There is a child in the Ontario government’s care who has changed homes 88 times. He or she is between 10 and 15 years old.
Senior government officials describe The Case of the Incredible Number of Moves as a “totally unacceptable outlier.”
Yet they don’t know what is being done to ensure the 88th move is the child’s last. The local children’s aid society is required to have a “plan of care” for each child. Whatever it is, it’s clearly not working.
The case was noted in government-mandated surveys obtained by the Star. The reports show three other teens changing homes more than 60 times.
Getting more details on how many times children change homes while in care is a murky business. A child welfare commission appointed by the government noted in 2012 that Ontario’s 46 children’s aid societies don’t agree on how to count or record such moves.
The commission looked at two groups of children who had spent at least 36 months in care. About 20 per cent of them changed homes more than three times. The Star obtained the commission’s numbers through a freedom-of-information request.
The government, while expressing concern, has done little to ensure more stable environments for children who experience multiple moves once taken from their parents. And it has not publicized data that would flag the issue.
A Toronto Star investigation has found Ontario’s most vulnerable children in the care of an unaccountable and non-transparent protection system. It keeps them in the shadows, far beyond what is needed to protect their identities.
“When people are invisible, bad things happen,” says Irwin Elman, the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth.
Child protection through children’s aid societies costs taxpayers almost $1.5 billion a year — a 300-per-cent increase since 1999.
Two years ago, the government-appointed child welfare commission concluded the system doesn’t provide value for money. It described services for vulnerable children as “fragmented, confused and siloed.”
CAS officials say responsibility for improving the lives of children in care can’t be theirs alone. The children tend to come from homes where poverty, mental-health issues or substance abuse are part of the problem. They insist government needs to do a far better job of co-ordinating services like housing, health care, education and police.
“How do we get the community to understand these are their kids, not CAS kids?” asks Rav Bains, executive director of Peel Children’s Aid, noting that the main reporting sources for suspected abuse are police and schools.
The failures are shrouded by a government that collects little standardized data on the experience of Ontario’s 23,300 children and youth in care, and largely keeps what it has secret.
The evidence pried from the child-protection system by the Star indicates there are reasons for concern.
A significant number of children and youth in care repeatedly change foster homes, group homes and schools. Almost half aged 5 or more are on “psychotropic or behaviour-altering drugs.” More than half end up dropping out of high school. And black or aboriginal children and youth are far more likely to be taken from their parents than white children, raising concerns about cultural bias and systemic racism.
It’s not known how many end up in the juvenile justice system, but Wendy Thomson, co-chair of the 2012 child welfare commission, says it is a common occurrence.
“They put kids in care,” says Natasha James, a former Crown ward, “and leave them to the wolves.”
James was placed in a Hamilton foster home when she was 13, then moved to a Brampton group home before ending up in a Toronto foster home. She changed high schools nine times during four years in care.
“When I went into care I was exposed to mental-health issues, prostitution, drug abuse, suicide — everything,” she says, referring to other wards with whom she lived. “You have your roommates slitting their wrists and you’re like, ‘What are you doing?’
“When you go into care, they should tell you it’s going to take 50 years to recover,” adds James, 26, now working as an advocate for youth in care.
In a brief last month to a legislative committee, Elman noted a case uncovered by his office of a 10-year-old boy who was physically restrained 108 times by staff in a group home during a 13-month period. The high number of restraints “did not generate any concern at either the ministry level or the Children’s Aid Society and appears to have gone unnoticed until it was brought to the attention of both by the Advocate’s Office,” Elman’s brief says.
Elman was before the committee to insist that a proposed bill giving him limited powers to investigate children’s aid societies doesn’t go far enough.
Senior government officials say the welfare commission’s recommendations are the focus of their efforts. The government has moved to make child protection more accountable. Children’s aid societies must sign agreements to stay within budget and set goals for the quality of care they should deliver.
