous discussions with wisdom and diplomacy. For the past few years one of the members, Gitte Granofsky, Psychological Associate, who worked with Dr. Wilkes at the Shoniker Clinic, agreed to co-chair the Task Force and help with administration. Over the many years of its existence, the Task Force has published three books: “Children in Limbo: Report of the Children in Limbo Task Force of the Sparrow Lake Alliance” (1996); “Permanency Planning in the Child Welfare System” (2002); “There Are No Wizards: The Child Welfare Conundrum” (2010).