The move by the board’s 11 members to resign en masse comes after several years of warnings from the Brantford-based children’s aid society. It said cuts and underfunding were affecting operations, resulting in pay freezes, reduced on-call pay for social workers and the layoff of 26 staff.
“The primary responsibility of Brant FACS is to protect children in the community,” Paul Whittam, president of the agency’s board, said in a press release Tuesday. “The board takes this responsibility very seriously and we believe that government underfunding has put the safety of our community’s vulnerable children at risk. It is no longer possible to fulfil our mandate.”
The board includes a doctor, police officer, school board superintendent, educators and a band council representative from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.
“The provincial government has refused to provide the funding necessary to confirm for the board that Brant FACS can ensure the safety of our community’s vulnerable children,” read the release.
“The deficit incurred by the agency over the past two years is the direct result of imposed government decisions, directives and underfunding. The model used to determine Brant FACS funding was arbitrarily changed, which further added significant financial stress to an already unbearable situation.”
The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services had conducted a review of Brant FACS earlier this year. Despite the funding issues, “initial verbal feedback” from the ministry suggested the agency was “well-governed, operated efficiently and had sufficient financial controls in place,” the agency said in its release.
In response to questions, a spokesperson for the office of Minister Todd Smith sent an emailed statement saying the “ministry has been taking the necessary steps to ensure that the board’s decision has no impact on the safety of children in care.”
Since 2015, there “have been numerous attempts by multiple governments” to “assist Brant FACS to make decisions that are consistent with its mandate,” including regular deficit reporting and reviews of finances, said the statement.
“We are fully committed to supporting the staff at Brant FACS as they continue to deliver valuable services to the community. That is why the government will appoint a supervisor to operate and manage the affairs of Brant FACS so that services are transitioned seamlessly.”
Andrew Koster, the agency’s executive director, thanked the board for its work in the press release and noted that it had been “incredibly supportive over this difficult period.”
On vacation overseas, Koster told the Hamilton Spectator’s Katrina Clarke that the board “thinks that if the ministry … took over this agency, they wouldn’t dare make further cuts, just in case any children died on their watch directly.”
The board is “at the end of their rope; they’re tired, they’re emotionally exhausted trying to get the ministry to change their mind,” said Koster, who isn’t sure whether he’ll be part of Brant’s future, either.
“It’s possible that if they take over the agency, they won’t want me around,” he said. “Honestly, I’d rather be running a deficit and not make the cuts than make the cuts and have a child die.”
Brant receives around $24 million a year from the province and has a deficit of $2 million, he said.
Nicole Bonnie, head of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, said in a statement that Brant board members “have made a very difficult decision to resign from their positions” and that the “financial pressures they are facing are similar to what many children’s aid societies and Indigenous child and family well-being agencies in Ontario are facing.”
Though the agencies are committed to doing excellent work and improving, budgets have flatlined for six years, said Bonnie — and then came more cuts.
The agency condemned a ministry draft report in June that included a recommendation that the agency move away from its community model, which includes establishing satellite offices within the communities it serves the most. The Star wrote about the innovative model in 2014.
There are 49 privately run, not-for-profit children’s aid societies in the province, funded by the province and mandated to protect children by investigating cases of alleged abuse and neglect. Brant’s community program goes beyond protection into prevention, aiming to support parents and children and avoid having to break up families.
The agency said the ministry review team did not look at Brant’s model, “nor did they determine any specific savings that could be achieved should such changes be implemented.”
“Moreover, it is affronting and deplorable” that in the review team’s terms of reference, the ministry “expressly disallowed any discussion or consideration of the child-welfare funding model,” the agency said in its release.
The area Brant serves is “currently experienc(ing) the worst opioid crisis in the province,” and as a result, “admissions of children into care are increasing,” the agency said.
In 2017, the Brantford area had the highest rate of emergency-ward visits in Ontario for opioid overdoses: 141 per 100,000 people, compared to a provincial rate of 54. Some child-protection workers bring overdose kits to home visits.
The minister’s office said in its statement that, in the ministry’s review of the agency, there was “a lack of evidence in reviewed cases demonstrating that the opioid crisis has contributed to Brant FACS’s financial issues, as the agency has claimed.”
The review also found Brant had 29 more full-time employees compared to similar agencies, on average, and that Brant “was funding services outside of its mandate and delivering service in an inefficient manner and in ways inconsistent with best practices of other similar-sized children’s aid societies across Ontario,” according to the statement.
In a June 18 letter to then children and youth minister Lisa MacLeod, the board said it would resign if the agency does not “receive sufficient and meaningful assurance” from the ministry that the funding difficulties would be addressed.
“Neither the board nor Brant FACS is being intransigent and stubborn,” said the letter to MacLeod. “We have, for some time, taken the position with the ministry that we are prepared to continue to evaluate all aspects of our service delivery and, wherever possible, make spending cuts.”
According to an analysis by the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, the Ford government is reducing funding to children and youth at risk by $84.5 million annually. That includes a $28-million cut to the $1.5 billion the province gives to children’s aid societies.
This spring, Brant terminated 29 jobs, including the 26 layoffs, for an eventual annual savings of $1.7 million.
The board’s letter to MacLeod said “it is not the intent of Brant FACS or the board of Brant FACS to issue an ultimatum to the ministry or to intentionally say or do anything that would potentially cause embarrassment to the ministry, yourself or the government.
“That said, in the event that each member of the board resigns we will be duty bound, of course, to advise our community of the reasons for the resignation of all members of the board. We will do so in a respectful and appropriate manner.
“That said, we have to explain to the stakeholders within our community how it came to pass that our agency went from being an agency with repeated balanced budgets to an agency in considerable financial distress but was unable to persuade the ministry to revisit the funding issues.”
Monique Taylor, the NDP’s critic on the children and youth file, in a statement blamed successive governments for the situation with Brant. She said the Kathleen Wynne Liberals took away money to start another agency in the area and the Doug Ford Conservatives are “taking things from bad to worse.”
Vulnerable children “are going to pay the price,” said Taylor. “The executive director says kids could die. He’s not exaggerating. And since Doug Ford took away the children’s advocate, there’s nowhere for these kids to turn if they’re in danger or crisis.”
Brantford Mayor Kevin Davis called the situation “frustrating and deeply concerning” in an email.
“My hope is that the stakeholders involved will work this through quickly. I am sure everyone involved can agree that the health and well-being of our most vulnerable citizens, children in need of protection, should be the only priority.”
With files from Sandro Contenta