And $122 million has so far been spent on a centralized computer system, known as CPIN, to track what happens to children in care. Implementation is technically challenging and behind schedule. Only three children’s aid societies have so far been patched into the central database.
The government also promises to set benchmarks that establish standards of care and assess the performance of children’s aid societies. But there is no time frame for the full implementation of these or the database. They won’t happen anytime soon.
“There could have been more provincial leadership decades ago,” says Nico Trocmé, director of the Centre for Research on Children and Families at McGill University and an expert on Ontario’s child-protection system.
“These are not middle-class kids with parents up in arms saying, ‘Why isn’t this being done,’” he says of the inaction. “These are the kids of disenfranchised people who, quite frankly, don’t have a very strong voice in government or anywhere else.”
Ontario’s 46 children’s aid societies are private, non-profit corporations. They are regulated by the government and have the legal power to take children from their parents for reasons ranging from physical abuse to neglect. Most children are returned to their parents within a year, after some form of help is provided.
Those in continued need of protection are made “Crown wards” after a court decision. In 2013-14, about 7,000 children and youth in Ontario were wards of the government and another 1,000 were on the path to joining them.
They’re placed in foster homes, group homes or with relatives, and are monitored by children’s aid societies, which are responsible for their care. The government remains their parent until they’re adopted or turn 18. However, youth can decide to leave care at age 16.
The century-old child-protection system received a major overhaul in 2000. Until then, the Child and Family Services Act made supporting troubled families a priority and required a “substantial risk of harm” before children’s aid societies could remove children from their homes.
Tragic examples of children dying while in contact with a CAS — including a case where a child-protection worker was charged with criminal negligence — triggered province-wide alarm in the late 1990s, fuelled by coroners’ inquests and media stories.
Mike Harris’s Tory government responded by lowering the level of risk needed for intervention. Children could be taken from their parents if a “pattern of neglect” was found, or if domestic violence caused a child emotional harm.
The notion of maltreatment by “omission” was introduced, including almost no food in the home, unchanged diapers, peeling lead-based paint and a lack of clothes for the season, according to a detailed analysis of the changes by two Toronto university professors, York’s Karen Swift and Ryerson’s Henry Parada. And the duty of teachers, police and members of the public to report suspected abuse or neglect was expanded.
Swift and Parada note the changes came after the Harris government slashed welfare payments and social service funding. The result was more financial hardship for poor families as thresholds for apprehending children were lowered.
Between 1998 and 2003, family investigations conducted by children’s aid societies doubled, from about 64,000 to 130,000. The number of children in care spiked, and a funding formula based on volume did nothing to rein in the trend.
Cases of physical or sexual abuse account for fewer than 25 per cent of children and youth taken into care. Seventy per cent are apprehended because of violence between parents or neglect, which includes risk of physical harm due to a lack of supervision.
The reforms in 2000 also piled on government regulations. Children’s aid societies must account for a long list of prescribed actions, such as response times. Some front-line workers complain that 70 per cent of their time is spent filling out forms.
Not much in those forms accounts for what happens to children.
“The reporting system is not a child-based reporting system,” says Thomson, director of McGill’s School of Social Work.
In the mid-2000s, the Liberal government introduced changes to strike a better balance between protecting children and preserving families.
Agencies can respond to cases differently, depending on risk levels to children and the needs of families. Where the risk of abuse is low, families should be spared a “forensic” grilling and helped to access supports and community services.
Research hasn’t been conducted on the impact of this “differential response.” What’s clear is that children’s aid societies continue to massively intervene.
Agencies in Ontario investigate at a rate of 54 children per 1,000. Fully 53 per cent of these investigations find no evidence of abuse or risk of maltreatment, according to the most recent Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect, a report that samples CAS cases every five years.
Quebec, by comparison, investigates at a rate of 18 children per 1,000, and 29 per cent turn out to be unfounded.
