The lead agency in the protection of vulnerable children in Ontario is embroiled in an internal crisis that has seen most of its top managers terminated or pushed out and accusations that its chief executive officer has created a toxic workplace.
Turmoil at the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies comes as many of its members — 50 children’s aid agencies across the province — are drowning in debt and struggling to fulfil their mandate to protect children at risk.
At the centre of the internal strife is CEO Nicole Bonnie, who was widely applauded when she began her duties as the first Black leader of the OACAS in January.
“On behalf of the board, I want to affirm our continued support for the leadership of Nicole Bonnie as CEO of our organization,” the chair of OACAS’s board of directors, Lisa Sarsfield, said in a statement to the Star on Monday,
“She is leading a bold and ambitious effort to re-imagine child welfare in our province and is having to make tough choices in the process,” Sarsfield added. “I have every confidence that she will continue to lead our organization with a strong commitment to transparency, fairness and the fostering of a positive work environment for all our employees.”
Sarsfield confirmed the board had received an anonymous letter, signed only as “concerned employees of the OACAS.”
“We are concerned that employees are left in tears. We are concerned that employees are scared to come to the office. We are concerned that employees are suffering from anxiety as a result of comments Ms. Bonnie has made to them,” claims the letter, emailed to board directors in early June.
The letter asks that the board bring in an independent third party to investigate alleged behaviours. One of the letter writers, in an anonymous exchange with the Star, said that while only four employees wrote the letter it represents the views of “a lot more staff.”
Bonnie did not respond to Star emails detailing the allegations and requesting an interview.
The OACAS board held a special meeting to consider the letter, said OACAS spokesperson Sean McGrady. Sarsfield “invited the sender (of the letter) to file a complaint,” so that a “formal, impartial and confidential fact-finding process” could be launched and overseen by the board. “The sender chose not to proceed with a complaint.”
In the letter, the employees say they’re worried about losing their jobs if they reveal their identities.
The letter was followed by a handful of top managers writing to Sarsfield and making their concerns about a toxic workplace clear, according to sources familiar with the events. Last Tuesday, three of the managers involved were terminated and escorted out of the OACAS’s Front St. W. offices before the board held a meeting with them.
“The decision to reduce the size of our leadership team was made to respond to our financial realities and to ensure our resources are dedicated to delivering high-quality member services and programs in a period of constraint,” Sarsfield says. “Any suggestion to the contrary is simply false.”
McGrady confirmed there was a “request for a private meeting by a group of senior team members to Ms. Sarsfield.
“It was determined by Ms. Sarsfield that it would be inappropriate for a Board Chair to secretly meet with members of the senior team without either the knowledge or presence of the Chief Executive Officer. The individuals did not provide any documentation or state their concerns. The individuals also chose not to file a complaint under the OACAS whistle-blower policy.”
The OACAS policy says complaints of misconduct about the CEO must be reported in writing to the board of directors. The complainant is to be interviewed and the investigation completed within 30 days. Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act says employers must complete an investigation into complaints of workplace harassment within 90 days and protect the confidentiality of complainants.
On Monday, heads of Ontario’s 50 children’s aid societies held an emergency teleconference to discuss the troubles at the OACAS. Kim Streich-Poser, executive director of the Children’s Aid Society, said directors have not been given any details about an OACAS restructuring plan. A meeting has been set up next week for Bonnie to present it.
Streich-Poser, who organized the teleconference meeting, said turmoil at the OACAS is “a concern to most of the membership. It’s early days, and we’re waiting for more information around the plan to address those concerns.”
Before getting the top OACAS job, Bonnie was director of equity and community development at the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. Before that, she led community engagement and partnership, as well as anti-oppression strategy, at Peel Children’s Aid Society.
The OACAS plays a pivotal dual role in child protection. It represents 50 children’s aid societies — who receive $1.5 billion annually in provincial funding — and lobbies the government on their behalf. At the same time it acts as a quasi-branch of the provincial Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, receiving government contracts to implement key government reforms and objectives across the sector.
