The Advocate's Blog



Committing to Our Children and Families
February 17, 2016

Family Day 2017This year, Family Day rests just prior to the return of our MPPs to the Ontario Legislature.

On their return, the government is expected to quickly focus its attention on Bill 89, the Supporting Children, Youth and Family Services Act that it tabled in December, and resume debate of the proposed legislation to usher in, according to the government, “historic change.”

Now, more than ever, is a time to reflect on the concept of “family.”

When Bill 89 was tabled, I asked the government to say three things out aloud to Ontario's children and youth:

“We will protect you.”

“We will provide you with what you need, when you need it, to help you achieve your full potential.”

“And to say, to your families, however they are constituted – to your biological families, foster families, adoptive families, families you have constructed yourself including friends, kith and kin – ‘Thank you.’ We have your back. Whatever you need to do right by your children, you will have.”

The Minister of Children and Youth Services Michael Coteau made these three statements as he announced the new Act in December. But, since then, I have had a hard time finding in the legislation the vision and steps it will take to make those statements anything more than nice words.

There are many commitments that the Act makes such as moving toward a child-centred practice, acknowledging the voice of young people, addressing systemic racism and enshrining Jordan’s Principle; these are all heartening and welcome, but provisions that would embed these commitments in the Act are lacking. In many places, the Act does not explicitly enforce the rights of children and youth to participate in decisions affecting them when such clarity and explicitness would only serve to bring about transformative change to the system.

Since the time the Bill was first proposed, we have been working hard with young people and other stakeholders to find ways of strengthening the Act – and ensuring that the Act upholds its commitment to young people and their families. There is still a great deal of work to do.

We have and will continue to make suggestions to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services about how to strengthen the Bill, and will also do so at the committee hearing stage that will consider the legislation. We encourage the scores of organizations that have come forward in interest, who do not usually having a voice in this type of conversation, to do the same. At any time, you can access Bill 89 at this link and send your own thoughts and suggestions to the Ministry at CYFSA@ontario.ca.

Over the next few months, we ask the Legislature to turn its attention to the wellbeing of children and their families in Ontario as it seeks to pass Bill 89. We encourage them to use this Family Day as a moment to recommit to them.

I think of how much more we owe so many families in Ontario, how important the day set aside for them is, and the tough work ahead we have as a province.

On Family Day, I will be thinking of the young people in and from care who must find that sense of family in an often-unforgiving system. I am also thinking of those families in Ontario and their communities torn forever by the loss of a child through suicide. I think of those heroic families working 24 hours a day – exhausted to the bone – to create a safe and nurturing home for their children with special needs.

I hope many of you are able to spend this weekend with your family, however it is constructed.  I acknowledge those of you who might feel that for you, “family” has yet to materialize in the way you would like. It can be so tough, and I know that. I will be thinking of you this weekend.

Irwin

Notes from the road on the Listening Tour
November 28, 2016

Sitting in the home in the little town of Hawkestone, I waited for a group of 10 children in care who live in different foster homes across Orillia, Bracebridge and Haliburton to arrive. They are all Indigenous young people whose communities are located thousands of kilometres away – in Pikangikum, Attawapiskat, Big Trout Lake and Lac Seul First Nations. The foster mum hosting the gathering has already laid out food across the dining table.

I expected a group of shy, quiet kids to arrive; but when the doorbell rings, a cacophony of energy and life enters the house. Eventually, they settle around the table of food, and eye me warily. I introduce myself and tell them about the listening tour. I don't even have to ask them a question before they start to share their stories. They talked about their life journey and how difficult it has been; they talked about their day-to-day life in the towns they now reside in; and they described their foster homes.

I asked if they are happy with their lives, but I am immediately corrected that "happy" is not an appropriate adjective to describe their situation. They tell me in their own words how they are coping the best they can. It is obvious that although they only met each other in southern Ontario and live towns apart from each other, they have now found familial relations in one another. They are resilient. I reflect on how these young people are invisible to the province, who know very little of their experience and the struggles they face. I believe that their voices need to be heard; that these young people deserve to live within close proximity to their families, communities and culture. I also reflect on how they are correct: "coping" is no alternative to "happiness."

It's snowing hard as we travel to our next stop in Brockville. The snowfall makes Highway 401 increasingly too slick to drive on. Thankfully, we arrive safely, and learn that it's a "snow day" for schools in Brockville. Given the treacherous weather, the organizers of the gathering assumed few youth will show up. I grew up in Ottawa and I fondly remember thinking that there was no way that I was getting out of bed on “snow days,” so I was in awe when at the appointed time for the meeting, 35 youth showed up – all ready to talk.

Without any delay, youth started to talk about their lives. At one point, the teens began to talk about their concern for younger students in grades 6, 7 and 8. They tell me that there is a generation gap between them and those in grade 6. They tell me how they’re worried about "The kids in grade 6 who are already into drugs, sometimes hard drugs.” One tells me, “The younger kids are growing up too fast." They feel this is happening because a few years ago, middle schools in Brockville closed and the younger students began going to middle school in Brockville’s high schools. While they acknowledged some attempts to keep the middle school students and high school students apart, "it doesn't work,” one said. As I listened to their analysis, I had no idea that this was happening here. I asked if they knew if their school board or city council ever sat with them to get the perspective I was hearing. They laughed at the sheer Pollyanna audacity of the question. "Of course not," they said. As I sat listening to these young people, I was constantly reminded that youth want the chance to talk. They have the wisdom from their lived experiences to share that would bring real perspective to issues.

In Ottawa, I sat with a group of eight children between 9 and 11 years old. We are in a small, threadbare, ramshackle classroom in an unused wing of an elementary school. The children in the class all have ADHD and an anxiety diagnosis, and they are here because in spite of what is stated in the Education Act, they have been asked to leave the mainstream system.

In a raucous circle, I try to explain who I am in a few sentences. But they wanted to talk about hockey, so we began with that topic. Soon after, I asked about school. One little boy tells me that he was expelled from school at the age of five. Another shared, "I have been through a lot in my 10 years. I've been bullied, beaten and taken to four schools." "I was always fighting. The teachers hated me. Well, maybe the principal liked me, but everyone else hated me," one explained. Another child said, "We were all bullied, I think I can say." We talked about breathing, the pros and cons of taking meds, their families, and their future.

It was a great conversation that lasted about an hour, which for them must have seemed like a fortnight – I saw that their focus was eventually waning. After hearing so much and thinking about the chasm they were describing between the promise of the school system and their lived experiences, I asked: "What would you want me to say to the government?" The quietest boy in the room then raised his hand and said, "I think you should say thank you. I don't know where I would be today without this classroom." What unbelievable grace.

After that meeting, I thought about the frequent hesitancy of decision-makers to ask children and youth about what they need. They worry about raising expectations, how what they hear will create the need for action – and worse yet, more funding tied to that action. But the young people in this class will tell it like it is and just say: "Let's do better."

Another youth who I met during the Listening Tour shared this thought: "When we have an opportunity to use our voice, it makes our lives meaningful. It makes us feel fearless." Isn’t it time we gave the gift of listening to Ontario’s children? They deserve visibility, respect, and the opportunity to be fearless

Irwin

Belonging
December 22, 2016

As Christmas comes around, youth in my life have always provided me with great lessons and made me reflect on the meaning of “family” and “belonging.” Amidst the hype and promise of the season, I have often witnessed young people’s struggle to reconcile the concept of family, and belonging.

Growing up, my younger sister and I were the only Jewish kids at the primary school we attended in Ottawa. We were Jewish refugees from Montreal that moved to the capital; disconnected from any extended family. Though we weren’t religious, every morning, I recall singing “Jesus Loves Me” in unison as a class. How I cursed with what words I knew in Grade 4 when, one day, my little sister refused to stand and sing in Grade 3, and outed us!

We lived in a housing project in what used to be called Eastview (now Vanier), a low-income area of Ottawa. The Christmas holidays were a weird time for us. My parents decided that we would celebrate Chanukah on Christmas Day and my mum always ensured that there were presents –lots of presents. They were the Dollarstore (Woolworths back then) variety, of course, but we were quantity-over-quality kind of kids. She said we celebrated Chanukah on Christmas Day because she wanted us to “belong.” I thought then that she meant she wanted to spare us from being the outlier Jews in a sea of Christianity. But today, I also think that the presents she managed to purchase for us with so little money at her disposal was also her way of trying to help us fit in – an attempt to ensure we did not feel poor. It was a time of excess, not spirituality, for us.

Once I left home and moved to Toronto, I began working at a centre for youth in and from child welfare care as they began preparing for independent living. It was not until a few years later that I realized that the familial relationships I developed with many young people there provided me with support, just as much as the centre was any support to them. I think of the young people I met at the Centre as the “extended family” I felt I was missing, a point of belonging. I remember one young person saying to me, “Don’t think you are a second father to me; you are more like the kooky uncle.” Another said, “I don’t like the word ‘family.’ I prefer saying we are both part of a great ‘community.’”

To this day, some of my fondest memories are with the young people on Christmas Eve get-togethers; skating somewhere in the city, followed by food and movies. Of course, there were turkey dinners for those who could and wanted to attend. And the Centre’s holiday parties were always intense, vibrant and packed. It was there that I found the sense of belonging that I, like everyone, so desire. I hope that the young people found that sense of belonging as well.

We may think that our greatest need is to be loved. Jean Vanier argues, however, that our greatest need is to belong. I think he is right, although sometimes I think “belonging” and “love” are synonymous concepts. Young people have taught me how difficult it can be for them to find belonging in the child welfare system. I know how the sense of its absence is so keenly felt by young people in and from care at times like the holidays. It is a cruel truth that children who are brought into care – taken away from that to which they belong for their own protection and wellbeing – often find little to replace it with. I know that they are out there right now, reading this perhaps, and feeling it.

At these times, I would ask them to reach out; use their phone and make a call, use social media – connect to those they know and even those they don’t. Take a look at this guide to “Surviving the Holidays” from the BC Federation of Youth In Care. You can also call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or call the Distress Line in their region by dialing 311. To those I have come to know, I hope you realize that I am with you.  I hope the extended family and community you may have found and built for yourself back in the day – however it manifests itself today, in spirit or in reality –still sustains you when you need it just as it does for me. 

This Christmas Eve, I will be thinking of my extended family, and how much I admire them. I admit I also worry, but I will also remember how much they have come and gone through, and I hope they find the faith I have in them that they will be okay and will find their own path.

Just as I once did with youth from the Centre, I will be going skating at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square with my wife and two boys.  After skating, we will head over to an event organized by the Children’s Aid Foundation for youth in and from care, and I want my boys to meet some of their extended family to which they belong to.