Senior government officials, who gave the Star a “technical briefing” about reform plans, said the statistics raise questions — “Are we doing too many investigations? Are too many kids coming into care?” But they don’t have the answers.
Also unanswered are the “unexplained variations of service levels” among children’s aid societies discovered by the child welfare commission. Why does one CAS, for example, place a lot of children and youth in group homes when another avoids doing so as much as possible? Which is the best practice?
Trocmé, lead investigator for the abuse incidence studies, describes a child-protection system “flying blind.”
“We don’t know whether we’re doing more harm than good,” he says.
“To use a health (care) analogy, if some physician thinks he’s got a great idea and starts to inject a bunch of kids with some new drug that’s never been tested, people would be up in arms no matter how good his intentions were. We’re not very far from that in child welfare.
“For the last 50 years, when there has been a big shift toward more evidence-based practice in many other fields, the idea that we continue to know so little about the impact of these (child-care) interventions is, frankly, unethical,” Trocmé adds.
Child-welfare work looks nothing like a science. Little is black and white when trying to balance child protection with keeping families together, particularly when poverty, mental health or substance abuse is usually part of the challenge. Often, front-line workers feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The many saved by children’s aid societies tend to go unnoticed, as do those who do well while in care. Van was 12 when she called police, fearing violence between her parents would harm her two younger siblings. All three children were placed in a foster home.
Now 20, Van attends university and lives with her partner. She’s helped financially by scholarships and a government program that supports youth transitioning out of care. She also became the legal guardian of her 13-year-old brother and 16-year-old sister — the first arrangement of its kind at Peel Children’s Aid.
“I would never take back the decision that brought us into care,” says Van, who preferred not to give her family name.
But what many would consider a minimum requirement for success eludes a large number of children and youth in care: 54 per cent do not graduate high school.
Part of the problem is that the government is a parent without formal expectations for its children. It has allowed children’s aid societies to operate without benchmarks or standards that would judge their performance based on how children in their care are doing.
Are children expected to graduate high school? What extra help should be available when they don’t function at age-appropriate grade levels? When do home moves become unacceptable? How many changes in case workers can occur before trust breaks and frustration overflows? Is safety compromised when a child is returned to biological parents only to bounce back into care? How much control should a child or youth have over his or her care?
Many societies collect their own “performance” data but publicly reveal little more than head counts. They each have their own way of collecting and recording it. The result is a statistical mess. The child welfare commission couldn’t even figure out how many adhere to mandated response times when a call comes in about possible abuse.
The government’s record-keeping also frustrated the commission. Children’s aid societies must file reports to the government on incidents considered serious — when a child is physically restrained, for example. The government was unable to give the commission aggregate, province-wide statistics about the incidents.
Children’s aid societies, for their part, complain it has been years since they have seen provincial totals for information collected in annual government audits known as Crown Ward Reviews. Each CAS has a sample of their cases audited for data such as the number of times a child changes homes while in care.
The government insists its central database and promised benchmarks will eventually make things better. In the meantime, close observers see a nonchalant attitude about evidence that already exists, such as the number of times children in care change homes.
“The problem is there is no tradition in Ontario child welfare of looking at the evidence, looking at the data and saying, ‘OK, what does this mean for practice?’” says Raymond Lemay, the highly respected executive director of the Prescott-Russell children’s aid society until his retirement this summer.
The Children’s Aid Society of Toronto has been tracking the ethnic and racial makeup of children and youth in its care for several years. Blacks are significantly overrepresented, a fact that has angered parents and led to talks dating back at least eight years between community leaders and senior government officials, including the youth minister. Yet the ministry says it has never asked the Toronto CAS for the racial data.
Of children in care in Toronto, 31 per cent were born to black parents. A further 9.8 per cent of children in care had one parent who is black.
Educational challenges for children in care suggest a similarly sluggish response. Data on this and other issues has been captured province-wide since at least 2008 in annual, government-mandated “Looking After Children” surveys known as OnLAC. They revealed the troubling high-school dropout rate and the fact that 63 per cent of 6-year-olds in care are more than a year behind the grade level they should be at.
