The Ford government is reducing funding for children and youth at risk by $84.5 million, according to an analysis of provincial spending estimates by the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies.
The reduction includes a $28 million cut to the $1.5 billion the province gives 49 children’s aid societies in Ontario, increasing concerns about the ability of agencies to serve and protect vulnerable children. The cut comes as 18 child protection agencies struggle with deficits totalling more than $12 million.
The deficits have already forced some agencies to lay off staff and reduce the number of children at risk they take into care.
“A decrease in children in care does not mean there are fewer children in need of protection,” the OACAS warned in a PowerPoint produced in late March, outlining its core messages before the provincial budget was tabled.
The association’s post-budget analysis suggests their warning may not have been heard.
The OACAS calculated funding envelopes that fall under the budget line of “child and youth at risk,” including services for child protection and youth involved with the justice system.
The association is uncertain about the full impact of the cuts. Some funding envelopes have been eliminated and new ones created. It’s unclear if programs funded under the eliminated envelopes will continue to be funded under the new ones. Some of the cuts may involve the closing of unused facilities or resources, particularly in the area of youth justice. But when all the pluses and minuses are calculated, the funding shortfall is $84.5 million, according to the OACAS.
“We are concerned about the impact of any potential cuts to our members and to the families that they serve,” Nicole Bonnie, chief executive officer of the OACAS said in an email response to questions.
“At this time we do not have details as to which programs will be funded or who will deliver them,” Bonnie added. “We are waiting for more detailed information from the ministry to understand the exact nature of the impact on child welfare.”
Bonnie hopes to soon meet with Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services. “Our message is and always has been that the children and families we serve are the most marginalized and disenfranchised, and programs that support their well-being need to be fully funded.”
The minister’s office did not respond to direct questions about the cuts. In an emailed statement, MacLeod’s press secretary, Derek Rowland, described the well-being of vulnerable young people as the government’s “utmost priority.” The steady decline of children being taken into care since 2006, he added, has helped most children’s aid societies balance their budgets and the ministry is working with those that haven’t.
“We will be holding Ontario’s Children’s Aid Societies and other providers to higher standards to keep our kids safe,” Rowland said, denouncing what he described as “the lack of oversight and relaxed regulation” of the previous Liberal government.
Rowland said the government is increasing investments in prevention programs “to ensure kids keep out of trouble.” The government also “expects significant savings” in the youth justice sector after a review found “underutilized detention facilities.”
A plan to reduce the number of children’s aid societies through amalgamation is also being considered by the ministry.
What isn’t in doubt is that children’s aid societies will have less core funding to work with.
One children’s aid society, Brant Family and Children’s Services, has struggled with deficits that forced the layoff of 26 workers in March, in a community facing perhaps the worst opioid addiction epidemic in the province. Its executive director then posted a letter to the Brantford area community on the agency’s website, warning of serious consequences.
“When governments cut child welfare services (managers, front-line staff, and support services), children ultimately die or are allowed by society to live in unbearable, violent and neglectful conditions,” Andy Koster wrote.
“With higher caseloads and tight timelines, workers are forced to move from one crisis to another instead of planning and working proactively with families to prevent future incidents,” he added. “Despite best efforts, children fall through the cracks and suffer the consequences of insufficient resources.”
The cuts for children at risk also comes on the heels of the government eliminating the office that advocated for children and youth.
Kiaras Gharabaghi, director of Ryerson University’s School of Child and Youth Care, denounced the cuts as implemented without consultations.
“They are cuts that have no interest in making the system work better for kids and families,” he said in an interview after reviewing the OACAS document.
“This sector requires a different approach,” Gharabaghi added. “It’s one where young people die by violence, by suicide, by neglect. It’s not the same as increasing class sizes in schools to save some money.”
Sandro Contenta is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @scontenta