“The ministry cannot comment on staffing decisions or matters related to human resources of an independent organization,” Christine Wood, press secretary for the minister, Todd Smith, said in a statement to the Star, adding the ministry will continue working with OACAS to improve the child welfare system.
The child protection system serves some 14,000 kids taken from abusive or neglectful parents and placed in foster or group homes.
The OACAS turmoil “comes at a very critical and crucial time for kids in this province — that’s whose going to get hurt,” says Karen Hill, director of Indigenous services at OACAS for seven years until she agreed to leave in mid-April.
Jennifer Wilson, executive director of the Kawartha Haliburton Children’s Aid Society, says Bonnie informed leaders of Ontario’s child protection agencies about some of the executive departures in an email Wednesday, which also said an unspecified restructuring of the OACAS is underway.
In an interview, Wilson said some change in senior leadership is always expected when a new CEO takes over, but “this has been a lot of change in a very short time. What is the plan? As a membership, we’re waiting to hear the restructuring plan.
“This change at the OACAS is happening at a very vulnerable time” for children’s aid societies and child protection, Wilson added.
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The Ford government has reduced funding for children and youth at risk by $84.5 million, including a $28-million cut in funding for children’s aid societies. Eighteen societies are in debt, and further provincial funding cuts are feared.
The board of directors of the Brant children’s aid society resigned en masse this month to protest government underfunding that, according to the board’s chair, “has put the safety of our community’s vulnerable children at risk.” The board said Brant was no longer able to fulfil its mandate and eliminate its deficit, despite laying off 26 workers.
Children’s aid societies are also braced for a possible restructuring imposed by the province, including the amalgamation of some societies.
Of the OACAS’s eight top managers — all with the title of “directors” — five have been terminated or pushed out since March, according to sources with knowledge of the incidents. A sixth director resigned Wednesday. All had many years of experience in child welfare.
Sarsfield says the size of the management team was reduced because “we had more people in senior-level positions than is appropriate for an organization of our size. She adds that the agency’s “new strategic plan sets a bold agenda to re-imagine child welfare,” and focuses resources on services and programs for children and youth.
The people terminated or pushed out include managers in charge of internal operations, child welfare services and government relations, communications and public engagement, Indigenous services, and training. Among the fired is Sally Johnson, a respected director of child welfare service excellence and government relations, and a former top manager at the children’s ministry.
In 2016, Johnson spearheaded a hard-hitting OACAS report on group homes, where standards were so low that caregivers in those homes weren’t screened through a provincial database of people who might be a risk to children.
Karen Hill, the former Indigenous Services director, argues that departments at the agency have been left “rudderless.”
Hill, a Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River with 30 years’ experience in child welfare, says directors, including herself, left the building without getting the chance to explain to staff the projects they were supervising or what needs to be done to keep them going. She keeps in touch with OACAS staff and describes the workplace as “chaotic.”
She says she was flooded with calls and texts from alarmed OACAS staff on Wednesday. That day she communicated with an OACAS board member and expressed her concerns about a toxic work environment.
“I’m someone who expects and demands a respectful, safe workplace,” Hill says, adding she “didn’t feel that” at the agency after Bonnie took over.
Hill was responsible for the OACAS’s “reconciliation framework,” designed to lower the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in foster care. She accuses Bonnie of paying “no attention” to Indigenous issues and of missing two important discussions with her for flimsy reasons, once because Bonnie allegedly told her she was getting her nails done.
“You get a picture of where you stand in the hierarchy when someone tells you that,” Hill says. “I just felt really diminished and disrespected.”
Asked about the incident, McGrady says Hill called Bonnie at 7:30 p.m., when the CEO was at an appointment. Bonnie called back when her appointment was over and spoke to Hill for over an hour, McGrady says.
One day, Hill says, “out of the blue,” the agency’s human resources department asked her if she was interested in an “exit package. At first I was going to fight it, then I thought, well, this is going to be death by a thousand paper cuts.” She left April 18.
At a directors retreat at the end of March, one that Hill didn’t attend, Bonnie told the seven managers gathered that she expected them to perform at the very top of a scale of 1 to 10, according to sources familiar with the meeting. Then she gave them a collective score of four.
Sandro Contenta is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @scontenta