Toronto

Auditor general identifies 'gaps' in child welfare system

Ontario’s 47 Children’s Aid Societies are too slow to investigate allegations of abuse and far too often fail to perform basic background checks on the people involved in the care of vulnerable children, the province’s auditor general said in her latest report, issued on Wednesday.

Child-protection investigations, mandated to take 30 days, stretch as long as seven months: report

Mary Ballantyne, CEO of the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, says her agency will try to replicate the auditor general's findings. (CBC News)

Ontario's 47 Children's Aid Societies are too slow to investigate allegations of abuse and far too often fail to perform basic background checks on the people involved in the care of vulnerable children, the province's auditor general said in her latest report, issued on Wednesday.

According to Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, not one of the child-protection investigations her office reviewed was done within the required 30 days. Instead, the cases took an average of more than seven months.

On the issue of background checks, the Ontario Child Abuse Register was not checked by CAS in more than half of the abuse cases Lysyk reviewed.   

"These checks are important because they help assess the level of threat to the child's safety," Lysyk wrote in her report. She went on to cite the 2002 death of Jeffrey Baldwin, malnourished and neglected by his grandparents, both of whom had prior records of child abuse.

"Such gaps in conducting child-protection history checks may still exist 13 years after the death of Jeffrey Baldwin," Lysyk wrote.

Tracy MacCharles, minister of children and youth services, said Wednesday that a failure to check the child abuse registry "is extremely troubling to me and it's completely unacceptable."

Her office has issued directives to CAS agencies to ensure they follow that protocol, she said, and her office will issue another directive in the coming days.

"That is an expectation by legislation, it is an expectation by me, it's an expectation by Ontarians that we do absolutely everything we can do to protect the wellbeing of children in care," MacCharles told CBC News.

Mary Ballantyne, chief executive officer of the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, said her organization's first order of business will be to try to replicate Lysyk's observations and findings and determine where any problems lie.

"Seven months is too long" for an investigation, Ballantyne acknowledged Wednesday, but said that in some cases, 30 days is not enough time to complete what could be a complex probe.

In child welfare, "the goal is to make good decisions in a timely manner," Ballantyne told CBC News. "And sometimes that timely manner isn't within the regulated timeframes. However, we want to make the right decisions, so that is what we'll be going back to look at."

She noted that because every case is different, child welfare "is a very complex system."

However, after the inquest into Baldwin's death, many new processes and standards were put in place. For instance, background records are checked for any family member that might end up caring for a child in the system.

"Before he died, those standards weren't in place," Ballantyne said.

In addition, new processes were established to ensure better communication as families move between agencies.

"So, much has been done to ensure those kinds of things don't happen in the future as they have in the past," Ballantyne said. "Can there be a guarantee that all of the processes are always going to be there? We may never get there. But certainly (there's been) lots of improvement and lots of change since Jeffrey's death."

Resource crunch

Lysyk also chastised the government for failing to make sure that every CAS acted on the recommendations of probes into children's deaths.

Ballantyne noted that her agency is working with the province to access the resources they need to meet new regulatory guidelines and processes.

"Certainly, over the last few years, there hasn't been an increase to the envelope for child welfare, but there has been an increase in expectation," Ballantyne said.

"And also that money, in some communities they have more resources available to them than others, and in some communities they are struggling in order to balance their budgets and meet the obligations that they need to meet."

MacCharles said Wednesday that more than 80 per cent of CAS agencies are balancing their budgets, and those that have had challenges are receiving additional government support.

Meanwhile, Lysyk also noted that the government's IT system to link Children's Aid Society files together, the Child Protection Information Network, is four years behind schedule and $50 million over budget. It was supposed to be in use at all 47 CAS agencies by now; instead the auditor said it's only being used by five.   

Ballantyne acknowledged that the new system is rolling out more slowly than anticipated, and expressed concern that resources agencies must use to implement it are being taken away from front-line case work.

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