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The Globe and Mail

Ontario child advocate sees threat to office

The Globe and Mail, (Canada's largest national newspaper ), by MARGARET PHILP, Jun. 26, 2003

Sugar has been poured into her gas tank and dead squirrels left on her porch. Her windows have been smashed and hubcaps stripped. A stalker who knew her bra size and favourite food harassed her for months.

Hers has been a career more befitting the politics of a corrupt dictatorship than a tame Ontario government where her job for the past 13 years has been to speak on behalf of the invisible children stuck in government-licensed group homes and correctional facilities.

But the toughest battle of Ontario chief child advocate Judy Finlay's career may still lie ahead.

The Ontario government wants to limit the powers of its child advocate in an apparent move to muzzle an office that routinely criticizes its treatment of the 23,000 troubled children in its care.

Fighting for the independence of her office, Ms. Finlay broke a self-imposed silence to reveal restrictions she says threaten her role as watchdog.

"I feel my job is at risk," she said in an interview. "The viability of the office as an independent voice for children in this province is at risk."

Ms. Finlay and the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Community, Family, and Children's Services to which she reports have locked horns over the future of the Office of Child and Family Service Advocacy since the government presented restrictions to her authority last fall.

The government, Ms. Finlay says, wants to vet the reports her office produces. FurtherRead More wants her to present a plan of the issues and projects she wants to tackle, and has demanded final say in possible investigations that could implicate the government. Any reports or press releases from her office would have to be signed off by government officials.

"They see me as a public servant, and want me to follow the conditions of being a public servant, even though historically I'm to be arm's length from the government," Ms. Finlay said.

She has drafted her own set of proposals, including angling for an independent review of the office, posters and pamphlets, a Web site, and money to publish an annual report.

Even as this bargaining continues, the advocate's office has been thrust from relative obscurity into the political limelight at Queen's Park in the past week.

A report by an organization called Defence for Children International lambasted the province for underfunding the advocacy office, neglecting to publish information posters and brochures for the child advocate to circulate to group homes and youth detention centres, and for a tarnished record of seven children dying in government-licensed care after nearly two decades of no deaths.

Community services minister Brenda Elliott has defended her government.

"Not one change has been made on this side of the House to the powers or the mandate of the child advocate, nor have we made any limitations to her authority."

But even a few months ago, Ms. Finlay was blocked from testifying in a court hearing over certification of a $700-million class-action lawsuit against the province by worn-out parents compelled to abandon their youngsters to the custody of children's aid societies to obtain services. Her investigation had uncovered the problem.

"We had wanted her to testify," said Laughlin Campbell, one of the lawyers representing the families, "and the government indicated it would go to whatever length necessary in court to oppose that. They said her testimony was obviously not relevant. It was so absurd, I couldn't begin to guess why they would say that."

Over the years, Ms. Finlay has been a thorn in the government's side. Her office has produced dozens of reports on dubious practices at provincial facilities and some of her investigations have triggered embarrassing lawsuits against the province.

She has paid a steep personal price for being candid, although she can't pinpoint exactly who is behind the harassment that besets her.

She has moved several times in the past 13 years. After one move, thousands of pieces of garbage were strewn across her front lawn, a message that she could not escape whoever was watching.

The police have not managed to trace her high-tech stalkers, although their file on her is several centimetres thick. The government has hired security guards to protect her. She laughs when she recalls pulling her grandchildren in a wagon with a security guard a few steps behind.

"I've been frustrated and irritated by it," the diminutive advocate said, "but I wasn't afraid. They're just bullies. They're not courageous."


Women who kill their children are given sympathy and sentenced to "treatment" while men who do the same thing are charged with murder and sentenced to life.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that women are many times more likely to murder their offspring than men. 

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