December 4, 2015
Liberals under pressure to fix Ontario's child protection system
( above is headline The Star newspaper website )
website version - In more than half of child abuse investigations reviewed by auditor general Bonnie Lysyk's office, the children's aid societies failed to make mandatory checks of the Ontario Child Abuse Register.
Child protection system needs urgent fix: AG
( above is headline The Star newspaper page A4 )
newspaper version- Aid societies failed to check Ontario Child Abuse Register, leaving some kids at 'risk'
The Toronto Star, Friday Dec. 4 , 2015, by Sandro Content, staff reporter and Jim Rankin Feature reporter,
The Ontario government is under pressure to fix a child protection system criticized by the auditor general for putting some children in "serious risk."
In her report, Bonnie Lysyk describes a child protection system riddled with problems, from badly conducted abuse investigations to a floundering Ministry of Children and Youth Services that fails to oversee Ontario's privately run children's aid societies.
At stake are the lives of 15,625 children who, on average, were in foster or group-home care in 2014-15, and the well-being of thousands more investigated for possible abuse.
In more than half of child abuse investigations reviewed by Lysyk's office, the children's aid societies failed to make mandatory checks of the Ontario Child Abuse Register. The register would note if caregivers had a history of abuse.
"Failure to conduct these crucial history checks puts children in serious risk of being placed or left in the care of individuals with a history of abusing children," Lysyk's report states.
This unacceptable practice continues, Lysyk's report notes, despite lessons that should have been learned at least 13 years ago. It recalls the tragic case of five-year-old Jeffrey Baldwin, who died in 2002 after years of mistreatment at the hands of his maternal grandparents. The Catholic Children's Aid Society of Toronto failed to check its own internal records, which would have flagged the grandparents' previous convictions for child abuse.
"Can Premier (Kathleen) Wynne please explain why she is allowing children to be placed in homes when the abuse register hasn't been checked?" asked New Democrat MPP and children's services critic Monique Taylor.
"How is it possible that we aren't learning from mistakes after children in care die?" she added in a statement.
Children and Youth Services Minister Tracy MacCharles told the CBC her office has ordered societies to check the child abuse register, describing failure to do so as "unacceptable."
But societies are pushing back. Mary Ballantyne, head of the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, says societies use a different database, called Fast Track, to check child abuse histories. She says societies want to discuss with MacCharles whether the added check of the Ontario registry should continue to be mandatory.
Much of the auditor's findings confirm the results of an ongoing Star investigation, including a patchwork of practices and child protection services across Ontario.
Lysyk's report describes a ministry ignorant about the quality of care provided for the $1.47 billion it gave to children's aid societies last year, and uninformed about how children in care are doing.
The ministry often failed to enforce compliance with regulations when its inspectors identified problems in group or foster homes. In some cases, it didn't even inform caregivers of the problems inspectors found, the report adds.
Lysyk's office audited cases investigated by seven children's aid societies in Toronto, Durham, Kingston, Sudbury, Muskoka, Hamilton and Waterloo. A total of about 70 cases were audited, a sample so small that some societies question the reliability of the results, says Ballantyne.
"We are constantly trying to improve the system," Ballantyne adds, citing internal initiatives examining practices that have come under scrutiny.
Lengthy investigations are also putting children at risk, the report adds. Societies often failed to start investigating abuse allegations within the required time - no more than seven days. And, on average, investigations took more than seven months to complete - far more than the 30-day deadline imposed by government standards. One investigation took more than two years to complete.
Lysyk seemed especially concerned by the number of child protection cases investigated, closed and then reopened. In almost half of the reopened cases reviewed, factors that placed the children's safety at risk were still present when the case was initially closed.
"We found that societies may be closing cases prematurely, risking the well-being of children," the report says.
The report also criticizes societies for failing, in many cases, to draft or review plans of care, designed to address the health, education or behavioural needs of children placed in foster or group homes.
"When it comes to child protection standards, there is little to no practice by the child-welfare system in using them, other than for perhaps a nice thought," said Irwin Elman, Ontario's Advocate for Children and Youth.
"It feels like every week, there's another story about the child-welfare system in crisis," he added in a blog post Thursday.
The auditor also found that about half of children's aid societies had their funding reduced in 2013-14, forcing some to cut frontline staffing and eliminate programs for children receiving protection.
Societies also had to use money from operating budgets to fully cover the cost of implementing The Child Protection Information System, a standardized province-wide database linking all societies. Its $150 million price tag is expected to balloon by another $50 million by the time it's fully in place in 2019-20.
Delays and cost overruns were due, in part, to "poor project planning and management" by the ministry, the Auditor General found.