In 2015, a few days before the holidays, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne surprised us all when she said that she would do whatever it takes to fix the child protection system in Ontario – even if it meant "blowing it up." The Premier was reacting to findings in the Auditor General's Report on child protection in Ontario.
Most of the concerns Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk identified point to systemic problems with Children's Aid Societies (CASs). Lysyk said CASs were failing to meet ministry-mandated standards for reports, visits and investigations. She said many cases were being closed too soon. She said funding could be better used to provide more direct services to children and their families.
These findings should not come as a surprise to any of us. OPSEU members in Children's Aid tell me that they are buried in paperwork and have too little time to spend with families and children.
The problem is, Children's Aid workers have been trying to cope with never-ending restructuring for over a decade. Changes have been made to reporting mechanisms, computer systems and documentation requirements. If the system requires several hours of travel and paperwork for every one hour of time spent directly with clients, then it's pretty obvious that CASs need to hire more workers to ensure that more time is spent with clients.
OPSEU has been making this case for years. Restructuring in the absence of meaningful funding and staffing is only window dressing – or worse, camouflage for underfunding. We said this in 2012 before the government's Commission to Promote Sustainable Child Welfare. We will continue to make the case with the current Minister of Children and Youth Services, Tracy MacCharles.
If the Premier is serious about improving Children's Aid, she has got to start listening to those who provide the service and those groups working towards eliminating growing inequality. We call on the minister to strike a broad-based community task force comprised of child protection workers, teachers, First Nations advisers, anti-poverty organizations, domestic violence groups, public health, mental health workers and housing advisers, to recommend reforms to renew the child protection system in Ontario.
Child protection workers are often viewed as a "special type of person" who performs a service that many would rather not do. And yet, children and families involved with the CAS live in our communities. Your work reminds us that child protection should be a community responsibility – that parents have a better chance of success with their children when they live in dignified housing, make a living wage, have access to quality child care and recreation programs, and to supportive mental health services.
If the Premier really wants to make a difference in the lives of children, she should listen to the expertise of child protection workers. First, we need to put some real dollars into direct client service. Second, government needs to address marginalization and poverty, or else some children will always be at greater risk of coming into contact with Children's Aid.
If Kathleen Wynne wants to be bold about fixing the system, she needs to build it up, not blow it up. And the first step in building it up is to start listening to the province's dedicated and caring child protection workers.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President, Ontario Public Service Employees Union