The Child at the Centre: OPSEU's submission to Bill 89

An OPSEU analysis of Bill 89, An Act to enact the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2016, to amend and repeal the Child and Family Services Act and to make related amendments to other Acts, with recommendations for improvements.

Introduction: OPSEU and Bill 89

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union represents 130,000 Ontarians working in every corner of the province. OPSEU members work in the provincial and municipal public sectors and also for private companies on contract with public sector entities.

In social services, OPSEU represents 6,100 workers employed in three sectors that are directly affected by Bill 89, An Act to enact the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2016. These OPSEU members work in Children’s Aid Societies; in youth justice facilities; and in mental health treatment programs for children and youth. These workers provide treatment, counselling, care, advocacy, and other support to children, youth, and families.

As frontline social service workers, OPSEU members bring a unique perspective to the well-documented problems afflicting social services in Ontario. They have a deep investment in the success of all children and youth; indeed, that is why they are in this line of work. They are uniquely positioned to provide insights into how we are doing, as a society, when it comes to supporting our children and youth.  Yet too often, their input is overlooked.

Workers in the social services system have witnessed many changes in recent years, among them:

  • changes to funding models that subvert a child-centered approach and instead demand a focus on outcome measures, quotas, accountability agreements, and the management of waitlists;
  • growing public demand for services; and
  • growing complexity in the nature of the services required.

The government’s response to greater demand has not been to expand these services. Instead, it has opted to restructure, amalgamate, and download them.

This has not made life better for children, youth, or families in need of support. There is a reason for this: the changes are meant to serve the needs of the system, including the political structures that support it. These changes impose a business model that continues to fail to meet the needs of the people it is supposed to serve. Any change that aims to put children and youth at the centre of concern – and decision-making – is more than welcome.

Bill 89: assessing its stated goals

How do we meet a child’s needs? This question is the subject of the preamble to Bill 89.

According to the preamble, the new Child Youth and Family Services Act (CYFSA) will recognize that children’s services ought to be grounded in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This approach is in line with Katelynn’s Principle, which places children at the centre when they are the subject of, or receiving services through, the child welfare, justice, and education systems. This principle means that the child’s views must be given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child, and that each child should be given the opportunity to participate before any decisions affecting them are made.

OPSEU members support Katelynn’s Principle and wish to see it brought to life through legislation that places the needs of children and youth ahead of all other considerations. Thus, we support the principles laid out in the preamble to Bill 89.

We support diversity and inclusion. We believe in the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We want to eliminate systemic racism and the barriers it creates.

The preamble to Bill 89 references all of these ideas with language that it is, to be sure, very forward-looking and “21st century.”

Unfortunately, the actual changes proposed in the bill are very minor. They do not live up to the promise of the preamble. For a truly comprehensive rethink of how services are delivered to vulnerable children in Ontario, we need a bold and courageous vision – one that is more than merely aspirational. We need a vision that ensures that provisions within the Act truly address the social, economic and health needs of children.

Such an approach would require working across ministerial silos; significantly increasing spending on services to children and youth; and eliminating the profit motive in the provision of any service to children and youth.

OPSEU members support greater oversight and accountability; licensing for residential services; amplifying the voice of children and youth; and First Nations oversight and governance. But in the absence of radical changes – changes not proposed in Bill 89 – vulnerable children will not have access to the same life opportunities as other children in Ontario.

Backdrop to the crisis

The problems of vulnerable children, youth and families do not exist in a vacuum. They are embedded in social and economic conditions. And at present, Ontario is a place where the needs of our most vulnerable citizens take a back seat to corporate profit-seeking. Social services are, overall, dramatically underfunded in Ontario.

This is not acceptable. The fact is, there is more money in Ontario than ever before. Real (adjusted for inflation) Gross Domestic Product per capita is at a record level.[1] Yet government appears to lack the capacity to fund the real needs of citizens, and far too many working people (1.7 million, at last count[2]) are in low-income employment. Public transit is insufficient and waiting lists for affordable housing are long.

With respect to services for children and youth, the Ontario government has come under tremendous scrutiny after a series of cascading failures in recent years. These crises have been well documented through Coroner’s Inquests into child deaths, reports of the Auditor General, and, most recently, the Report of the Residential Services Review Panel.

The current crisis did not happen overnight. It is the result of at least two decades of economic and social policy in Ontario that has undercut the well-being of all citizens and hit the most vulnerable the hardest. Cuts to social assistance and an increase in income inequality are one branch of this problem; cuts to services for the most vulnerable are the other.

