Since the announcement last Thursday that the Ontario Child Advocate’s office would be closed, many groups have expressed their concern that the voice of children and youth in Ontario will be silenced. Many have made an impassioned plea to Premier Ford and his government to reverse this decision. Rather than reiterate their concerns, let me talk about the importance of the Advocate’s work for youth in this province.
The Ontario Child Advocate is the most important support for the Ontario children and youth who cannot live with their parents – children who are wards of the Children’s Aid Societies of Ontario and who live either in foster homes or group homes. Every outcome for these youth is worse than the outcomes for every other group of disadvantaged children in Ontario. With no Provincial Advocate, who will ensure their best interests are met?
The plight of Ontario’s children and youth living “in care” was highlighted in “Our Voice, Our Turn”. “Our Voice, Our Turn” was comprised of a group of young people, supported by the Advocate’s office, who held the first youth-led public hearings in Ontario. I was honoured to be invited to speak at those hearings and gave this interview afterward. Through the voices of youth themselves, the legislature learned how difficult it was for youth in care to access services and benefits that most children have just because they live at home.
Youth who grow up in foster care or group homes are at high risk in many areas of their lives:
1. Not completing their education: 44% of Crown Wards do not finish high school.
2. Homelessness: 43% of homeless youth have been involved with child welfare and 68% (!) have been lived with foster families or in group homes.
3. Half of the youth living with foster families or in group homes are on psychotropic medication.
4. Over 90% of youth in care have mental health problems and 82% have been found to have special needs, requiring them to have supports to help them manage on a day to day basis.
As a health professional who spends much of my time assisting these youth with their mental health problems, I have had many days when one of my young patients had to speak with the Advocate’s office to get assistance. Why did they need assistance? Here are some reasons:
• Sometimes their foster families or group homes did not provide adequate clothing or food or safety.
• Sometimes they hadn’t seen their family in months, even though they wanted to.
• Sometimes they couldn’t convince anyone that it still wasn’t safe at home.
• Sometimes their foster home or group home wasn’t safe.
• Sometimes the people at the Advocate’s office had been the most consistent, caring people in their lives.
Occasionally some of the young people I saw were able to get work or an assignment with the Advocate’s office and they returned to see me with a sense of purpose that gave meaning to their lives. I have watched youth leave work at the Advocate’s office to become social workers and youth workers, poised to change the lives of others going through the same trials they have experienced.
I have always felt comforted knowing that the Ontario Child Advocate’s office was available to my patients for nonjudgmental, unconditional support. The office, and the advocate himself, have been the true parents to many of Ontario’s children. You cannot replace that.