There have always been dysfunctional parents who neglect their children.
And there have long been dysfunctional children’s aid societies that neglect their caseloads.
Parental pathology will always be unavoidable in some cases. But the organizational blunders that allow parents to continue abusing their children are utterly avoidable.
Our CAS model dates from the late 19th century, a time when child protection was in its infancy and Ontario was divided along religious lines. All these years later, our network of children’s aid societies remains fragmented and frozen in time.
A damning report this month from provincial auditor general Bonnie Lysyk is merely the latest indictment of a system that resists change, ignores criticism and flouts the rules.
Children’s aid societies often miss the seven-day deadline to start an investigation of alleged child abuse. When they do, CAS probes average more than seven months — far beyond the 30-day government standard.
A series of articles in the Toronto Star over the past year revealed similar lapses in a system that seems predestined to fail because of lax enforcement by the societies, and a lack of supervision of the CAS network itself by Queen’s Park.
The fault lies not so much with any local CAS as it does with a provincial government that allows a patchwork of 47 such organizations to persist across Ontario — operating remotely from the central authority, separately from one another, and at a distance from families. Just as a child cannot be held responsible for infantile misjudgments, a CAS cannot be blamed for its own lack of maturity — it is the government that is ultimately accountable.
If our nearly four dozen individual children’s aid societies have never truly grown up, nor changed with the times, it is because our governments have never learned the lessons of past mistakes or perennial inquiries. The onus is on Queen’s Park to take charge.
There can be no greater responsibility for Ontario than protecting vulnerable children. We pay for the sprawling CAS network with our tax dollars — disbursing $1.47 billion last year — and we invest our hope and trust in them. Why then have our governments historically passed on the dollars, while also passing the buck, to independent agencies that are publicly funded but privately run?
Separate, sectarian children’s aid societies have risen up along geographic and demographic lines — some conceived for Catholics, a few for Jews and Muslims, and the rest for everyone else. Does it make sense to bankroll so many disparate and disconnected organizations?
The latest report from the auditor general documents how children are treated differently in different corners of the province for no other reason than their place of origin or religion. More than 16,500 children depend on a CAS for help and supervision, and many more require investigation, yet these organizations consistently fail to meet legal deadlines for following up on cases.
In more than half of child abuse probes reviewed by the auditor, children’s aid societies neglected to make “crucial” checks of the province’s child abuse register, placing children at “serious risk,” the auditor concluded. Apart from glaring inconsistencies among the various children’s aid societies, they also lack a coherent system for identifying “best practices” that can be adopted and standardized across the province.
Despite past warnings, the disarray continues, and government promises persist. Yet past pledges of reform by politicians in power have proved hollow.
While one chapter of the auditor’s report outlines the recurring sins of children’s aid societies in supervising parents, the very next chapter catalogues the repeated inability of government to properly supervise the societies themselves: The ministry of children and youth services consistently fails to enforce compliance even when its inspectors identify obvious problems.
In 2012, a government-appointed commission reached similar conclusions, noting that the system fails to deliver value for money because it is “fragmented, confused and siloed.” Irwin Elman, the province’s child advocate, has long criticized the government for taking a “hands-off approach” that leaves care in the hands of so many disparate agencies.
Delays in facilitating domestic adoptions are another recurring problem with our CAS system. If the system is misconceived, and child protection remains an accident waiting to happen, why hold out hope for improvements? If 47 separate children’s aid societies cannot get their act together, and the provincial government cannot figure out how to oversee them, Queen’s Park needs to rethink — and reclaim — the entire system.
It’s worth noting that when the auditor found problems with the way our health care system delivers home care for the elderly and other adults, the government was ready with a response, hinting that it will completely revamp that unwieldy system.
Ontario’s vulnerable children deserve no less. Contracting out responsibility for children to agencies divided by geography and religion is an anachronistic leap of faith — and a breach of faith to society at large.