Both are the logical outgrowth of a neoliberal economic approach, aided and abetted by politicians, that aims to transfer wealth from workers and public services to corporate profits. The draining-away of public dollars through privatization of infrastructure projects[3] and public service delivery, combined with the erosion of our tax base over the last two decades, has left provincial coffers depleted.  Economist Hugh Mackenzie has calculated the impact on provincial revenues and put the loss to government at $19 billion a year.[4]

Rising inequality and precarious work have a direct impact on the well-being of children. Campaign 2000 reports that in 2016, 513,850 Ontario children (18.8 per cent of the total) were living in poverty. Indigenous children who live on reserves have the highest child poverty rates in Ontario, at close to 50 per cent, and those living off reserve are at 30 per cent.[5]

The authors of the report paint a bleak picture: “As the cost of housing, hydro, food, school supplies, health costs and other basic needs continue to rise, families across the province struggle to make ends meet. These rising costs are further exacerbated by the increasing precarity of employment in Ontario with the growth of part-time, contract, temporary, and shift work with low wages and few or no benefits.”[6] 

Ontario needs a real commitment to sharing the wealth of this province in a way that allows all citizens to achieve their potential. This must start with a true commitment to reducing income inequality in the province and funding the public services people need.

General recommendations

Recommendation #1: The new Child, Youth and Family Services Act must be grounded in an understanding of the social and economic environment that determines so much of what happens to vulnerable children, youth, and families and must include a stated commitment to working across government to eliminate child and family poverty in Ontario.

Recommendation #2: Current funding models are insufficient to meet the need in the system. A greater share of the province’s GDP must be earmarked to stabilize services so that children and youth can get the help they need – anywhere in the province. 

Recommendation #3: The experience of social service providers shows that the profit motive both drains resources away from services and distorts how resources are allocated. No service that is publicly funded under the Act should be delivered by for-profit providers.

Recommendation #4: Frontline service providers need to be empowered to act in the best interests of children, youth, and families without fear of reprisal. OPSEU recommends that the new Act include “whistleblower” protection along the lines of that contained in the Public Service Act.

Child protection

Child protection services have undergone decades of restructuring, characterized by constant changes in reporting requirements, new information technology, and a shift away from providing prevention services to focusing on core protection.  The Act needs to address this problem from a number of perspectives.

Recommendation #5: The current funding model for Children’s Aid Societies is not adequate. Since the implementation of the new funding model, the sector has seen several strikes, agencies unable to balance budgets, and accountability agreements that are unresponsive to unanticipated costs such as the cost of implementing the Child Protection Information Network (CPIN). CASs should have the option of renegotiating accountability agreements with MCYS in response to unanticipated increases in costs to provide services. 

Recommendation #6: The Act must address the endemic workload issue at CASs by establishing provincial caseload benchmarks to guarantee a consistent quality of service and the ability to meet provincial standards.

Recommendation #7: The new Act extends service to 16- and 17-year-olds, and we support this. However, we are concerned about the ambiguity in the apprehension process and how to deal with youth consent when CASs are empowered and required to apprehend if protection concerns arise. Further to this, there are no provisions in the Act for funding these additional services.

Recommendation #8: When the minister issues an amalgamation order, bargaining agents should be notified when the employer is notified and should have the opportunity to provide a written submission within 30 days of the notice. Furthermore, community consultations should take place to assess the impact on the community.  The ministry must be required to demonstrate that the proposed amalgamation will improve services.

Recommendation #9: Children’s aid workers often face health and safety concerns in the course of their work. The Act should include a requirement for co-teaming as a standard practice for known dangerous situations, as well as for situations where the danger is completely unknown, except where police accompaniment has been confirmed. This is the recommendation of an independent study conducted for the Worker Safety Sub-Committee of the Joint Labour-Management Committee comprising the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, bargaining agents, supported by MCYS.[7]

Recommendation #10: When the minister issues a directive, the bargaining agent at the CAS covered by the directive should receive notice and should have the opportunity to provide input on the directive.

Recommendation #11: OPSEU is concerned about the potential in the new legislation to change the title of “child protection worker.” We maintain that the title “child protection worker” accurately reflects the mandated services that frontline CAS staff are authorized to provide.  Any “additional prescribed requirements” in the regulations should be reviewed with bargaining agents.

Youth Justice

Youth justice workers support youth who have been sentenced to custody, are waiting to be sentenced, are transitioning back into the community, or are on probation. Since the introduction of the Youth Criminal Justice Act in 2003, custody admissions have declined by 72 per cent and detention admissions by 33 per cent. The sector is undergoing radical changes as a result of a legislative emphasis on prevention and diversion. Secure and open custody facilities have been closing or are being piloted to offer reintegration housing options for youth.

Currently, there are two parallel systems providing youth justice services: facilities directly operated by MCYS, and transfer payment facilities.

