Thunder Bay

'No standard of care,' former Ontario child advocate says of foster care system in call for overhaul

Ontario's former child and youth advocate is making another call for the province to overhaul how it manages and legislates the child welfare system in the wake of an investigation into the conditions at three now-closed foster care homes in Thunder Bay.

Investigation into 3 Thunder Bay homes run by Toronto company found 'horrific' conditions

Irwin Elman is Ontario's now-former child and youth advocate. (CBC)

Ontario's former child and youth advocate is making another call for the province to overhaul how it manages and legislates the child welfare system in the wake of an investigation into the conditions at three now-closed foster care homes in Thunder Bay.

The investigation, launched in 2016, found that the homes, run by Johnson Children's Services, were unsanitary and inadequate, and that staff assigned by the company to them were at the very least least ill-equipped and not properly trained to provide care to young people with serious mental health issues and complex needs.

In an interview with CBC News, Elman said what his office found was "horrific."

"There are no standards of care in any residential care, any foster home in the province — none," he said. "That's something that's incredible but it's the truth."

The conditions for a home to be licensed don't focus on matching guardians and group home staff with appropriate training and experience to children with more serious issues, Elman said. His investigation found that the youth in the Johnson homes in Thunder Bay had "mental health challenges including self-harm, depression ... sexual assault trauma and substance abuse."

At best it comes down to "well-meaning, perhaps, group home workers or foster parents who just aren't prepared and supported for the young people that they're trying to support," he said.

There's no standards for who works in those homes-Irwin Elman , Ontario's former child advocate

"There's no standards for who works in those homes."

That, he said, is unacceptable, as these foster parents and staff are "working with, perhaps, the most vulnerable children and youth in our province."

"They've been taken for their own protection, somebody has told them as children 'we will support you, we will protect you, you're going to be OK,'" he continued.  "This is what they get."

Elman's report comes more than six months after a report by Ontario's chief coroner that examined the deaths of 12 young people while in the child welfare system; that report found many similar issues and effectively called for an overhaul of the system.  That's something Elman said he agrees with adding that the service providers and children's aid societies do too.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Lisa MacLeod, the minister of children, community and social services said that "clear lack of oversight and relaxed regulation that occurred under the previous government cannot and will not continue," and vowed to hold "Ontario's Children's Aid Societies and other service providers to higher standards to keep our kids safe."

"Service providers from all sectors are not saying any longer 'there's no problem,' they're saying there's a huge problem," Elman said. "They're saying we need to work together, young people are saying 'we want a place at the table.'"

MacLeod has announced the creation of three dedicated roundtables consisting of those with lived experience in fields of Indigenous child welfare, children in care and youth in custody. The "advocacy tables" will have "direct access to decision makers," according to a government announcement from November 2018.
Lisa MacLeod is Ontario's minister of children, community and social services. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

On May 1, in reaffirming announced changes that gave Elman's investigative powers to Ontario's ombudsman, the government reiterated the youth roundtables, saying the chairs will report directly to MacLeod and will "support transformation of the child welfare and youth justice systems."

The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services responded to Elman's investigation by saying it is developing new standards around licence inspections, screening and requiring foster care agencies to report when they open or close homes, as well as bettering oversight of placement agencies.

Officials also said a new electronic database to track licences and serious occurrence reports is being developed and is scheduled to come online in 2019, which should address many of the report's recommendations.

"I've often said you can't legislate love but you can legislate the conditions in which love can flourish," Elman said.

"Could the minister please turn her attention to that?"