Ottawa

Cutting child welfare post 'outrageous,' advocate says

The provincial government's move Thursday to close the office for Ontario's children's advocate has some people working in the sector, including the outgoing advocate himself, concerned.

'When children have no voice, they are rendered invisible, and when they're invisible, bad things can happen'

Rachel Gouin, executive director of the Child Welfare League of Canada, said the government is making a mistake by cutting the Ontario children's advocate office. (CBC)

The provincial government's move Thursday to close the office for Ontario's children's advocate has some people working in the sector, including the outgoing advocate himself, concerned.

In Thursday's fiscal update, the government announced the work of the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth would be rolled into other departments, along with two other legislative watchdogs.

The advocate serves as an independent watchdog to investigate ill-treatment of children in the child welfare system and to review government policy and practice around services to children.

The position has been held by Irwin Elman since 2008, and before Thursday's announcement he was already due to leave his post Nov. 25, following his two terms as advocate.

The office's mandate includes providing a voice for Indigenous children, those with special needs, and more.

Rachel Gouin, executive director of the Child Welfare League of Canada, called the cut a tremendous disappointment, saying children in the foster care system and the youth criminal justice system need someone looking out for their interests.

"They need somebody to stand up for them and if we remove that voice it's a very difficult system to find your way in," she said during an interview on CBC News Ottawa at 6 on Thursday.  

Trust built

There isn't an easy alternative for youth who are struggling in the system, Gouin said.

"You would be surprised to see how many young people find they don't have anybody they can call on and the children's advocate was set up to listen and amplify the voices of young people."

Gouin said the advocate has been established as a voice and removing the office now doesn't make sense.

"There is a trust that has been built over the years, they have existed since 2007, and that trust is difficult to build," she said. "I would have looked elsewhere to make cuts."

Irwin Elman was due to leave his post as Ontario's children's advocate on Nov. 25, after serving two five-year terms. (CBC)

'Bad things can happen'

Elman, who found out about the cut in the news, called the decision "completely outrageous."

"When children have no voice, they are rendered invisible, and when they're invisible, bad things can happen," Elman told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Friday.

"They're going to say that children can phone the ombudsman, who is not an advocate, who will not go out and see them, whose staff have no special expertise in how to work with children or young people.

"An ombudsman tries, frankly, tries to make sure that government does what it says it's going to do. It doesn't stand with the young person.... An ombudsman's job is to try and listen to both sides and be impartial. A child's advocate's job is to stand with children. In Ontario, there will no longer be somebody."

In particular, the act governing Ontario's ombudsman and its latest amendment don't mention anything about educating children about their rights or reviewing child deaths in group homes, Elman said.

The ombudsman also won't receive notifications every time a child in "some kind of government care" experiences serious injury or bodily harm, he added.