Irwin

Notes from the road on the Listening Tour
November 28, 2016

Sitting in the home in the little town of Hawkestone, I waited for a group of 10 children in care who live in different foster homes across Orillia, Bracebridge and Haliburton to arrive. They are all Indigenous young people whose communities are located thousands of kilometres away – in Pikangikum, Attawapiskat, Big Trout Lake and Lac Seul First Nations. The foster mum hosting the gathering has already laid out food across the dining table.

I expected a group of shy, quiet kids to arrive; but when the doorbell rings, a cacophony of energy and life enters the house. Eventually, they settle around the table of food, and eye me warily. I introduce myself and tell them about the listening tour. I don't even have to ask them a question before they start to share their stories. They talked about their life journey and how difficult it has been; they talked about their day-to-day life in the towns they now reside in; and they described their foster homes.

I asked if they are happy with their lives, but I am immediately corrected that "happy" is not an appropriate adjective to describe their situation. They tell me in their own words how they are coping the best they can. It is obvious that although they only met each other in southern Ontario and live towns apart from each other, they have now found familial relations in one another. They are resilient. I reflect on how these young people are invisible to the province, who know very little of their experience and the struggles they face. I believe that their voices need to be heard; that these young people deserve to live within close proximity to their families, communities and culture. I also reflect on how they are correct: "coping" is no alternative to "happiness."

It's snowing hard as we travel to our next stop in Brockville. The snowfall makes Highway 401 increasingly too slick to drive on. Thankfully, we arrive safely, and learn that it's a "snow day" for schools in Brockville. Given the treacherous weather, the organizers of the gathering assumed few youth will show up. I grew up in Ottawa and I fondly remember thinking that there was no way that I was getting out of bed on “snow days,” so I was in awe when at the appointed time for the meeting, 35 youth showed up – all ready to talk.

Without any delay, youth started to talk about their lives. At one point, the teens began to talk about their concern for younger students in grades 6, 7 and 8. They tell me that there is a generation gap between them and those in grade 6. They tell me how they’re worried about "The kids in grade 6 who are already into drugs, sometimes hard drugs.” One tells me, “The younger kids are growing up too fast." They feel this is happening because a few years ago, middle schools in Brockville closed and the younger students began going to middle school in Brockville’s high schools. While they acknowledged some attempts to keep the middle school students and high school students apart, "it doesn't work,” one said. As I listened to their analysis, I had no idea that this was happening here. I asked if they knew if their school board or city council ever sat with them to get the perspective I was hearing. They laughed at the sheer Pollyanna audacity of the question. "Of course not," they said. As I sat listening to these young people, I was constantly reminded that youth want the chance to talk. They have the wisdom from their lived experiences to share that would bring real perspective to issues.

In Ottawa, I sat with a group of eight children between 9 and 11 years old. We are in a small, threadbare, ramshackle classroom in an unused wing of an elementary school. The children in the class all have ADHD and an anxiety diagnosis, and they are here because in spite of what is stated in the Education Act, they have been asked to leave the mainstream system.

In a raucous circle, I try to explain who I am in a few sentences. But they wanted to talk about hockey, so we began with that topic. Soon after, I asked about school. One little boy tells me that he was expelled from school at the age of five. Another shared, "I have been through a lot in my 10 years. I've been bullied, beaten and taken to four schools." "I was always fighting. The teachers hated me. Well, maybe the principal liked me, but everyone else hated me," one explained. Another child said, "We were all bullied, I think I can say." We talked about breathing, the pros and cons of taking meds, their families, and their future.

It was a great conversation that lasted about an hour, which for them must have seemed like a fortnight – I saw that their focus was eventually waning. After hearing so much and thinking about the chasm they were describing between the promise of the school system and their lived experiences, I asked: "What would you want me to say to the government?" The quietest boy in the room then raised his hand and said, "I think you should say thank you. I don't know where I would be today without this classroom." What unbelievable grace.

After that meeting, I thought about the frequent hesitancy of decision-makers to ask children and youth about what they need. They worry about raising expectations, how what they hear will create the need for action – and worse yet, more funding tied to that action. But the young people in this class will tell it like it is and just say: "Let's do better."

Another youth who I met during the Listening Tour shared this thought: "When we have an opportunity to use our voice, it makes our lives meaningful. It makes us feel fearless." Isn’t it time we gave the gift of listening to Ontario’s children? They deserve visibility, respect, and the opportunity to be fearless

Irwin

Listening to young people.

This week, I will embark on my third annual Listening Tour to meet with young people in my office’s mandate. It is a time of year I cherish. On the listening tour, I will sit with young people and listen; I want to hear their hopes and dreams; I want to know about their challenges and concerns.

Each year, I am struck by their willingness to talk, and their longing for someone to listen to them. They often seem surprised – and have a hard time grasping – that some guy like me, carrying positional authority, would be bothered to reach out to them “We feel invisible … You don’t know how debilitating that is,” a youth once told me.

From Orillia to Toronto, and Oshawa to Brockville, Kingston, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, London, Goderich and Ingersol, I will meet with hundreds of young people between November 18 and 26. I choose this time of year for my Listening Tour because it bookends National Child Day on November 20, which marks the birth of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and this year marks the 25th anniversary of the ratification of the convention by the Government of Canada in 1991. National Child Day is billed as a day we can celebrate the children and youth of our country. I cannot think of a more significant way to celebrate children and youth than by listening to them.

Every five years, Canada is reviewed by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child on its progress in implementing the convention. With the next review scheduled for 2018, I will reflect on what I hear and connect what young people are saying with how we are doing as a province in living up to our commitment to promote, implement, protect and monitor young people’s rights under the convention.

Five years ago, I remember learning about how Canada’s report to the United Nations is created. As I understand it, there is a federal committee where a representative from each province and territory in Canada sits on. The representatives are tasked with bringing a report from their respective province and territory to the committee, explaining what they are doing to address and implement the UNCRC within their governments. Curious of how the process unfolded in Ontario, I asked the Minister of Children and Youth Services at the time of what went on behind the scenes, but they did not give me the answer. I asked the Premier’s Office and sadly, no luck there either. Finally, I asked the Secretary of Cabinet who said, “That’s a good question, let me find out for you.”

A few days later, I was introduced to a low-level lawyer in the Ministry of the Attorney General. I remember talking with him - his nervousness at being found out. I truly felt like I had pulled the curtain back and discovered the Wizard of Oz. If you are old enough, you will remember the scene in the movie that I’m referring to. As in the movie, what was thought to be a grand wizard was actually a meek, mild and anything-but-powerful old man. I learned that his role was to “collate” responses he received from an email he sent to various ministries seeking information about programs and services designed to serve children and youth, which he then compiles and sends to the committee. Once these are all collated, the federal government compiles all of the reports they received at the committee into one big report – ready to be delivered.

At that moment, I knew I could not allow Canada’s report to the United Nations in 2018 to be written in the same silence.

In Canada’s last review in 2012, the UN Committee criticized Canada for the overrepresentation of Black and Aboriginal youth in the child welfare and youth justice systems; and the increasing number of young people with special needs, and the lack of clarity in whether the government’s efforts were making any meaningful difference. How do we know if our country has made any progress since 2012 if we can’t even bother to engage our young people?

That is why just prior to departing on my Listening Tour, I have written the premier of Ontario and the prime minister asking that they begin turning their attention to Canada’s next review. For Ontario’s section of the report, I have asked the premier to bring together various ministries that serve children and youth in order to develop a process for informing and drafting Ontario’s section of the report to the United Nations that would engage children and youth in the province in an integral way. I have asked her to consider the opportunity she has in educating young people about their rights while demonstrating that children in Ontario matter to us.

As you read this, I will most likely be listening to a child or youth somewhere across the province. They will make me laugh, and they will make me cry, but I will thank them from my heart for nourishing me with their courage and their wisdom. I can envision the day that the province has the opportunity that I have in listening to young people and their rights. Let’s start in 2017.

Irwin

This is a moment in Ontario’s history that feels different.

Last week, One Vision One Voice – an initiative led by the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, together with a host of community organizations and academics serving African Canadian children and families – released a report and practice framework with a goal to ending systemic anti-Black racism in Ontario’s child welfare system.

Throughout the process of developing the report, we were asked to facilitate meetings with youth in and from care in Windsor, Ottawa and Toronto that helped inform the project’s body of work, and my Office had the privilege of participating on the project’s Community Advisory Committee.

I believe this can be a watershed moment.

Black youth in care have identified and evidenced systemic racism for decades. Ask a Black youth about their experiences in care and they would invariably talk about hair – about requesting hair products they needed, but being told by their care-givers or workers that what they needed was too expensive and they should “use the Head and Shoulders” or “go to Top Cuts” instead. Make no mistake, Black youth see this issue as a symbol of systemic racism; a tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

Young people speak about attempts by the child welfare system to intervene in their families before they come into care. Approaches to child protection investigations without the influence of an anti-oppression or anti-Black racism lens are bound to end in disaster for families.

They speak about the isolation that comes from being a young Black child in a white foster home away from their community and sitting at the kitchen table when a conversation about police and racism begins.

These are the same crises so starkly outlined through the community consultations underpinning the report release last week.

We have been here before. But, this moment feels different because we are using language and concepts that are different. Today, it's acceptable to say words like "oppression" and "colonialism" – we are at least getting to a point of acknowledging the role "privilege" plays in the conversation about the over-representation of Black youth in the child welfare system. There is leadership from within the system willing to take the leap to address it. The release of the report last week is evidence of this.

Creating an anti-racism practice framework for child protection is a first step; implementing it, however, is another. Resources must be made available to put the framework into practice and we must develop ways of monitoring its success, which includes the collection of race-based data.

This work cannot be left to the children’s aid societies alone. The African Canadian community, including young people, must continue to play an integral leadership role and be meaningfully involved.

If this moment is to be different, we must confront the fact that the damage to African Canadian families and community caused by systemic racism is a much larger problem than a practice framework that the children’s aid societies can solve.  We now have a new Anti-Racism Directorate in Ontario and that, too, is a positive step, but we have had such directorates before. 

I believe we need:

  • A mechanism whereby the African Canadian community can officially advise the government;
  • A strategy to serve African Canadian children, youth and families province-wide created by the community and resting in the community;
  • Legislation, perhaps in the form of amendments  to the Child and Family Service Act, that entrenches the practice framework in the system; and
  • A restorative inquiry process similar to, but not necessarily the same as, the Nova Scotia Restorative Inquiry into the Home for Coloured Children. This process would be led by the community, including youth, partnering with institutional stakeholders to address and focus on “look[ing] at the past with a focus on future solutions.”

It is not enough for politicians to say, “We know anti-Black racism exists." We must find a way as a province to make a statement of contrition that speaks to the harm anti-Black racism has caused and our province’s intention to find a path away from it. That acknowledgement – formal and strong – from our government on behalf of the entire province will provide a touchstone for Ontario.

We have been here before, but this moment feels different. Young people in and from our systems of care have forged a space for themselves to enter the conversation. They want to name their world and a chance to have a hand in changing it. If we decide to listen to them, walk with them and accept their leadership, this can be the moment when fundamental change begins.

Between October 20 and 24, I will be with scores of black youth with experience in our systems of care as they gather at the Hairstory: Black Youth Unite for A.R.T.S (A Right to Speak) youth gathering to collaborate and speak their truth to those who make decisions that affect their lives. I will be listening when they do. I invite you to listen and feel their stories and ideas. I expect the young people will invite you into a conversation and encourage you to walk with them to move forward in creating change.

Irwin

The Kids Are Not Alright: Part 2 of 2
Do You Remember Motherisk?

From the late 1990s to 2015, the Motherisk Drug Testing Laboratory (Motherisk) at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (Sick Kids) carried out drug and alcohol testing in parents based on faulty science. Motherisk provided those faulty test results upon request to children’s aid societies (CAS), who used them in child protection proceedings.

Sick Kids suspended operation of the service a few years ago and subsequently issued an apology for its “unacceptable” practices. To uncover the troubles of the laboratory, Justice Susan Lang led an independent commission to review Motherisk’s practices and make recommendations to rectify the extent of the damage and to allow the province as a whole to move forward. In her final report, Justice Lang found the laboratory’s hair strand testing methodology to be “inadequate and unreliable for use in child protection and criminal proceedings,” and highlighted the poor oversight by Sick Kids into Motherisk’s methods and practices, an absence of standard operating procedures in carrying out the drug tests and the lab’s failure to meet internationally-recognized forensic standards.

To her great credit, Justice Lang reached out to youth from care when deciding what to recommend. They told her that they would be devastated by the news that a mistake by the Motherisk lab could have been responsible for their apprehension from their families. They also said that many people from care never learn or know about their full life histories and story about how they came into care. As I have said previously, the news about Motherisk would make many wonder and want to know their truth about whether a faulty drug test resulted in them being in care.

When Justice Lang recommended a second inquiry that would examine the cases of those involved with Motherisk who were impacted by a positive hair strand test, youth in and from care thought she had them in mind. When Justice Judith Beaman was appointed to head the second Motherisk Commission and develop a Review and Resource Centre (RRC) to “offer information, counselling, legal advice, alternative dispute resolution and other support,” there was hope that while a daunting task lay ahead, Justice Beaman could make a great contribution to many present and former children in care. I was hopeful too.

The Premier, Kathleen Wynne, had just boldly acknowledged that the way we struggle to protect children in Ontario needed to change. The Premier now famously stated to the Toronto Star, “If we could fix what is ailing the child protection system, child welfare system in this province, by starting from scratch and blowing up what exists — I would be willing to do that, because one child’s life would be worth changing the administrative structures.” I thought that within this context, the Commission could learn so much about child protection, and pass it on to the Premier and the province, while setting so many former children and youth in care on solid footing by telling them the truth about their lives. What an opportunity this could be, I thought.

Sadly, I must write that my hopes seem to have been unfounded. I learned that the Commission has no intention of contacting all of the, at minimum, 8,000 instances where a positive test may have affected the decision to remove children from their families. This includes children and youth who are still in CAS care, and easily locatable. Instead, they will only contact children if they are labelled a “high risk” case in which a Motherisk test result may affect decisions about their care going forward – this group includes less than one in twenty people affected by Motherisk.

“Why?” I have asked in several letters to the Commission. In response, the Commission told me it would be an “unconscionable burden” on the children’s aid societies and the Commission to review all of these files. In addition, for those who are now adults and have left care, the Commission stated there would be “no remedy” for them.

In my second letter to the Commission, I stated that “burden” and “remedy” are in the eye of the beholder. The “burden” of not knowing one’s history, I argued, would be considered by youth in and from care more vexing than staff having to read a file. Furthermore, the Commission should ask those youth in and from care adversely affected by the Motherisk tests what the right “remedy” looks like for them before deciding that there is nothing that can be done. I know that young people I have spoken with feel that learning the truth would be a remedy in itself.

I also have challenged the manner in which “cases” that are brought forward will be reviewed. The Commission’s approach only asks the same child welfare agencies that dealt with these youth to bring forward files if they decide, without any oversight, that a test result affected their court case. In my opinion, simply reading the legal file rather than all the available documentation is not enough. Youth in and from care have a right to know whether a faulty test result changed how the child welfare system treated them, not just whether it affected their court case.

Using only a “legal framework” in this way is short-sighted and prevents the Commission from taking an approach that would be its saving grace – a child-centred approach. Not allowing full participation and access to information by those affected when reviewing files runs counter to the principal of access to justice.

There is still time for the Commission to reconsider its ways. We will continue to press for a child-centred and transparent approach in how young people are protected and supported in this province. If the Commission’s approach doesn’t change, Ontario will be left wondering if the Commission was nothing more than an issue management exercise to quell the outcry from those affected.

Irwin

The Kids Are Not Alright: Part 1 of 2
Chazz Petrella

Chazz Petrella, by all accounts, was an engaging young boy to many who knew him. At his funeral, “Chazz,” I heard, “was Cobourg.” At the time of his death, five different sectors were involved in his and his family’s life – health, child protection, education, children’s mental health and emergency services and at least nine organizations were said to be offering Chazz and his family some type of service. The night before he died, he was at the emergency ward of the local hospital – him and his parents desperate for help – but he was later discharged. The next morning, Chazz was found dead in the backyard of his home after committing suicide and hanging himself from a tree.

How does this happen in Ontario?

That is the question the regional supervising coroner tried to answer after two years’ worth of investigation. Despite pleas from Chazz’s parents for an open, transparent discussion in the form of an inquest about what happened to their son, the regional coroner explained to the family in a letter, quoted in the Toronto Star, that “a jury presented with the circumstances of Chazz’s death would not make any additional, useful recommendations that would prevent deaths in similar circumstances.” The regional coroner told the family in that letter that Chazz’s case had been reviewed by the Paediatric Death Review Committee (PDRC) and a mental health expert for a supplementary report, which yielded several recommendations, such as enhancing training for doctors and other emergency room staff in suicide risk assessments; making it easier for young people to understand available mental health services; and “improved communication and collaboration” between child and youth agencies. In completing these reports, the regional coroner seems to feel that organizations have come together and remedied whatever poor processes that were in place, or lack thereof, that led to Chazz’s death; that the world has changed. In my opinion, the regional coroner is wrong. His conclusion amounts to me as: Nothing to see here, move along.

I had the honour to be in Woodstock a few months ago witnessing the remarkable stand that young people took there (see: “Embracing young people as partners in the community”). At 9:15 a.m., in the face of a “suicide crisis,” students from across the city stood up from their desks. They walked out of their schools marching together in unison to the town square. “We want to talk. We aren’t doing well, and we don’t want to die,” they said. “Despite your best efforts, something is not working. We need to do better.”

A few weeks later, I was in Attawapiskat; a very different locale, but children and youth there suffering as well. There, too, a suicide crisis was occurring that forced an Emergency Medical Assistance Team to be dispatched, and focused the country on another group of young people calling for help.

The Coroner’s Office has the authority to call an inquest that it feels is in the public interest. The life and death of Chazz Petrella is in the public interest and is of interest to the public. The story of Chazz and of his family is relevant to Ontario when you consider that one in five Canadians experience a mental health or addiction problem in any given year. It is the story of the students in Woodstock and so many other towns and cities in the province. It is the story of Attawapiskat. It is the story of countless parents and their children battling mental illness, like the Petrellas, heroically in every corner of the province every day.

While the regional coroner has made his decision, I have written to the Chief Coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer, to use the powers he has to call a “discretionary inquest” and live up to the coroner’s motto of “speaking for the dead to protect the living.”

Irwin

Bus Ride Home

I recall one particular story told to me once by a young change-maker, and her experiences of what it feels like to be a leader of change in child welfare. She was one of many young people in and from care working to improve Ontario’s child welfare system and its communities for others who would come after her.

“I was at a meeting at the Ministry (of Children and Youth Services) trying to give them advice,” she told me. It felt good to contribute and I was hopeful. The meeting ended and they gave me a great deal of praise, bordering on adulation. [Then], I left and made my way to the bus stop to go home,” she reflected. “The feeling of high from that meeting started to fade. I caught my bus and sat there riding home, gradually returning to my real life. I made it to the room that I rented and turned on the radio. I was alone, broke, and sad. I started to cry. I thought, ‘This is surreal,’” she said to me. “You guys have to remember our bus ride home.”

Young people like the young woman I met must now number in the thousands in Ontario. Each in their own unique way, these young leaders are advocating for change. They want all children in the province to have the chance to reach their full potential. It is remarkable how much they give.

I took the request to remember the Bus Ride Home seriously. I asked the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and the Children’s Aid Foundation to meet with us and consider how we could better support young change-makers in Ontario.

We agreed that we should start by asking them and consulting with those in the child welfare sector about the most commonly and urgently needed support solutions needed by the approximately 20,000 young people currently living in the child welfare system. The “Bus Ride Home” report is what we heard, and outlines seven service, program and resource ideas the young change-makers identified.

This report cannot stay on a shelf. At our Office, we have begun to think through how we can incorporate the spirit of the Bus Ride Home in all our initiatives, and on how to implement the suggestions made by young change-makers. We have supported the developed of the creation of an independent network of youth in and from care in Ontario – a network that can be found in many other provinces across the country. As well, we, alongside the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and the Children’s Aid Foundation, we have begun exploring the potential ways of supporting the creation of a 24-hour youth-led crisis line for young people in and from care and a provincial website linking youth in an d from care to resources available to them.

It is a start. I often say that the province owes these young change-makers a debt. It is time the province starts paying it back.

Irwin

“We must be visible”

When I was young, I fancied myself a progressive and was involved in student politics at Carleton University. Thinking back to this period, how essentialist I was, but how much fun I had.

It wasn’t a fun period for everyone at the time; after all, it was the 80s – the “closet door” for many LGBT people was slowly inching open, but too often they were met with incredible resistance. Intolerance. Homophobia (which wasn’t even a word at the time) Hate. Fear. The crisis of AIDS. Death. I look back to this time and my friends in student politics, one by one, seemed to find each other and found the strength to come out.

I remember seven or so of my friends cramming into a rental car (no one had the money to own one) and driving from Ottawa to Toronto to protest the “bathhouse raids.” I didn’t know what was really going on, but I was a friend and happy to lend my support. Besides, how could I pass up a good protest! We arrived at Church and Wellesley where we gathered with thousands of protestors. I remember seeing everyone sitting down in the middle of the street, united by this cause. I remember the tension and the electricity in the air. I remember seeing the police armed with riot gear and mounted on horses. The chanting and yelling began. Thankfully, I wasn’t arrested, but one of my friends was carted away. What stays with me the most from that night are the tears of anger, frustration, power, rage and hope that many of my friends and others shed. I will never forget that day.

Last week’s tragedy in Orlando brought back a flood of emotions and memories for me.

I thought of my friends. I witnessed the same tears again that were shed back then. This time, I found myself among those crying. This week, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders made a historic apology to acknowledge the “destructiveness” of the bathhouse raids. “It is also an occasion to acknowledge the lessons learned about the risks of treating any part of Toronto’s many communities as not fully part of society,” Saunders said.

I think of the young people in my Office’s mandate who are so marginalized in many ways, and I think of those LGBTQ youth among them who tell me that they don’t feel safe in their homes. I watched the “Be Our Ally” video they made for us and it seemed to take on increased intensity. I invite you to watch it.

This month is Pride Month, and I will celebrate again this year. I will march in the parade in Toronto. This year, when I cross Church and Wellesley, I will remember the tears that were shed and I will focus on the miles we still have to go.

At a memorial in Toronto that was held on the night after the Orlando shooting, I heard a speaker say, “I was asked if I am afraid. Fear is a part of the LGBTQ experience. Courage, however, is not the same as the absence of fear. We must take up space. We must be visible. To our allies, we need you now more than ever. You must stand with us.”

Our Office will.

Irwin

Hope on the horizon

Imagine you are 15 years of age or so. You are at the age to attend high school, but there isn’t one in the small community you live in, so you must depart for a place hundreds of kilometres from home and live on your own in a boarding home. This new place is far-off; an airplane ride away – a vehicle which you have never travelled in before – resembling little compared to your small, close-knit community.

To make matters worse, when you arrive in that community, you will be a total outsider. You will face benign neglect from the new community and often constant discrimination. How might you expect to have fared in that situation?

When I first became the Provincial Advocate, I was introduced to a young man named Reggie Bushie. Sadly, I never met him while he was alive. The Nishnawbe-Aski Nation Decade Youth Council told me of him, as did Moffat Makuto of the Regional Multicultural Youth Centre in Thunder Bay. Reggie, by all accounts, was a vibrant young man who struggled with the journey he was asked to make so far away from his community. He was found dead in the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay. There was a call for an inquest into his death by the community, and I joined them in that ask.

The inquest was initially called in 2012, but delays due to the underrepresentation of First Nations people on Ontario juries – in part because there is no standard procedure for ensuring those who live on reserves are called for jury duty – meant the inquest began just under a year ago in October 2015. At the request of former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci, who authored a report on First Nations underrepresentation on Ontario juries addressing this issue, the Advocate’s Office and Feathers of Hope held a forum and released a report on the experiences of Aboriginal young people in the justice and jury systems in Ontario. The inquest, however, did not just focus on Reggie Bushie’s life and death; it was about the life and death of Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 17, Robyn Harper, 18, Kyle Morriseau, 17, and Jordan Wabasse, 15 as well. They had all struggled with the task of finding a way to complete their education in another community and culture far from home.

Say and repeat aloud the names of those young people to yourself and you will feel the weight of the task the inquest jury had. You will need to take the time to say their names because there are so many names to say you will be forced to take the time to reflect and honour them. The inquest is about the young people who died, but it is also about the young people who continue to face the odds; the families that are devastated and the communities that are suffering the loss. It is also about the rest of us in the province who have a role to play in alleviating this intolerable situation. It is about all of us.

There were hundreds of recommendations for change the jury were given to consider as they determined their verdict. Our Office had standing at this inquest, and with a Youth Advisory Committee of incredible young people, we provided our proposed recommendations as well.

Among the final recommendations rendered in the verdict today, the jury recommended that Canada provide “sufficient” funding to eliminate First Nations student achievement gaps in 10 years, that there be “no distinguishment” between on-reserve and off-reserve in the provision of healthcare, and to set up a federal First Nations advocate, reporting directly to the legislature, who would monitor the government’s progress on equitable funding.

Will recommendations put forward by a jury be taken seriously by governments and services they are directed to? Some remain skeptical that they are. But this inquest is different. That’s easy to say – what with the many recommendations proposed from past inquests still to be fully enacted – but at what seems like a watershed moment, the seedlings of hope are bravely beginning to nudge their way above the surface, and it is a moment in which we have the opportunity to nurture those seedlings to grow. To fail to fully and meaningfully consider and act upon the jury’s recommendations today would be poisonous to hope. We can’t allow that to happen, and I don’t believe we will.

Reggie Bushie, Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Kyle Morriseau, Jordan Wabasse. Repeat and remember their names.

Irwin

Embracing young people as partners in the community

A few days prior to an impending student walkout organized by students from five separate schools in the city of Woodstock, I was speaking on the phone with service providers, government officials and stakeholders as they struggled to deal with the crisis situation unfolding in their community.

Students had set up a Facebook page and were using social media to organize a walkout from their schools and congregate at the city square downtown to rally for a coordinated and immediate response to the epidemic of suicides affecting their community. The adults I spoke to on the phone were full of care and concern for the young people. Their focus, however, was on whether they should be involved in the walkout, supporting it or even showing up. They worried that the rally would cause “contagion” and worsen the situation. They worried that some young people would be tempted to over-disclose. They worried about how their efforts and that of the community would be portrayed in the media. What I wanted to know was whether the adults felt there was indeed a crisis, and if they felt the walkout was an action truly coming from the students.

I learned that between January and May 2015, there were no completed youth suicides in Woodstock and its surrounding area. Over the same time period this year, there were seven incidents of suicide. This year, the local children’s mental health centre had 70 “crisis cases” open, compared to 10 over the same time period last year. I heard that counsellors, teachers and other support staff were exhausted, stressed and very worried.  I was told that service providers had been meeting and that an expert in trauma, suicide and contagion had been brought in to assist with developing a response.  I heard that the school boards, police and mental health services were all at the table and progress was being made.

In all of this, I also learned that the young people themselves were not involved in the planning. The young people could not wait and wanted to take action themselves – hence the walkout. There indeed was a crisis.

Perhaps it was obvious, but not to all those on the phone – the rally was going to happen.  A few days before it was to take place, over 1,000 people had said they would attend.  Whether it was 10 people or 1,000 people who show up, I thought, this is going to happen.  I was invited by the youth organizers to attend and support the young people.  I was going to go, and I am very glad I did.

What I witnessed was quite remarkable.  To think that at 9 a.m. one morning, students who had just arrived at school would one day, in the hundreds in this small community, stand up and leave their desks and classrooms and walk together from four or five different schools to make their way to meet each other for a common cause was nothing short of remarkable.  And why did they do this?  To say, “I am struggling and I need some assistance.” To say, “I am a young person and I care about those who are struggling.” To say, “I want to be part of the solution to the problems that plague me and my community.” All nothing short of remarkable.  They did this with only a little support from those around them and some resistance from institutions that are in place to support them.

For some adults, I suppose, there was a sigh of relief. The walkout did not cause the sky to fall. As far as I know, it did not initiate the contagion they feared.  They got through it together. What I saw was a community being led by its youth, and the picture spoke well of all its citizens. The young people were eloquent, clear, loving and practical in their speeches and comments. I saw and continue to see opportunity. At the rally, I urged the community and province to come around the young people. I urged that they be embraced as partners. I did so because I believe they carry a certain wisdom that comes with lived experience, and because I believe that the good people trying to assist them can sometimes get twisted and tied in knots by their institutional silos and find it difficult to see their way past who is supposed to do what and when.  It is why I asked the province in the form of the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and the Ministry of Education to step in and say, in unison, “You are not alone. We have your back. Whatever resources and supports you need, it is there.”

I saw hope in Woodstock in the same way I saw hope in Attawapiskat. The young people that so many were rightly worried about represented the path forward.  Now it is time for their communities and the province to travel that path with them.

Irwin

Reaffirming our commitment to all children and youth in care - May 14, 2016

Children and youth come into care of our children’s aid societies through no fault of their own.

A court has decided that they have been, in some form or another, physically, sexually or emotionally abused or neglected, and in need of protection. There are very few things in a child’s life that could happen that is more important than their removal from the custody of their family. When the courts and our children’s aid societies take this step, as mandated by the legislation that governs them, they act on behalf of all Ontarians to ensure the wellbeing of all children in care. On any given night, there are over 20,000 children and youth in care sleeping under our collective roof, and there are over 7,000 children permanently in the care of our province through our children’s aid societies. As a province, we have made a covenant with these children. When a children’s aid society brings a child into care on our behalf, we are telling that child, “You are safe now. We will care for you and support you. We will love you.” That is what a child will understand by our actions and what a child is entitled to understand.

Sadly, the desire to protect and cherish a child is often not carried over into the child’s experience as they live in the child welfare system. This statement is no indictment of any one individual or even the best efforts of those who work hard to provide for children in care. However, it is a statement of fact we have heard directly from young people through our recent reports, such as in Searching for Home: Reimagining Residential Care and Serious Occurrences Report. It is hard for a system to provide the love and support a child needs. I believe it is difficult, but not impossible.

Young people believe this too. In 2011, young people in and from care partnered with the Office and held the historic Youth Leaving Care hearings at the Ontario legislature focusing on improving the outcomes of children leaving child welfare care. These hearings led to the production of the report, My REAL Life Book. They believed, as I do, that we could do better as a province.

One of the recommendations in My REAL Life Book was the establishment of a “Children and Youth in Care Day.” Subsequently, the Legislature unanimously passed a bill from MPP Soo Wong designating every May 14 as “Children and Youth in Care Day. May 14 was chosen because it was the day My REAL Life Book was released by the youth who wrote it – a fitting tribute to their efforts, talent and determination – and is a day that allows the entire province to celebrate those qualities of all children in care, and a day to refocus and reaffirm our attention and commitment to our children.

Children and Youth in Care Day is a day for all of us to remember the covenant we have made to children. It is a day to remember that there are children who we have promised our care and love to. I urge all Ontarians today to think of children in care and learn more about how they are faring under our watch. Let that be the first step this year that will lead to a better life for our children for next Child and youth In Care Day.

Today, youth in and from care will gather from across Ontario to convene at Queen’s Park. They call their gathering “The Bus Ride Home” because Queen’s park represents to them the metaphoric home they all share as Wards of the Crown. They will discuss what has been done to improve the lives of children in care since the Youth Leaving Care hearings, and they will chart a course for what still needs to be done. I will stand proudly with them proudly on May 14. They are family.

Irwin

Creating a paradigm shift for children with special needs - May 10, 2016

The legislation that governs my Office defines advocacy as “partnering with children and youth to bring their issues forward.” In partnering with and mobilizing young people with “special needs” – a rather difficult term used to describe a mandate area in my legislation – I looked for ways to meet with those within that definition, including individuals, youth groups, parents and service providers. I knew there would be a steep learning curve for me.

One such encounter stands out for me today. I once visited an institution that provided care to medically fragile children who had very short life expectancies. I remember entering the doors of the facility with trepidation. It was institutional in nature, but as I walked through its hallways, the facility embodied a sense of warmth, care and safety. It was the type of place one does not come across enough when meeting with youth in my Office’s mandate.

At that institution, I met a young man who was twelve years old. He was in bed in what looked like a hospital room. He could not move or speak. The staff member who accompanied me obviously cared a great deal for him, and it was evident his parents did as well. His room was bright and well decorated I noticed that there was an abundance of Montreal Canadiens paraphernalia surrounding his bed. Perhaps because I am a Canadiens fan, I asked the nurse, “How do you know he is a Habs fan?” “Oh,” she said with a smile, “We know. His parents told us and I can confirm it.” The nurse told me that the little boy communicated through his tongue with “yes” and “no” gestures. “We communicate with him through our relationship,” she said. I will never forget that encounter.

On the drive back home, I ruminated about my visit to the facility, and of the boy I met. My first impression of this little boy, as I entered his room, was of a bedridden young man who was terminally ill and unable to communicate. But then, I came to know him as a Montreal Canadiens fan because he immersed me in his world. In doing so, he let me know that he was not to be pitied. In doing so, he let me join with him as a fellow fan. In doing so, he moved from being a “patient” with special needs to being a person. He had shifted the entire paradigm with just his voice.

This is what “We Have Something to Say” is about. It is about young people risking to be seen as people – risking to be visible. If they allow themselves to be seen, conversations about them will cease to be less about systems, programs and approaches, and more about the possibilities they can achieve. As they do this, they will shift the mountain they have been so eager to move. I invite you to read their report, We Have Something to Say: Young people and their families speak out about special needs and change, and I encourage other young people to join us at #wehavesomethingtosay as we move forward with them to create lasting, transformative change.

Irwin

“Katelynn’s Principle” has far-reaching potential if implemented for the purpose of transformational change - April 29, 2016

With the 173 recommendations delivered today in Katelynn Sampson’s inquest, time seems to have come full circle for me.

In my first few days after being appointed the Ontario Child Advocate, Katelynn died. I was at Ontario Place with my family in August 2008 when I received a call from a reporter asking me if they could “interview [me] about the death of little Katelynn Sampson.” It was my first ever call from the media. As they interviewed me, I suggested that there should be an inquest. The next morning, the front page above the fold in the Toronto Star declared, “Child Advocate Demands Inquest.” From that moment on, Katelynn began leading me.

At Katelynn’s funeral, I remember sitting in the church with Deb Matthews, the then-Minister of Children and Youth Services. We both were in tears. A few days later, as I inquired to the coroner and the Ministry of Children and Youth Services about Katelynn’s death, I learned that I was not privy to information about her, or any other children who were deceased for that matter. “Why can’t I know more?” I asked. “You can only advocate under your legislation with permission from the child,” I was told. “But she (Katelynn) is dead” I argued. “That’s correct,” they replied.

Inquiring further about the deaths of other children like Katelynn under my mandate, I was stunned to learn that in that year alone, 90 other children who were connected to a children’s aid society (CAS) in some way had died.  “Most of those 90 children must have been medically fragile and died due to natural causes?” I asked the coroner. “Some” he replied, “but you should be concerned about those children too, and what their quality of life was like.”

I thought that it should not just be me, but the province as a whole that needed to know about these children. They should not remain invisible in their death, perhaps as they were in life. We needed to understand the life trajectory of all 90 children – however short their lives were – to understand how we protected them, or failed to, in order to understand how we supported their families, or failed to. Katelynn was my touchstone.

In the fall of 2008, I released our first Annual Report with a cover titled, "90 deaths, 90 voices silenced." I asked for an open, transparent inquiry to develop a system, broadly defined, into how all sectors could play a role in protecting children and supporting families. “We all have a responsibility for the well-being of children in our society and we need to know where breakdowns are occurring so we can protect children. Starting a process with the intention of blaming someone is not particularly helpful but starting a process to uncover all the facts to see where useful change can be made and to harness whatever positive energy that exists around children is crucial,” I wrote. 

In its wake, it caused a firestorm. There were calls for my resignation by the child welfare sector, both formally and informally. With the support of my staff, I weathered the storm while always keeping Katelynn in mind. What would she want me to do?

Eight years later, I have never wavered in my belief that we need an open, transparent inquiry process. This process would set a vision for the protection of children and the support that families could expect in Ontario. I imagine an Ontario, for instance, in which a child in need – whatever their situation or regardless of where they live – receive the support they need to thrive and achieve their full potential. It is as simple as that. Similarly, I imagine the province telling families, however they are constituted, “Thank you for stepping up. Whatever you need, we have your back.” In this discussion, we will need to have some hard conversations about the role and practice of the children’s aid societies – but the discussion will be broader than them. It will be about all our children, and once envisioned, we will have to decide how we can get there. I know it can be done.

In Katelynn’s inquest, the jury has deliberated and they have reviewed over 200 recommendations made by parties with standing at the inquest. 

We had suggested that the jury recommend the establishment of “Katelynn’s Principle,” and we are pleased to see this principle recognized as the first recommendation in the jury’s verdict. This principle has far-reaching potential if implemented for the purpose of transformational change. This principle would place the child at the centre of the child welfare system. It would ensure that children are seen as individuals with rights, whose voices must be heard, and who must be seen and listened to. More specifically, this principle would place the child at the centre of any activity, policy or legislation – with an emphasis on their right to participate in decisions that affect them – and actions should be taken to assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views, the right to express those views freely on matters affecting them. In essence, children must be rendered visible from their invisibility, as was the case for Katelynn.

In the past year, I have been asked to meetings by the CAS system, the Minister of Children and Youth Services and the Premier’s Office to talk about what an inquiry process could look like. With the recommendations now made by the jury, I will use them to continue pushing the province. All of this is Katelynn’s legacy. She is with me, she is with my Office, and she is with the province.

Irwin

Children are people - April 14, 2016

The young people seem oblivious to my visit to their classroom – they are too caught up in their work. Each one of them is accompanied by a child and youth worker or teacher. There is a calming lull you feel when you enter a safe space or a place that just feels right.

Every now and then, a burst of laughter breaks the calm. It's noticed, but it fails to break the mood. “You can be yourself here,” the space seems to reassure the young people. “It's all right, we've got you.”

The students in the classroom have autism, but I know them just as "kids." They don't speak, but that doesn’t stop them from communicating – I can tell when they are happy or sad, calm or anxious. I am told by staff that for many of the 15 or so in the classroom, school was once a pipe dream; you should see them today. They explain to me that as important as the therapy they have received has been, the sense of connection, structure and love they have found with their teachers, support workers and each other have been equally, if not more, crucial.

The young woman I seem to have connected best with over the visits – or who connected best with me – comes over with a squeal, takes my hand and brings me to the centre of the room. "Alright, it's time for the national anthem," someone says. Gradually, a circle forms. Hand in hand, we stand and sing together some ragtag version of the anthem, but none ever sweeter. It's a ritual now when I arrive. I feel so grateful she remembers this observance. I understand it's the way they acknowledge me, use their voice and create a sense of belonging. In singing that anthem – in finding and using their voice – they are expressing their humanity.

The classroom is supported by a Board of Education and exists within a high school, but operated by and large by a service provider. I wish I could say there were many such classrooms in the province like this one. I have been back to the classroom a number of times. Just as these students have found a place that feels right for them, I am drawn back to it and the students for sustenance. The power of what is possible refuels me.

I think of her, the teenager, as I leave. I know the next time I visit this school, she will no longer be there – she will have aged into the adult system. This decision won’t have been made because it is in her best interests, but because that is the way the system works. This is wrong.

It seems to me that for children and young people with autism, we are often making decisions about services based on what is best for the system, rather than what is best for the individuals. I think we sometimes lose sight of the fact that our decisions are about people, and of the humanity of children with "special needs."

Right now, Ontario is in the midst of a debate about deciding which services are provided to young people at the earliest stages of their life. The government – acting on the advice of clinical expertise – will begin offering Intensive Behaviour Intervention (IBI) only to children under the age of five. Children currently on the waitlist will be in line to receive Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) – considered a less intensive version of IBI – and $8,000 while an alternative service plan can be found for those older children and their families.

The debate has centered upon waitlists, but in reality, the debate should be about children, people, and about children who are people in need. It is about their possibilities and futures. If we centered decisions around them, we would find the will to meet their needs immediately; not in four years or six months’ time, but when and where they need it. Anything less is absolutely unacceptable and speaks to our identity as a province if that is the best that we can do.

Irwin

Residential care can be delivered with the love and care children and youth so desperately need and desire - April 7, 2016

I was in Kobe, Japan in 1999 when I first heard the name Janusz Korczak. I was staying and learning for a brief spell at a "Children’s Home" – what we might call an "institution" for children in care. The home I was visiting was a residence for 100 children and youth, from infants to 18 year olds. In conversation, a youth worker from the home had referenced Janusz Korczak. I remarked, "Who?" The worker was incredulous. "How could you not know of him? And you work with youth?" I went straight to Google and began researching him. I don't claim to be an expert today, but I know we all have something to learn from the work of Dr. Korczak today.

Our Office has partnered with the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada to produce two books written by those who, as children, lived in an orphanage in Poland run by a man many considered to be “the father of children’s rights during the 1930’s and 40’s. This week, we are making the second of these two books, “White House in a Grey City” written by Itzchak Belfer. available to the public. You can download the book at this link.

We published these books as a way to help change the circumstances for children and youth in residential care. In Ontario, we know the situation is dire – a staggering 19,000 serious occurrence reports, which are reports provided to the government in the event of a significant occurrence such as a child death or serious injury, are made in any given year. Young people, with support from our Office, traveled across the province listening to the experiences of youth in the residential care system and published, “Searching for Home: Reimagining Residential Care”. In it, many young people said they experience feelings of isolation, fear and rootlessness, and don’t feel included in decisions made about their lives. The province has set up an expert panel to review residential care, and with the Office’s reports now in their hands, they are deliberating on its contents and are set to release its findings and recommendations shortly.

“White House in a Grey City” and our first book, “My Life as a Child of Janusz Korczak, The Father of Children’s Rights – The Biography of Shlomo Nadel” demonstrate that residential care can embody the rights and voice of children and youth. It can be delivered with the love and care children and youth so desperately desire and need. They are a beacon of hope for all of us that change is possible.

I also hope that this book once again aptly shows that there is wisdom contained within lived experience; in an age where many decisions are made on what is considered “evidence-based practice” and “scientific research,” lived experience can be an equally legitimate and rich source of knowledge. The courage of Mr. Belfer and Mr. Nadel deserves to be honoured and there is so much truth in their stories that we can use to change circumstances for children today.

Irwin

“Sunny ways” must come from sunny actions, not words - March 29, 2016

As I sat in the Porter Airlines lounge waiting for my flight to Thunder Bay earlier today, I was approached by a familiar-faced gentleman. "Hey," he said. "You might not remember me – I'm the Principal of Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, Jonathan Kakegamic."

I knew I had recognized him. Immediately, I thought of the ordeal he and his students must be going through during the inquests into the deaths of seven First Nations students in Thunder Bay. "It must be so hard for you," I said. "It is," he replied. "I just want a residence for the kids [who leave their home communities for school]." Kakegamic testified at the inquest, which is set to conclude next month, last October.

Reflecting on this brief conversation awaiting my flight, I think about what I might say to the Governor General and his wife on their visit to Thunder Bay today. David Johnston last week asked to meet with youth advisors from our Feathers of Hope team, including our Youth Amplifier Karla Kakegamic, Samantha Crowe, Ryan Giles Hunter, Talon Bird and Savanna Boucher, and our Youth Advisory Committee members Caitlyn Bird and Marilyn Boyce.

These young people represent hundreds of First Nations youth who have produced two seminal reports – “Feathers of Hope: A First Nations Youth Action Plan” and “Feathers of Hope, Justice and Juries: A First Nations Youth Action Plan for Justice.” They have organized three large forums and led countless workshops all in hopes of mobilizing young people in a way that will create change.

I know the young people feel nervous, but inspired, to meet the Governor General. They feel buoyed – and hopeful – that the Governor General’s request to meet with them is a sign that First Nations young people, including the hundreds of youth involved in their movement and thousands of others across the province and country, are being heard at a higher level.

Young people have waited long enough for this chance. I think of my conversation with Jonathan who, frankly, does not want any more meetings or kind gestures, but a residence. I try to remain hopeful. In light of the criticism of the recent federal budget by many First Nations leaders, I think it will take more than sunny words to create the “sunny ways” our federal government speaks of. It will take action, and that is the context of the Governor General’s visit – and I plan to make sure he understands that context.

Irwin

Poor quality serious occurrence reports impair the government's early warning system - Febuary 26, 2016

“This place saved my life,” said the 12-year-old boy flatly, “and this place also stole my soul.”

He was speaking to me as part of a group of youth whom I met on my Listening Tour living at one of Ontario’s largest children’s mental health treatment residences. It was difficult to hear him say those words. The other young people who were listening and part of the discussion bobbed their heads in unison, affirming his comment.

Over the past few months, our Office has published two pieces of work that would help give voice to youth like the young boy and his peers I met. Their experiences are not isolated. In “Searching For Home: Reimagining Residential Care,” two of our Youth Amplifiers elevated the voices of young people living in residential care, many of whom said they experience feelings of isolation, fear and rootlessness, and don’t feel included in decisions made about their lives. In “My Life as a Child of Janusz Korczak, the Father of Children’s Rights,” we published a book that demonstrated residential care can be delivered with the rights of children embodied in love. Today, we are releasing the third of our four reports – our preliminary “Serious Occurrences Report,” which begins to explore some of the approximately 19,000 serious occurrences that are reported in residential care each year.

What we found was concerning, if not very alarming. Beginning in March, when our Office will have new investigative powers, we will be able to examine in further detail the seemingly incredulous number of restraints used, the numbers of youth running away from their residences and the number of times police are called to homes. When young people in residential care tell us they feel “invisible” or that “no one cares about [us],” we begin to understand why they feel that way.

But this doesn’t have to be so. To those responsible for young people in the government’s care, our message is simple: “See the children you serve.” Use the mechanisms you have in place, like Serious Occurrence Reporting, and let it be more than just a business process. Allow the young people you serve to notice that you are interested in their well-being; ask the young people themselves – and their caregivers – of what happened when something goes awry. Show them that they matter, and that you care for them by listening to them.

This is not to say that there are individuals in the government or in our systems of care who are uncaring; quite the contrary. But this does not overlook the fact that the children and youth who should be at the centre of our attention have been lost and rendered invisible in the labyrinth of systems.

In the coming weeks, the government-appointed expert panel tasked with reviewing residential care is slated to release its report. We have great hope and interest in what the panel will recommend for change to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services. We have great hope that the government will make the changes necessary. Through our report, we have demonstrated that a database can be created to provide robust analysis of the serious occurrence reports and this database produces useful information that could help safeguard children and youth in residential services to have the care they have a right to and deserve. We have great hope that the change will start with our government seeing, listening and understanding the experiences of children in residential care. Change can only come from this starting point.

Irwin

For Family Day - Febuary 12, 2016

I remember Melanie (not her real name) when she was about 16 years old. Even then she was struggling with mental health needs. They labelled her with “Borderline personality,” which morphed into “Bi-Polar Disorder,” and then “Schizophrenia” later on in her life, leading me to realize that these labels are so imprecise and that we know much less than we think we do about mental illness.

I remember her telling me stories about of her life. She recounted examples of horrific abuse she suffered as a child, her trials and tribulations in CAS care, her struggles with school staff, medical practitioners, housing providers and stories about her life on the street, even from time to time she told me a thing or two about myself. She told it all with an energy and scattershot delivery that belied her pain.

Her stories always contained so much insight. She engaged me. When I knew she was coming to see me I would have to steel myself knowing it was going to be long, wild ride. I was never sure how much of her struggle was based in illness and how much was a product of – or exacerbated by – the events of her life which seemed to pile up on top of each other with a weight that only she could carry.

Melanie was always a caring person even in the midst of great struggle. She empathized with others, perhaps too much. She was innocent in many ways, but again, perhaps too innocent. She carried a child-like quality with her well into adulthood. She was funny and even through tears or when she was cussing me out, we laughed together. She was strong, but perhaps not strong enough.

In the beginning, Melanie and I established a professional working relationship. Once she left care, she would continue to visit or call me. She was not one for emails or Facebook. Every birthday, whether it was mine or hers, she would remind me that she was still around and that we had a bond. She wanted to make sure she heard “happy birthday” from me every year, and I came to relish hearing the same from her. This continued for more than 20 years.

Sadly, I will not receive a call from Melanie this year. I learned this week that she died in an apartment fire. I am unaware of what happened, but I want to find out. My hope is that she did not pass away alone and isolated – she had suffered long enough.

It feels as though I have lost a member of my family this Family Day weekend. I will be thinking of Melanie and I will also be thinking about the children in and from the province’s care. I will be contemplating the commitment the province makes to children and youth when it brings them in to care and the promise we collectively make to them by saying, “You are safe now, you are not alone, we are with you.”

But Melanie is not just a loss to me – she is a loss to all of us and to the province that was her family.

As I think about the approach of Family Day, my mind is drawn to the importance of feeling a sense of connection and belonging and the meaning of ‘family’. I will be thinking of the commitment we all have made to youth in and from care. I hope you will think of them too and the commitment the province’s government has made on your behalf.

Irwin

Caring for the well-being of children is everyone’s responsibility - Febuary 11, 2016

At times, I have likened children’s aid societies (CAS) to a system that resembles an old house, sitting alone with its windows closed and shutters drawn for a very long time. Children and youth have used that metaphor with me often to describe how once they enter that house through the front door, they are not thought about again by the public.

When I think about children’s aid societies, I think about how liberating it would be to open the drapes and shutters and allow the light of day to filter into every room. This image of light replacing darkness brings to mind the need to continually reflect on the policies and practices that help ensure child welfare services are meeting the needs of children and youth in care. Those same policies and procedures must also serve the needs of caregivers so they have all the tools and resources they need to provide safe, supportive and nurturing environments in which young people can thrive.

On March 1, 2016, our legislative authority to investigate matters concerning a child or a group of children receiving service from a CAS, or a residential licensee where a CAS is the placing agency, will be proclaimed. In many ways, I liken the new powers as the opening up of the system – the opening up of the proverbial house.

After years of hard work by those who wanted our Office to obtain these investigative powers, and months of training and preparation on the part of our new staff, we are ready to assume the responsibility that has been placed on our shoulders.

By using this new tool, we intend to link the child protection system to the public and improve accountability to children and families by anchoring policies and procedures that guide the provision of care to legislation. We will look for ways to support those who have been given the responsibility to care for the province’s children and youth and safeguard their rights and entitlements.

In our investigations, our Office will strive to maintain a child-centred stance. We have designed our investigation services so that young people are involved in ways that will allow us to learn and be fueled by the wisdom of their lived experience and their passion for change. We will learn and we will grow. Most importantly, we will stand with children and youth of this province as we exercise our investigative powers.

To learn more about our new Investigative Unit, please visit our website at www.provincialadvocate.on.ca/main/en/about/Investigations.html or contact us directly at 1-800-263-2841 (toll-free) or 416-325-5669.

There is growing recognition in Ontario about the enormous responsibility given to children’s aid societies, and the strong powers they wield. I believe that we are just beginning to come to terms with the struggle we have as a province to clarify our collective commitment to children and, in turn, families. While I believe that our Office can never replace – nor should it – the oversight function the Ministry of Children and Youth Services plays in terms of child welfare services, I believe that our new powers will help ensure that children are protected, supported and nurtured to achieve their full potential.

Irwin

A Time Now to Act for Reconciliation - January 27, 2016

I received an email yesterday about a Rotary Club initiative to support Chief Rosemary McKay of Bearskin Lake. Her community has suffered 12 deaths in the last year, and they are currently reeling from the suicide death of a 10-year-old girl in December and don't have the funds to give her a proper burial. The Rotary is raising funds to help provide emergency mental health support and programming dollars to the community overcome by grief, while there is a “Go Fund Me” site raising money for the cost of the burial.

Frankly, the urgency tied to change is staring at us in the face.

Yet, media attention is still almost non-existent, our governments are only just beginning to respond, and events of this nature continue to take place in an era of reconciliation we are trying to usher in. The government knows what is needed and yet they wait for responses from communities that are barely surviving. When is the journey to healing and reconciliation going to begin? Why are we still waiting, and for what?

Make no mistake, what Bearskin Lake is enduring, the events in La Loche, Saskatchewan this week, the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation’s calls last week for an emergency Suicide Taskforce to be set up to stem the flow of deaths of children and youth in Ontario's northern communities are all connected. They are tied to the living reality of history and the legacy of racism, discrimination and invisibility that was powerfully spoken to in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report.

Yesterday, I was in Ottawa to witness the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal announce their decision that Canada racially discriminated against First Nations children in its inequitable funding of child welfare services. You can read our statement to the press here. The case was brought before them by Cindy Blackstock of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and the Assembly of First Nations, almost 10 years ago. Can this be the beginning of the paradigm shift that was called for through the work of the TRC? The Tribunal’s decision has undoubtedly moved the inequities faced by Canada’s Aboriginal people to where it belongs – the public conscience of this country.

I wanted to be in Ottawa at the AFN to witness this day and to offer my support. But, maybe I too need to borrow from the courage and strength of Cindy and those who persevered.

To the Aboriginal children who now more than ever need to believe in hope and believe in their country, today’s ruling is a first step towards the possibility of creating a child welfare system that works for them, their families and their communities.

Irwin

Not a Dry Eye in the House - January 18, 2016

There are moments in life sometimes that scarcely seem believable. A few months ago, I found myself sitting in a state boardroom in Kyiv, Ukraine. Across the table from me sat the wife of Ukraine’s President Maryna Poroshenko, who chaired the meeting, and the Child Ombudsman for Ukraine, Nikolai Kuleba. Assembled at the table around us were officials from Ukraine’s Ministries of Social Services, Health, and Education, as well as business leaders and advocacy groups from Ukraine’s civil society. Surrounding the table were representatives of Ukraine’s fifth estate. The air was filled with formality.

I had been invited by the Child Ombudsman of Ukraine to come to Kyiv to talk with him about how he might encourage and support his government to develop a system of service for children and youth with special needs, including a school system that accepted those with disabilities, rather than shun them. I was told that many children with special needs find their way into orphanages, living away from society and hidden in sight due to a large gap in the system of supports, and that Ms. Poroshenko and Mr. Kuleba were determined to change the course of Ukraine’s history in this regard. I had been asked to help the Child Ombudsman develop his Office and build some momentum for acknowledgement of the rights of children with special needs. In my invitation letter, I was asked to invite someone to accompany me who could speak to the topic of government change in the area of disability and rights. I thought of former Minister Marie Boutrogianni, who steered the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act from conception to reality. I am glad I did. Marie is extremely knowledge, a formidable advocate in her own right and is an absolute dynamo. I felt very fortunate to be sitting beside her at that meeting table in Kyiv.
There are many stories and layers to my visit to Ukraine, not least of which is the remarkable story of Ed Dickson – a former Ontario Public Service official who left his career to devote himself to children living in orphanages in Eastern Europe and has become a confidant of many decision-makers in Ukraine. He is an amazing, gentle yet determined man who wields influence in such a disarming way that it is hardly noticeable. Please take a look at his organization at loadsoflove.ca. As it turns out, he had facilitated the entire visit that built the bridge between Ontario and Ukraine.

After our roundtable meeting, I asked Nikolai (the Child Ombudsman) if he had considered inviting young people to participate in the meetings and his efforts. They were taken aback by my suggestion, but asked, “Do you think we should?” I spoke about my experience in Ontario and how I thought young people using their lived experiences could say things in a way that was irrefutable and when they did so, it provided the opportunity for decision-makers’ better angels to take hold and create the opportunity for change. The next day, I arrived at the scheduled press conference Nikolai had arranged where we were to sign a Memorandum of Understanding between his Office and mine. Remarkably, accompanying him ready to take part in the exchange with media were two young people he had met a number of times in the past, who had informed him about what needed to change in Ukraine for children with disabilities. With his support, they gave rousing talks at the press conference, using their lived experiences carefully.

Two days later, I returned home when upon my arrival, I had received a photo from Nikolai (see below).

 

What you see is the young woman who spoke at the press conference now addressing Ukraine’s Parliament. She said, "In Canada, 98 per cent of children with disabilities attend conventional schools and 40 per cent go on to higher education. I very much want the same thing for my country." She spoke specifically about Article 18 of the Ukrainian Education Act which says that a child with disabilities can study in a conventional school as long as it does not violate the rights of normal children. "That's absurd. Why this discrimination? Why such disrespect to us? We are the same as you, only just slightly unlucky in life,” she said. When she finished, she received a standing ovation, and there was not a dry eye in the audience.

The photo from Nikolai was accompanied by the following message: “Today, the Parliament of Ukraine voted unanimously to work towards the deinstitutionalization of services for children with disabilities and to create a school system within 10 years that would be inclusive of all students, regardless of ability.” “Wow,” I thought. This week, I am looking forward to meeting Nikolai again, this time in Toronto, as he attends the Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates meeting, which I chair. I will have the opportunity then to express my gratitude to him for allowing me to witness the amazing work he is undertaking.

Irwin

"Findings from the independent review of Motherisk’s hair testing program" - December 17, 2015

Today, Justice Susan Lang released her report of The Hospital for Sick Children’s hair testing program for drugs and alcohol at its Motherisk Drug Testing Laboratory (MDTL).

Between 2005 and 2015, MDTL tested more than 16,000 individuals at the request of Ontario child protection agencies with approximately 54 percent testing positive. One would be hard-pressed to find a more important, life-changing decision made in the life of a child in Ontario than the one made by our courts, based on the advice of our Children's Aid Societies, to remove children from their homes and families for their own protection. As a society, we want to – perhaps need to – believe that our trusted institutions and systems get that decision right.

In her report, Justice Lang concluded that the MDTL’s hair testing methodology was “inadequate and unreliable for use in child protection and criminal proceedings.” She highlights that the lab failed to meet internationally-recognized forensic standards, there was poor oversight by The Hospital for Sick Children into its methods and practices, and a lack of written operating procedures in carrying out the drug tests.

Now imagine yourself, as a child in a group home or foster home already feeling the stigma of being in care and the isolation that comes with it, and hearing that some evidence that was used to bring you into care was potentially flawed. Remember that you have probably never fully known your own story, and what is contained in those Children's Aid files about you. That's the way the system works. You try to put this fact together with what you can remember or may have been told. You wonder whether this needed to be your fate. Imagine the questions. Imagine the anger. Imagine the pain.

In my mind, this is yet another devastating blow to our province’s child welfare system. It is this system which includes a number of sectors – not just our Children’s Aid Societies -- that we must examine publicly and honestly through some sort of inquiry process. Any further review process must involve young people so we can hear their lived experiences. There will be time to work towards change, and if ever it was clear, that process must begin imminently.

The findings from this review will no doubt raise many difficult, emotional questions for children in and from care who will question if any flawed, hair testing evidence from Motherisk affected the course of their lives. This information may destabilize children and youth who already live a fragile existence. My heart is with them today.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a letter to the Premier’s Office, and the Ministers of the Attorney General and Children and Youth Services calling on them to put the necessary supports in place to prepare all children in and from care for Justice Lang's report. Caregivers of children in care and social workers must be trained to discuss this report with children and to listen to these young people about their personal journey. The time for children to be -- as they said in My REAL Lifebook of being "left out of their own lives" -- must come to an end.

For today, we, as a province, must first turn to those children and those who were in care at some point in their lives who may have been potentially affected by Justice Lang’s findings and say to them, "We are with you. Tell us what you need and we will offer our support."

Irwin


A copy of the Ministry of Children and Youth Services’ release is available at: release.

If you are a young person and you believe that your case has been impacted by a Motherisk test, you can call the ministry’s hotline at 1-855-235-8932 to request that your cases is provide to the commissioner. Individuals or families can call the same number for immediate counselling support.

Dr. Janusz Korczak and teachings for today’s child welfare system - December 10, 2015

I had the privilege of co-hosting an event today with UNICEF Canada at the Legislature to launch My Life as a Child of Janusz Korczak –the father of children’s rights– The biography of Shlomo Nadel. This book was launched in partnership with the Janusz Korczak Association of Canada in recognition of International Human Rights Day.

It was in a children’s home – an orphanage in fact – in Kobe, Japan, where I first heard the name, Janusz Korczak. Never in my studies in Canada and never in my years of professional experience had I ever heard reference to him.

As Ontario’s Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, I have the opportunity – the privilege – of meeting and listening to thousands of children and youth who were removed from their families by the state for their own protection. In their stark and often blunt way, they have described experiences which clearly demonstrate that those caring for them need to find the spirit of Janusz Korczak in their work with children.

Young people living away from home due to the intervention of the state relate that they feel “left out of their own lives.” From the abusive circumstances that brought them into state care, to life in the system itself, they more often than not feel that life careens outside of their control and influence. They feel powerless, isolated and alone – sometimes invisible. It takes great strength for them to push past to become actors in the world and regain their humanity. Many do. For others, life remains a difficult struggle.

Dr. Korczak’s work tells us it does not have to be so. “A hundred children, a hundred individuals who are people – not people-to-be, not people-of-tomorrow, but people now, right now – today,” Korczak said. He organized his institution with this thought at the centre of his pedagogy. Mr. Nadel’s story demonstrates how this manifested itself. Mr. Nadel, in his remarkable strength and dedication to the world, is evidence that life for children in care today does not have be as brutal as it is.

If, under circumstances of incredible oppression during the Nazi occupation, the children of Korczak’s orphanage in Warsaw, Poland, found a home that provided them with the nurturance that they needed and an opportunity to use their voice, then surely today we can find it within our collective selves to provide children with the same. For this to take place, we must read and learn from this book.

Janusz Korczak provided us with a path to a “human answer” – a path which is so necessary for children in our care today. When legislators or policy makers tell me, “We can’t legislate for love,” or “It is so complicated to create human solutions,” or “You want to boil the ocean,” I think of Korczak and I think of what is possible. Shlomo Nadel, in sharing his story, has shown us that path. We owe Mr. Nadel a debt of gratitude. His remembrance, shared in this powerful biography (written by his dear friend, Lea Lipiner), is a tool for change. He has gifted his experience and the wisdom that it embodies to children today.

I invite you to read My Life as a Child of Janusz Korczak –the father of children’s rights– The biography of Shlomo Nadel.

Irwin


A free copy of My Life as a Child of Janusz Korczak –the father of children’s rights– The biography of Shlomo Nadel is available on the Provincial Advocate’s website.

More information about the December 10th book launch event and some of Dr. Janusz Korczak teachings and photos of the orphanage are available on the Advocate’s website.

“Reflections on a remarkable year” - December 9, 2015

Today, I am pleased to share my Office’s latest Annual Report, which recounts our work with young people and our partners over the past 12 months. Our Annual Report provides an opportunity for reflection and recognition as we look back on our many accomplishments in supporting and elevating the voices of young people across our mandate.

In every Annual Report, we try to paint a picture of our Office while providing the reader with a sense of how the children and youth we serve are faring, and how the efforts of government and civil society are meeting their needs. This year’s report also highlights the work led by staff who worked closely with young people across many different fronts. After all, the work we do is a partnership between the extraordinary staff at the Advocate’s Office and the amazing children and youth in our mandate.

This year’s report speaks to a widening gap between the promises made by the province and the lived experiences of many children in our mandate. There are "action plans," "strategies," "transformations," "reforms," "policies" and "directives" in almost every area of service to children; yet the experience of children and youth is often nowhere close to the hope all the paper and good words engender.

I have found that the voices of children and youth fill that gap, which is quickly becoming a chasm in Ontario. If there is any hope, I find it in the opportunity for decision-makers to come around our children and to listen and join them in creating the change they need and deserve. I invite you to read our Annual Report and “listen” to their voices.

As always, I welcome your feedback.

