cp-marin-4420453

Ontario ombudsman Andre Marin released his annual report on Tuesday. ((Colin Perkel/Canadian Press))

Dozens of Ontario families are still being asked to give up custody of their special needs children in order to get the care they need, Ontario's ombudsman said Tuesday.

In his annual report, Andre Marin said the number of families who turned to his office so they wouldn't have to turn their kids over to a Children's Aid Society jumped to 39 last year from 24 in 2008.

"It's an area that causes me an enormous amount of distress," said Marin.

"That said, when we've raised the issue we've got things resolved, so as long as that happens we are happy to play ball.

"If we see that the ministry becomes entrenched and we are not able to resolve things amicably, then we may need to take a larger shot at the problem."

The provincial watchdog first highlighted the plight of families with special needs children in 2005, and said the problem persists because of high costs and defensive posturing by the Ministry of Children's Services.

"Every time we raise this issue someone in the ministry takes offence [and says] `no child has ever been surrendered to the CAS,' and then we find agreements were they have been surrendered, [and the ministry says] `there's no court order,"' said Marin.

"We may need to take another run at the system to ... make it more humane and compassionate."

Children and Youth Services Minister Laurel Broten said no parent should ever have to give up custody to get their children the services they need, and promised to relay that message yet again to staff.

"I want all Ontarians to know that we do take the comments by the ombudsman very seriously, and we have taken those comments and that advice in the past very seriously," Broten said.

The Opposition said Broten's message about parents never having to give up custody isn't getting through to everyone.

"Somebody's not listening somewhere," said Progressive Conservative critic John Yakabuski.

"If the message or the edict is sent out from the proper people that this is not the right way to treat families in dire circumstances, those people should be listening to that."

The New Democrats applauded Marin's efforts to get involved on a case-by-case basis for families with special needs kids.

"I immediately made a note to my staff that from now on, when we hear from these families, we will direct them to the ombudsman's office because we're not getting anywhere directing them to the ministry," said NDP critic Cheri DiNovo.

Marin's report also took Hydro One to task for its treatment of customers, noting his office stopped the giant utility from cutting off the electricity for an 81-year-old bedridden woman's oxygen machine over an unpaid bill.

The ombudsman's office also helped a couple after Hydro One wrongly set up an account for the apartment next door and billed them for the electricity for several years. The couple discovered the mistake after Hydro One turned the account over to a collection agency, and it refused to accept their explanation until Marin's office got involved.

Marin was recently reappointed for a second five-year term in a process he described as "unduly politicized," and said he wouldn't want to see the next ombudsman go though a smear campaign like he was subjected to this year.

"One may be forgiven for thinking they were watching 'The Gong Show,"' he said. "Do we want a reappointment of the ombudsman to take on a public dunking? I have colleagues from around the world who called up and said `What kind of banana republic is Ontario?"'

The next ombudsman should be given one 10-year term with no chance of reappointment and the hiring process should be much more open and transparent, said Marin.