The provincial government spends $1.5 billion a year funding 46 children’s aid societies in Ontario. Incredibly, though, a Toronto Star investigation this past week found it has no good idea how effectively the money is being used.
That’s because it has not established benchmarks for care with the various agencies. Nor has it analyzed data from budget reports — or even from ministry case audits of children who have been in the care of foster parents or group homes for two or more years.
As a result, children taken from their parents for abuse or neglect in various parts of the province are receiving different standards of care, and no one knows which types are most effective.
The differences range from whether children are regularly placed with relatives or in group homes, to how likely they are to rejoin their families after being placed in care, and even to whether they receive regular dental checkups.
This is inexcusable. The fate of 23,300 children who are currently in care in the province is at stake. It’s “a huge problem and it needs to be dealt with immediately,” says Irwin Elman, Ontario’s advocate for children and youth.
He is not alone in his concerns. Raymond Lemay, who spent three decades with the Prescott-Russell society east of Ottawa, says: “We don’t have a firm grasp on what works, or even agreement on desired outcomes.” Mary Ballantyne, executive director of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, says the ministry needs to understand the story behind the numbers.
She is right. For example, one disturbing figure the Star found is that the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto opened 17,373 new cases in 2012-13 — and reopened another 18,805.
What does that mean? Were children being returned to unsafe homes, only to have their cases reopened? It’s not clear.
To be fair, some differences between how children are cared for are understandable. For example, it may be difficult to place children with relatives in Toronto when so many parents are newcomers with no kin in the country. But how to explain why a child doesn’t get a regular medical or dental checkup from some societies when that is mandated by the province?
More concerning is the tepid response to the Star’s investigation from the Ministry of Children and Youth Services. The minister, Tracy MacCharles, would not grant an interview. And the ministry itself only issued a statement saying that the system gives children “every opportunity to reach their full potential regardless of where they live or come into care.”
Meanwhile, a government-appointed commission concluded in 2012 that the child protection system does not provide value for money, and described services as “fragmented, confused and siloed.” Its recommendations included creating a centralized computer system to standardize inconsistent data the societies collect. But that won’t be up and running until 2019.
In the end, says Elman, “This is about the well-being of children … If we’re not going to take that seriously, I don’t know what as a province we are going to consider seriously.”
It’s time the ministry acted on these concerns. It should analyze the available data, establish benchmarks and ensure they are being met. The children deserve no less.