A Children’s March for Ontario

The youth in my practice with the most complex mental health problems are those who have grown up “in care”. The expression “in care” refers to the fact that a child or youth is not living at home but rather with a foster family or in a residential care facility, usually called a “group home”. These young people are victims of assault and neglect in their families of origin, but they are also victims of a system of residential care that shuffles them around from home to home, caregiver to caregiver – a system that is no more supportive than their own family.

In late 2016, the Government of Ontario undertook to improve the lot of these youth. On the usual road, paved with the usual good intentions, the Government introduced Bill 89: An Act to Enact the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2016, to amend and repeal the Child and Family Services Act and to make related amendments to other acts. In many respects, the young people in this province who are living in care played a large role in ensuring that such an act is even before the Ontario legislature.

In November 2011, with the support of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth of Ontario, youth volunteers from across Ontario convened the Youth Leaving Care Hearings at Queen’s Park in Toronto. This was the first time youth had organized public hearings at Queen’s Park. The reason for the hearings was to address the concerns of the over 8,000 children and youth who are Crown Wards in Ontario – children and youth whose guardian is the Crown, through the Children’s Aid Societies in Ontario. There is a Report on the Hearings, My Real Life Book, and You tube videos. These will help you to understand how many youth live in care in Ontario and how they feel about this experience. I felt very honoured to be one of the adult contributors to the hearings. I remember an interview after my presentation and how emotional I felt during the interview. I had met three youth I had cared for at the hearings and I was so glad to see them doing well after everything they had gone through.

After the hearings, the youth continued to be involved. They participated in the inquests for Jeffrey Baldwin and for Katelynn Sampson, two children who died at the hands of their caregivers while living as wards, even though both these experiences must have been extraordinarily difficult personally. Their work and participation and enthusiasm finally convinced the Government that it had to act to change the existing Child and Family Services Act to better serve the children and youth it was meant to help.

The best part of Bill 89 are the principles it sets out as guidelines:

“The Government of Ontario is committed to the following principles:

Services provided to children and families should be child-centred.

Children and families have better outcomes when services build on their strengths.  Prevention services, early intervention services and community support services build on a family’s strengths and are invaluable in reducing the need for more disruptive services and interventions.

Services provided to children and families should respect their diversity and the principle of inclusion, consistent with the Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Systemic racism and the barriers it creates for children and families receiving services must continue to be addressed. All children should have the opportunity to meet their full potential.  Awareness of systemic biases and racism and the need to address these barriers should inform the delivery of all services for children and families.

Services to children and families should, wherever possible, help maintain connections to their communities.”

The worst part of Bill 89 is that, in fact, it may not, in fact, adhere to these principles and it is not at all clear in the text what the measures are to ensure that Children’s Aid Societies and group homes or foster parents will comply with the new measures of the act. Legislation is always complex, and difficult for people to understand. I am very well-educated – 11 years of postsecondary education – and I have trouble completely understanding the bill. Can you imagine how difficult it is for those who have not yet completed their education to understand it? Youth in care in Ontario have worked for many years to bring changes to the Child and Family Services Act. They made submissions to hearings and inquests, telling their stories of being cut off from their families, from those who loved them and from services that would have helped them heal. They told these stories even when it brought back horrible memories of what happened to them. They told these stories even if their mental health deteriorated.

They are, in fact, getting ready to do this again. Bill 89 is now in Committee and the Youth in Ontario want it to meet their needs. There are over 8,000 Crown Wards in Ontario, but there are almost 20,000 living in Children’s Aid Society Care. These are Ontario’s children – literally.

This Act – in fact, every legislative act – needs to be accessible. In simple language, citizens must be able to understand what an Act is saying to ensure that it does what it means to do. No one is blaming the legislators – the lofty goals and language set out in Bill 89 make it clear that the intent is to improve the situation for Children and Youth and Families in Ontario who need support. If the Act is made understandable for the Youth who have worked to get Bill 89 onto the legislative agenda, they will know whether it can be effective.

The Government has also made it clear that these changes are needed quickly and so, as is often their habit, the Committee process is being truncated. This is not fair to the youth who have been working for these changes. Until every submission is heard, from every youth who wants or needs to provide their input, the Committee process should not stop.

Our Voice, Our Turn, My Real Life Book, and the inquests for Jeffrey Baldwin and Katelyn Sampson showed us that the current Child and Family Services Act silenced children and youth and allowed their suffering, even their deaths, to be institutionalized. Let us honour these young people and their heroic actions to make Ontario a better place to grow up. Let us urge the Government to wait, and make Bill 89 as effective as it can be. Let’s match their courage with our own.

(Note: The Children’s March refers to incidents in Birmingham Alabama in 1963 when African American children left school to march downtown to meet the Mayor and speak about their experience of segregation. They were arrested, sprayed with hoses, but kept on marching, causing legislators, and especially President John F. Kennedy, to finally move forward on Civil Rights legislation. Photo is from a Biography documentary.)