Less than two weeks after axing Ontario’s independent child advocate, the Ford government has announced plans to set up “advocacy tables” in the children’s ministry to improve child protection, youth custody and services for Indigenous youth.
The roundtables will include former youth with experience in foster care and group homes, Indigenous child welfare, and the youth criminal justice system, said Lisa MacLeod, minister of children, community and social services. They will report directly to her, she said Monday.
“Ontario’s most vulnerable children and youth deserve better outcomes,” MacLeod said in the legislature. “Our first step to making necessary improvements will be the establishment of advocacy tables, which will have direct access to decision makers.”
Champions of children’s rights welcomed the new youth roundtables, but said they are no substitute for an independent advocate’s office.
“It’s pretty wonderful to hear they’re creating these roundtables,” said Cheyanne Ratnam, 30, who spent her teen years in a group home and is a member of the Ontario Children’s Advocacy Association, a group of young adults who have lived experience in the areas overseen by the advocate.
“But setting up roundtables does not replace the intervention and prevention initiatives and the type of one-to-one engagement young people and their allies experienced with the advocate’s office,” she said in an interview.
“Ministries and governments are focused on policy,” she added. “They are not really known for doing meaningful work with young people and incorporating best practices when working with youth experts.”
Reports from the advocate’s office are written and directed by the voices of children and youth, said Ratnam, who teaches at Seneca College and works with vulnerable youth for the city of Toronto. By their very nature, government reports are filtered through the political process, she said. The independent advocate’s office could speak freely and release reports critical of government without fear of reprisals, she added.
NDP children’s critic Monique Taylor said roundtables “cannot have the same impact” as the children’s advocate.
“These are appointed positions — the advocate’s office was an independent office and a voice that could be trusted by everyone,” said the Hamilton Mountain MPP.
Without a separate office, “there is going to be no true advocacy that will happen going forward,” Taylor added. “That was one of the main foundations of that office, bringing those youth together … to be able to speak their voice … That is now gone.”
Finance Minister Vic Fedeli announced the office’s demise on Nov. 15 as part of his fall economic update. In addition to repealing 2007 legislation that established the independent child advocate, he also eliminated independent commissioners for the environment and Francophone affairs who also report directly to the legislature.
The advocate’s office employs 80 full- and part-time staff in offices in Thunder Bay and Toronto, including 28 full-time staff dedicated to advocacy. Its annual budget was almost $13 million last year. The office is expected to wind down in the spring.
Under the change, the advocate’s investigative staff will be transferred to the provincial Ombudsman’s office and become part of a new children’s unit.
Under the 2007 law, the advocate’s office is mandated to advocate and investigate on behalf of children and youth involved with children’s aid, the mental health system, youth justice, disability services and provincial schools for people who are deaf, blind or live with severe disabilities. The office is also responsible for Indigenous and Métis kids.
In addition to lacking independence, the roundtables also neglect half of the advocate’s mandate — children and youth involved with the mental health system, disability services and in provincial demonstration schools, said Judy Finlay, an associate professor of child and youth care at Ryerson University.
“This speaks clearly to the government’s lack of knowledge about the vulnerable kids in this province,” said Finlay, a former child advocate, and the last one who reported directly to the minister.
She said there are about 25,000 kids “who don’t live at home, who don’t have advocates in their corner and are in the care of the state.”
On Thursday, Ratnam’s advocacy group and Ryerson University’s school of child and youth care are staging a rally and a news conference in support of the advocate’s office. Several hundred people are expected to attend the rally.
Irwin Elman, the province’s first — and now likely the last — independent child advocate, has said killing the office is a dangerous move. Elman, whose second two-year term expired over the weekend, has said he will remain in the position during the transition, as allowed under the legislation.
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
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