Irwin


English copy of the Annual Report is available at:

http://provincialadvocate.on.ca/documents/en/AR2015_En.pdf

French copy of the Annual Report is available at:

http://provincialadvocate.on.ca/documents/fr/AR2015_Fr.pdf

Auditor General’s report is more proof of a child welfare system in crisis - December 3, 2015

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk released yet another report that points to disarray in our child welfare system. The report, among other alarming issues, confirms what was learned from the Jeffery Baldwin inquest: 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 The report also cites the findings of our Office’s My REAL Life Book and “25 is the New 21” report supporting our contention that the dismal outcomes for children in care are unacceptable.

In the thick of the Katelynn Sampson's inquest, which began a few weeks ago, the Auditor General’s report is instructive if not incredibly sad. If anyone believes that things have changed since Katelynn's death, then that belief can be firmly set aside.

It feels like every week, there’s another story about the child welfare system in crisis. The Jeffery Baldwin inquest, serious occurrence reports in the news about the poor treatment of youth living in group homes (which forced the province to strike an expert panel), Katelynn's inquest and now the Auditor General’s report. And, soon to come…Justice Lang’s report on Motherisk.

Public confidence in the child welfare system is eroding. But more importantly, vulnerable children – through no fault of their own – are put at risk and placed in harmful and difficult situations.

To say we can do better – to say we must do better – seems such an understatement, but it is true. Change needs to occur.

To get there we must bring in new voices and ideas to the table. We must have an open, province-wide conversation about how we protect children and support families in Ontario. Our Office has proposed this to the government, including the Premier, on a number of occasions. There are many models of inquiry which could be used including a version of the "restorative inquiry" being employed in Nova Scotia as that province reviews the abuse in its "Home for Coloured Children."

Whatever the process, what we know is that the government must demonstrate its concerns and act now. We don’t need yet another report to demonstrate that we need action and, most importantly, results.

Irwin

Bill 117…a long journey that began with Katelynn’s death - December 1, 2015

Hi everyone,

Approximately two weeks after I became Ontario's Child Advocate, I received a phone call from a reporter. It was a Sunday of the long weekend and I was spending the day with my family at Ontario Place.

I answered my cell and the reporter asked, "Do you know about the death of a little girl named Katelynn? Do you have a comment?" I told the reporter that I thought there should be an inquest and that our points of protection seemed to have failed her. Seven years later, that inquest is now underway in a courtroom in Toronto.

The day after the reporter’s call, with Katelynn still on my mind, I called the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.

"Can you tell me what you know about Katelynn Sampson’s death?" I asked the ministry official.

"I’m sorry, but I can’t provide any information," was the response.

"Why not?" I asked.

"You can only advocate on behalf of a child and Katelynn has not given you her consent," said the ministry official.

"But she died." I said.

"Yes, you are right,” acknowledged the Ministry person.

It was then I learned that I would be notified about deaths of children in my mandate and learn information about their deaths through mostly the media. Sometimes, I’m given a "tip" from a source in the community.

How is it possible that Ontario’s Child Advocate could learn about the deaths of children through tips, media stories and sleuth work? It was ridiculous then and it continues to be seven years later.

I later learned then that it was very difficult to have a conversation about children who have died in this province. Yet what could be a more important conversation?

Children in my mandate, like Katelynn, are invisible to the province. We’re talking about society’s most vulnerable members of society. This includes young people in the children's mental health, youth justice, special needs and child welfare systems of care.

When a point of protection or service provider fails to see the child, they become invisible. This is not acceptable. This is why the Provincial Advocate’s Office was created – to elevate the voices of young people.

Children in the mandate of my Office must not be made invisible in their death. We need to see them. We need to know them. We need to be challenged by the tragedy they represent – not to avert our eyes.

Yesterday, a legislative committee held hearings on Bill 117, the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Amendment Act, 2015. Tabled by NDP Child and Youth Critic Monique Taylor, this private member’s bill would require an agency or service provider, as the case may be, shall inform the Advocate promptly if it becomes aware of the death or critical injury of a child or youth and a children’s aid society has been involved with the child or youth, or with the child’s or youth’s family, within 12 months of the death or critical injury. We have asked the committee to amend the bill to include all children in the mandate of the Office. A copy of our submission is available here.

After seven long years, Katelynn has led us to this point. It is time to stand with her. Third-reading debate on Bill 117 is expected to take place next week.

Irwin

Reflections from the Listening Tour - November 23, 2015

“This place saved my life…without it I would be either dead or in jail.”
-a quote by a 11-year-old youth

Hi everyone,

This was a comment made by an 11-year-old boy during my recent visit at a children’s mental health institution as part of my Office’s annual Listening Tour across the province. A group of 15 youth from this institution nodded in unison. Another young man spoke up and told me, “This place robbed me of my childhood.” Once again, everyone nodded in agreement. It was a heartbreaking moment on the road as I listened to children and youth within the mandate of my Office during the Listening Tour that marked “National Children’s Day” on November 20th.

It is a moment that crystalized something that I had been thinking and feeling as I travel from city to city and from meeting to meeting. Despite our best efforts as a province, so many children are not finding what they need. There are programs provided by large and small institutions with various policies and practices, but one is left with the question, after meeting the remarkable children and youth that I have met, “Where is the love?” Without it I fear our best efforts as a province are crushing to a child’s soul. I know this sounds harsh but how else can an 11–year-old understand a circumstance where he is miles (plane rides) away from home, with little to no contact with a familiar, let alone a friendly face, for months on end… perhaps even years. Living in a home on a “campus” in what they deem the middle of nowhere. Living in a home with nine other boys with some as old as 17 and many with challenging mental health issues or as they say “anger problems.” Restraints are used at least weekly to address beefs and fights. Rules have been created to manage them, such as not being allowed to talk to anyone during dinner. Without love and caring present, what chance do these young people have to heal?

I also found hope during the Listening Tour. Some young people were able to point to a staff person who cared about them and it was clear that the power of that act was profound. And then there was what happened at the end of the meeting. We were fortunate enough to have a young man at the meeting who shared that he once lived in the same mental health facility more than eight years ago. This young man had asked to facilitate this meeting and discussions. His courage and strength was a beacon. When he told the boys that he once lived in the same place they were stunned, slack-jawed and silent. By the end of the meeting and after a great deal was shared, perhaps the most articulate boy in the group (a tough-looking 16-year-old) looked at the facilitator and said, “You don’t know what this means to us.” He was now choking back his tears. The youth added, “that you would bother to come back here, despite what it did to you…to listen to us and to show you care about us. No one cares about us. You changed my life.”

I’m tearing up recounting this story. The young people in that facility told me that they found hope and strength in each other and that helped them to get by.

But this is not good enough. We can do better. I am often told by government and policy makers that “we can’t legislate love.” I know that. But what we can do is legislate, create policies, develop practices and create a culture that allows love to flourish. I want to shout out, “put your mind to that!” It is possible and anything less for the remarkable children we serve is simply unacceptable.

Irwin

The Listening Tour - November 16, 2015

Hi everyone, I am writing my next blog “on the road” as I travel across the province to meet with young people during our annual listening tour.

I love the listening tour. The idea came to me from the Children’s Commissioner of the UK at the time. He told me about his listening tours and while I thought that I listen to young people each and every day, the idea of listening in a more intensive way and brainstorming with them for a week was intriguing.

Last year, I decided that every November I would undertake these tours to mark the creation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). I wanted my tour to coincide with “National Child Day” which is recognized on November 20th each year. It seemed appropriate to do a tour for a week or more around that day.

Canada has ratified the Convention, and Ontario has endorsed it, and in doing so, our country and province have made a promise to all children that they will be afforded fundamental rights. Canada and Ontario have said to children that they are human beings today - not sometime in the future. We should take the promises we make to children seriously.

Every four years, Canada must write a report to the United Nations about its progress in adhering to the UNCRC. The Ontario government writes a piece of that report. A few years ago when Canada was last being reviewed by the United Nations I asked the government of Ontario: “who writes our province’s piece of the report?” It took them a great deal of time to find out. It turned out that it's written by a lawyer at the Ministry of the Attorney General. When I asked to meet with him he was surprised and had a number of his superiors meet with me too. He said he merely gathered information from across government about what the province did for children and youth and “collated” it. I asked if he held any consultation with service providers or children and youth and he seemed to stare blankly and said “no.” It was then I decided that the report has been written in the shadows and produced in silence. I did not think it should, or could, be done that way again.

The listening tour provides an important opportunity for children and youth to speak openly about their lived experiences and whether the promise of the Convention is a reality in their lives. Beginning on November 15 until the 23rd, I will meet with approximately 250 children and youth (between the ages of 12 to 24) under my mandate in Ottawa, Coburg, Prince Edward County, Belleville, Peterborough, Collingwood, Guelph, Timmins and Toronto. I encourage you to read last year’s listening tour report, which is available at: Children's Rights Matter.

I want the listening tour to demonstrate what's possible for our government in engaging all children in the province in a conversation about how they are doing. I want children to know about the UNCRC. I want their voices to be heard and reflected in our province's report to the United Nations. On the final day of the tour, I will meet with The Premier's Council on Youth Opportunities to engage the government through them in Canada's impending report in 2018 to the United Nations on adherence to the UNCRC and Ontario's role in creating that report.

I look forward to sharing more of reflections during this week's listening tour.

Sincerely,

Irwin

Start of the Katelynn Sampson inquest - November 9, 2015

Dear friend,

This morning, I attended the start of the inquest into the death of seven-year-old Katelynn Sampson after more than seven years of waiting. On August 3, 2008, Katelynn was found murdered, under horrific circumstances, in the apartment belonging to her legal guardian.

I learned about Katelynn’s murder from a reporter a week after I began my role as Ontario’s Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth. I was stunned and angry to learn about the brutal way in which Katelynn died and how so many points of protection seemed to have failed to protect her.

I would like to share my thoughts on the inquest and why I feel that the province must come together to have an open and frank conversation about how we protect children and families. You can read more at: opinion editorial.

Irwin

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Why a blog? - November 6, 2015

Hi everyone and welcome to my first blog!

Since I was first appointed as the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth in 2008, I’ve had the privilege of meeting thousands of extraordinary, talented children and youth. They tell me about their lives, their hopes for the future, and how they continue to struggle while under the province’s care and protection. I continue to be amazed and touched by their stories.

I have chosen to start my own blog because there’s a lot that needs to be said about the state of the province’s care systems (e.g. child welfare, youth justice, children’s mental health) and what young people under my mandate are experiencing. These perspectives are not always reported by the media or reflected in government reports.

Through this blog, I hope to draw attention to their concerns of children and youth and how my Office is partnering with these courageous individuals to elevate their voices in pursuit of meaningful, lasting improvements. I hope you find this blog informative.

As always, I welcome your feedback.

Irwin

PS: “The Advocate’s Blog” is a temporary name. I would love to hear your suggestions for naming the blog. If you have a creative idea, email us: advocacy@provincialadvocate.on.ca before November 30.

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If you have any questions contact the Office of the Provincial Advocate at: 416.325.5669 or 1.800.263.2814 (toll-free).