The government-commissioned review panel for residential services found that these two systems have no consistent standards for hiring, training, and compensation for staff and no mechanisms to ensure consistency of practice across the two systems. For example, employers in transfer payment agencies are exempt from providing WSIB workplace insurance coverage and often offer minimum coverage, funded entirely by employees. The health and safety of workers in youth secure custody/detention and open custody in transfer payment facilities has been a constant area of concern. Given the evidence, the panel recommended the two systems be integrated. OPSEU agrees.

Recommendation #12: OPSEU recommends that the new Act create a single, integrated system for youth justice, directly operated by MCYS. A single system would improve and standardize training, hiring practices, health and safety, policies and procedures, standards, and compensation. 

Children’s mental health and residential services

Children’s mental health workers provide individual, group, and family counselling and assessment to children and youth struggling with a wide range of mental health concerns. This sector was historically built on a community based transfer payment funding model. Currently the greatest challenge frontline service providers face is a lack of capacity. Child treatment simply cannot meet the demand for assistance to children and youth.

The significant increase in demand for treatment services in the absence of stable base funding increases has placed children and youth in crisis. With nowhere else to go, families are increasingly turning to the health and child protection systems. Since 2007-08, emergency department visits for children and youth with mental illnesses have increased by 45 per cent and hospitalizations have increased by 58 per cent. We believe that this is a direct result of the province’s reduction in community based treatment capacity.

In Ontario, more than 12,000 children and youth are currently awaiting to access mental health services. At some child and youth mental health centres in Ontario, there are wait times of up to 18 months. In addition, over the last 10 years, Ontario has eliminated approximately 8,700 children’s residential beds. There are 35 per cent fewer beds today than there were. 

The Residential Services Review Panel made 33 sweeping recommendations to improve the system, and we agree that the residential component of children’s mental health needs a major overhaul.

The growth of for-profit providers in this area has introduced negative competition where agencies compete for children and youth with the most complex issues because their per diem rates are higher, and therefore more lucrative. The review panel noted that staff working for these providers are, too often, in precarious work characterized by a lack of training, low educational requirements, and poor wages.  These factors all put downward pressure on quality of care.

Recommendation #13: The Act must address the real cost of providing mental health services to children and youth in every community in Ontario. This commitment must be legislated, and it must ensure that every community has the mental health services it needs, including residential beds for children and youth. Agencies must be funded through block funding, not by diverting public dollars to individualized funding or the expansion of the for-profit system.

Recommendation #14: The criteria required to obtain funding for residential beds must be reviewed. At present, to receive funding, a child or young person must meet the criteria to be designated as having complex special needs. These rigid criteria can exclude children with unique circumstances that may require a specialized treatment bed but do not meet child protection or youth justice mandates. Also, when funds are approved, they should be delivered in a timely manner.   

Recommendation #15: Per-diem funding for the provision of residential services should be eliminated. At present, agencies are funded through a daily per-diem rate based on occupancy. Payment is made only when services have been delivered, and unused capacity is not funded. This pay-as-you-go model has dramatically reduced capacity in the system and has introduced competition for beds among providers, thereby compromising quality of care.

Recommendation #16: Individualized funding for child treatment services should be abolished. As written, Bill 89 enshrines individualized funding in law.  Under the Act, the minister can provide funding directly to “persons.” Individualized funding has been viewed as a panacea, meeting local and individual needs. In reality, however, and in the absence of any regulatory framework to ensure proper oversight, training, and decent wages for frontline service providers, this type of funding further destabilizes the system.

Recommendation #17: The Act should include an appeal process when the minister is considering termination of funding to an agency. In addition, when an order is issued against a lead agency or service provider, the bargaining agent, where one exists, should be notified, and should have the opportunity to make a submission.

Conclusion

From the perspective of frontline workers in the fields of child protection, youth justice, and children’s mental health, Bill 89 expresses lofty ideals but fails to create the mechanisms that would make those ideals a reality. The recommendations included in this submission are intended to move Bill 89 in a direction that would help Ontario deliver better outcomes for our most vulnerable children, youth, and families.


Notes

[1] Statistics Canada (2017). CANSIM tables 384-0038, 051-0001.

[2] Mojtehedzadeh, Sara (2015). “Ontario at bottom for good jobs, social spending.” Toronto Star, November 19.

[3] Office of the Auditor General of Ontario (2014). Annual Report 2014. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 201.

[4] Thiessen, Kaylie (2015). Fixing Ontario’s Revenue Problem: How to Restore Fiscal Capacity. Toronto: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

[5] Campaign 2000 (2016). Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Ontario. Campaign 2000. 

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services (2014). Final Report: CAS Workers at Risk: A Current Assessment of Worker Safety, Client Violence and Child Protection in Ontario's Children's Aid Societies – A System Under Pressure. MCYS, July 31.

 

To read Deborah Gordon’s remarks to the committee, click here.

 

 

Publication Date: 

Thursday, March 30, 2017 - 3:15pm

To read Deborah Gordon’s remarks to the committee, click here.

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