The surveys also track barriers to academic success. They note that children and youth in care, due to changes in residence, live through several unplanned school changes: 32 per cent change schools three or four times, and 25 per cent more than five times.
There is no obligation for the new school to enrol them during the term, says Thomson, the former child welfare commissioner. “They’re sometimes out of school for weeks,” she adds.
Former Crown ward Dakota Hegler, 22, recalls being stigmatized when she tried to attend a new school in Brantford.
“I wasn’t allowed to start until I signed papers promising to be a good kid,” she says.
“You don’t make all the other kids sign papers saying they’re going to be good kids so why are you making me?” she asks, noting the demand delayed her entry into the school for a week.
Missing school is another barrier. OnLAC surveys reveal a significant number of absentee days are due to CAS-related work: 15 per cent for meetings with child-care workers, 6 per cent for access visits from biological parents and 4 per cent due to completing the OnLAC survey. Appointments with mental-health workers were responsible for another 15 per cent of days off school.
The figures suggest an attitude in child protection that “it doesn’t matter if a kid misses a day of school,” says Lemay. Absenteeism could be reduced “tomorrow,” he adds, by simply having front-line workers and others meet children and youth when school is out.
Reducing the number of school changes with busing, or insisting on quick entry into new schools, also seem like easy fixes. The government promises “joint protocols” between the education and youth ministries on a range of measures to boost academic achievement. They’re at the “development” phase.
The government and CASs are moving slowly. And years of inaction have left much to do.
“Frankly, children will sometimes get what they need, sometimes not,” says Aron Shlonsky, a University of Toronto social work professor involved in the reform process. “Sometime this year or next there will be a child who dies. And the system is doing what it can to fix what it knows it can fix. But it’s a long road.”
Reforming the system
A 2012 provincial commission into Ontario’s child-welfare system recommended the following reforms:
• Children’s aid societies must be “reconfigured” to improve service and provide value for money. (Amalgamation has reduced the number of societies by eight since 2011.)
• The volume-based funding formula encourages children’s aid societies to take children into care and should be changed. (The government responded by deeming that 50 per cent of the funding be allocated based on the socio-demographic makeup of CAS catchment areas.)
• Children’s aid societies must be more accountable and transparent. (Children’s aid societies now have to sign “accountability agreements.”)
• The government should set province-wide benchmarks that test how well children’s aid societies serve children. (The government promises to do so but won’t say when. A central computer database that connects all societies is also being set up to track what happens to children in care. Only three children’s aid societies have been patched into the database so far.)
• Children’s aid societies can’t do their jobs properly if services for children, including health and education, remain fragmented. Stronger integration across all services for children is needed.
• The government should define the services that must be provided by every CAS in Ontario.
• The government should set targets that encourage caring for children within their own families.
• The government should reduce the administrative burden on children’s aid societies so that workers can spend more time serving children. (The government set up an advisory committee for this.)
• A province-wide strategy is needed to improve the lives of aboriginal children in care. (The government says it is working on one.)
• Children’s aid societies should be required to “collect accurate data about children’s cultural and racial backgrounds” to better serve the province’s diverse population.
A map of CASs across Ontario
There are currently 46 Children's Aid Societies (CAS) in Ontario. While each region differs, the Star identified general trends between the number of children in care, the number of reports received, and cases before courts with demographics such as education, single parents, and the aboriginal and visible minority populations. The CAS data shown is for the year 2011-2012. To use the map, turn layers on and off using the “Visible layers” drop down toggle menu. Zoom in and out using the zoom tools. Click and drag to explore areas of the map. Mouse over the shaded areas and click on the green circles for underlying data.
Sources: Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Statistics Canada, Environics Analytics. Map and analysis by Hidy Ng and Andrew Bailey.
The reporters on this story can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org