The State of Child and Youth Protection in Ontario: Can the Tangle be Unwoven?
“It takes a village to raise a child.”
No one is really sure where this proverb comes from, “it takes a village to raise a child.” But the sense behind it has widespread currency: society has a responsibility for the protection and flourishing of children and youth. I take the opportunity of the upcoming annual Children and Youth In Care Day, May 14, 2016, to reflect on the state of child and youth protection in Ontario.
Among the many areas jointly governed by the state and civil society in Ontario, the child protection system stands out, both for its messiness, and for the horrors that even momentary failures can produce. The stakes are enormous, the stakeholders are diverse and increasingly in confrontation.
Consider the following recent (not exhaustive) list of collisions:
In May 2015, the Toronto Star published an investigation into the inconsistencies among the province’s then-46 Children’s Aid Societies (CAS) – privately-run organizations funded by government. It found large regional disparities in intake, placement, reunification and re-investigation rates, as well as an absence of any proactive evaluation of performance data. The Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS), it appeared, was collecting reams of relevant data from CAS’ but doing nothing with it to ensure good outcomes; nor were CAS’ sharing data or attempting to learn from one another (though see below for some compelling possible reasons!)
In December 2015, the Auditor General of Ontario criticized the CAS’ for investigating child abuse within the care system too slowly, and failing to properly screen foster parents and other placement workers. The report situated itself historically, 13 years after child Jeffrey Baldwin was killed by his grandparents, who received custody despite having had past convictions for the abuse of children. The Auditor General also noted that MCYS had started an IT project to link up CAS data and allow cross-comparison, but that it was years and tens of millions of dollars behind schedule with no end in sight.
Two months later, in February of 2016, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) published a legally-binding request for CAS’ intake and placement data, disaggregated by race and ethnic origin, in order to investigate whether families were unfairly targeted for interventions based on these factors. The data is due by June of 2016, a month away as of this blog post.
Finally, in March of 2016, the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) published its own critical investigation – this time of Ontario group homes, and the MCYS process of funding and governing them. Group homes, too, are privately-run but publically-funded, with nearly 500 operating throughout the province. OACAS argues these homes are almost completely unaccountable, with no data made available to individual CAS’ to judge whether a child should be placed in a particular home, making them – to paraphrase the report – harder to rate than a restaurant. Group home staff are poorly paid, and are not screened by MCYS (as opposed to foster parents, who are screened). OACAS emphasizes the responsibility of MCYS to manage data transparency because CAS’ have been sued by group homes for sharing evidence of child endangerment amongst themselves.
Holding different ends of these tangled threads are MCYS; OACAS; group homes; families in turmoil and their kin; families whose skin colour alone makes them objects of suspicion; the Auditor General; not to mention the justice system, and somewhere, children in danger. Because these children are in danger, the actors cannot walk away from the confrontation, but how should they get along?
Few areas of policy have such passionate agreement about their goals, and also have such intractable conflicts over their means (for the above examples are a tiny taste of the confusion). Care for children and youth who are neglected and abused is, I would argue, one of the most inherently difficult public policy problems – as opposed to those policy problems where reasonable solutions might be fairly clear but which are mucked up in the hurly-burly of conflicting interests. Compare child protection with transit planning, for example.
In Canadian liberal democracy, which draws on political philosophers whose concern was to create limits on the state, the family is seen as a kind of natural social “unit” of caring and support. The distinction between public and private, demarcated by the door to the family home, is baked very deeply into our theory of politics and law. Our families are recognized for being more diverse but they still organize us.
So what duty of care does society owe to those for whom the private family unit is a potentially-lethal prison – but who are too young to assert their own autonomy? It seems to me that we swing continuously between two points of crisis: first, a policy of keeping family units together results in the death of a horribly-abused child; second, a policy of proactively intervening in “risky” families results in a scandal of children horribly abused in non-family units that are in some way part of the “public” sphere – the location often referred to as “in care.” The phrase “in care” sometimes takes on chillingly ironic undertones when these environments are punitively disciplinarian group homes (as though the children were placed there because of their own actions) – and where they form part of the so-called “prison pipeline” that disproportionately incarcerates racialized and First Nations youth. After each scandal, we go back to the other point of crisis.
There’s a smaller knot here that’s easier to untangle: three perspectives that underlie this ongoing collision, which provide fodder for discussion: they are Kinship, Data, and Money. Ontario’s CAS’ are in financial trouble; as the pendulum swings away from group home placements for youth (due to evidence of poor outcomes), those residences also face a cash crunch. MCYS faces its own budget constraints, and demands more performance from the privately-run protection system without increases in cost. This has two effects:
1) The drive for data and data transparency will only increase. If acceptable quality can be achieved, this data can in turn drive “competition” between parties vying for funds to allow them to help govern the child protection system in Ontario. Hopefully, this will be good for endangered children and youth.
2) Kinship will continue to become more attractive as a place to situate the costs of child protection. There is a tendency to view the social as “free” in public policy problems – volunteerism, community pride, active citizenship, village parenting – all of them promise to help deliver policy outcomes without the expense of waged, skilled labour (or, if you prefer, “bureaucrats”). This reinforces the current alignment of CAS practice towards keeping children with relatives.
But Jeffrey Baldwin wasn’t killed by strangers. Without appropriately-funded processes and ongoing supports for alternative caregivers, this loop of self-reinforcing policy could only re-double the pressure on social networks that are already fractured by family units whose members aren’t able or willing to fulfill the role laid out for them in Canadian society.