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It’s time, Ontario – We know what “good” would look like

This week, the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario released Safe With Intervention: The Report of the Expert Panel on the Deaths of Children and Youth in Residential Placements.”

Dr. Dirk Huyer, the Chief Coroner, decided to look at the deaths of 12 children and youth who died in residential care in Ontario between January 1, 2014 and July 31, 2017. Eight of the 12 young people were Indigenous. This is the latest in a series of many reports to lay the experiences of children in residential care bare. It is stark and hard-hitting.

In its findings, the Expert Panel concludes, “The systems that were involved [in the young people’s lives] repeatedly failed in their collective responsibility to meet [their] fundamental needs.” While the report places a focus on the needs of all young people in care, it also highlights the particularly grim circumstances of First Nations young people who are so grossly overrepresented in the care system. Often placed hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers away, and cut off from their family, community and culture, it is no wonder First Nations young people in care have told us, “We keep losing who we are” (My REAL Life Book).

The report further states: “As a society, we owe a duty of care to these young people; a duty of care that we suggest cannot be met by the system in its current state, despite the existence of well-intentioned workers and caregivers and the desire of many to do good work. We believe in order to meet their needs, a reorientation of the system including all services to young people, their families and communities is necessary.”

Young people call this “fundamental change.”

"What are we going to do?"

Their courage and wisdom has led our province here. We know, through ours and many others’ reports, full well the experiences young people in care face. These young people are no longer invisible. We see them and if we have the courage not to look away, we see ourselves. We know what is wrong. Through the young people, we also know what good would look like – we have reports with literally hundreds of recommendations based on what we have heard from them.

Today, the same systems and institutions that a decade ago were unable and unwilling to listen are now able to say that fundamental change is necessary.

So, the remaining question is, “What are we going to do?”

We have urged immediate action from both the provincial and the federal governments – both of whom have expressed commitment, in partnership with Indigenous leadership – to direct its ministries with children and youth portfolios to meet with the expert panel members, young people and service providers to deliver an action plan within 100 days that will fundamentally change the way in which the province protects children and supports families. This plan must demonstrate a seamless cross-government approach that tracks measurable outcomes that can be seen in the lives of children and youth.

Some of these measurables could include:

  • Fewer deaths of young people connected to care;
  • Fewer instances of young people running away from care;
  • Increase in school success and school graduation rates;
  • A directive aimed at child welfare agencies that would trigger an independent, mandatory review of the service offered (or not offered) to any child or youth who moves to three homes or more in any given 12-month period;
  • Flagging children or youth who are placed more than a four-hour car ride away from their home community;
  • Flagging high-risk youth who go AWOL (Absent Without Leave);
  • A 24-hour, central, ministry service support hotline where any service provider could request support in accessing services anywhere in the province or gain clinical support for any child or youth in residential care deemed at-risk or in crisis within 24 hours;
  • Placing agencies should be required to document that they have reviewed the program description approved by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services as part of the licensing process, and explain, in writing, why this placement meets the needs of the young person they intend to place in that specific placement;
  • The government should proclaim a requirement for a relevant post-secondary degree or diploma, such as Child and Youth Care, to work in residential care at any level.

This plan of action should create change in real time. This is not a time for sectors, services, ministries or academics to provide laundry lists of what they are already doing. It is not a time for governments to produce laundry lists of how much they are spending on any particular intervention. It is not time for partisanship, as every major political party in the province has taken on the job of being responsible for children and youth in care at one point in Ontario’s history.

It is time for us as a province to come together, with young people, and decide what we are going to do.

"My goal was to introduce the province to a group of children who were invisible"

In 2008, my Office made similar recommendations to fundamentally change the system to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. In that year, I released my first Annual Report, titled 90 Deaths: Ninety Voices Silenced.

I penned this paragraph as part of my opening message:

Our aim to actively improve the lives of children and youth in state care will be the true reflection of our honouring the lives of those children and youth no longer with us. In the end it is the collective responsibility of all, our Office, government, service providers, educators, and the broader community to protect and support Ontario’s children. We have our work cut out for us.

The report quickly became known as the “90 Deaths” report. My goal was to introduce the province to a group of children who were invisible – the 90 children who were, in one way or another, connected to the child welfare system (in care, or with their families receiving some kind of support from a child welfare agency, or those who were at the centre of a protection investigation). Ninety children who had died that previous year.

Report covers

I was met with a fierce firestorm of criticism, from the service system and even the Coroner of the day himself. I was surprised that our call for a multi-ministry, multi-sector meeting to determine how we could better protect children and support families could engender such anger.

It was then that we decided that we would have to mobilize young people. We knew that their lived experience was incontrovertible. We also knew the courage it would take for them to speak their truth to power. We believed in them. Today, 10 years later, after the Youth Leaving Care Hearings, the many inquests in which young people played a significant role in shaping recommendations and many more reports, we just may be at a different place.

The following are some reports our Office has done or contributed to over the last 10 years in which the lives and experiences of young people in care face have been documented:

The Coroner’s Report represents, in my mind, the voices of the 12 children we have lost. It represents those children we lose each year. It echoes the voices of the children who are still with us. They are all precious. They all deserve so much more from us.  While to some the challenge might feel overwhelming, I know we can do this.