Ontario’s child protection system — a sector struggling to address anti-Black racism and the overrepresentation of African Canadian children in foster care and group homes — has appointed its first Black chief executive officer.
Nicole Bonnie, director of diversity and anti-oppression at the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, will take the helm of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) in January.
Her appointment to the association that represents the province’s 47 children’s aid societies comes in the wake of an ongoing Star investigation into kids in care and last summer’s uproar over the Toronto society’s decision to hire a CEO with seemingly no experience in child protection or previous work in the area of diversity.
Bonnie, who previously worked at the Peel Children’s Aid Society, is replacing Mary Ballantyne who is retiring.
Her appointment “is very welcome and exciting news for us,” said Caroline Newton of the OACAS.
Bonnie, who is out of the country, said in a statement to the Star she is “honoured” to lead the association.
“Child Welfare in Ontario is changing in fundamental ways,” she said. “We are listening to the families and communities we serve, and reimagining child welfare in a way that supports them to thrive.”
She said she wants “to help build a child welfare system based on the pillars of respect and empowerment, reconciliation, equity and belonging, and consistent and excellent services across the province.”
The appointment also comes as more than 300 Black children’s aid workers from across the province gather in Toronto this week to discuss the sector’s efforts to fight anti-Black racism and the challenges faced by front-line staff.
“Black people who work in child welfare are often seen by the community as traitors or as not standing up for Black people,” said Kike Ojo, manager of One Vision One Voice (OVOV), a provincially funded program of the OACAS.
“But it’s just not true. People who work on the inside are often fighting like hell to make things better for Black people,” said Ojo, whose initiative is sponsoring the two-day symposium.
Of the province’s 11,000 child welfare workers, about 1,000 — or 10 per cent — are Black, Ojo said.
She said she hopes the symposium, the first of its kind, will be the beginning of a formal network of Black child protection workers in Ontario who can support one another as they push for change from the inside.
“I want to shine a light on why there is so little progress and what it’s like for people on the inside who are change agents,” she said. “I am trying to create protections for them.”
Black workers who advocate for Black families are often criticized by their superiors as being “biased” or “unprofessional,” Ojo said.
“The pushback is incredible. It has cost many workers promotions because they are seen as disruptive,” she said.
“In 13 years of senior leadership in the sector, I have never heard that said of a white worker — that they are being biased or unprofessional in their dealings with a white family,” she said. “This is just one of the forms that anti-Black racism takes.”
Jean Samuel, the OACAS’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion said Bonnie’s appointment will “give hope” to Black workers in the system.
“It really is going to help Black staff feel their voices can be accepted and embraced to help reimagine the work that we need to do,” said Samuel, who was at the symposium Wednesday.
“Nicole is the first Black CEO in our sector. She’s also a Black female,” Samuel said. “It shows there’s a future for child welfare that is going to look and feel a lot different than it has historically.”
This week’s meeting of Black staff follows a similar gathering of Black youth in care who met in Toronto last summer to share their experiences.
If provincial funding ends, Ojo said she hopes the sector will continue to support annual gatherings for both youth and staff.
The OVOV initiative was launched in January 2015 to address the overrepresentation of Black children in the care of children’s aid societies, a problem highlighted in a 2014 Star investigation and most recently by Ontario’s Human Rights Commission.
According to the latest statistics released by the Toronto society, 32 per cent of children admitted into care in 2017-18 were Black while they represent just 8 per cent of city residents under age 18.
A report by Ontario’s Human Rights Commission last spring found Black children were overrepresented in 30 per cent of CASs, an admission rate 2.2 times higher than their proportion in the child population.
The commission called on societies to improve data collection and increase efforts to address anti-Black racism within their internal policies and structures.
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb