'Crisis' in Children's Aid over number of black children in care

Black children make up just 8 percent of Toronto's youth population, but they account for 41 percent of the young people in care with the city's Children's Aid Society (CAS).

The campaign to get Children's Aid to release race-based data

For years, Renu Mandhane has been working with students at the University of Toronto on human rights issues around the world. Today, she is shifting her focus, after being named Ontario's new Chief Human Rights Commissioner. (Metro Morning/CBC)

Black children make up just eight per cent of Toronto's youth population, but they account for 41 per cent of the young people in care with the city's Children's Aid Society (CAS).

That figure comes from the CAS itself, and it has prompted a series of conversations about what is going on in the city when it comes to black children.

That conversation is difficult to have, according to Renu Mendhane, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), without knowing exactly what is going on in the CAS. Mendhane is calling on the Ministry of Children and Youth Services to collect and release race-based data from across the province.

Mendhane thinks there are "elements of systemic and persistent discrimination at play," something the OHRC looks into regularly. However, the commission has never investigated the CAS for that issue.

'Crisis' in the CAS

Margaret Parsons of the African-Canadian Legal Aid Clinic has spoken out on the problem. She called the overrepresentation of black children in the CAS a "crisis" and talked about the effect it is having on black families. 

"I think that there is a deep distrust," she said of the CAS. "People are afraid to seek help, people are afraid to report legitimate cases where there might be child abuse in terms of seeking the involvement of the CAS, to work with the CAS."

Mendhane said that problem specifically can be diagnosed with more information.

"The commission is always looking for data-driven solutions," Mendhane told Metro Morning. She said the data could reveal "systemic discrimination that might not be obvious, overt or purposeful."

She believes there is a "rush to apprehend" children in black families, causing the community to mistrust the CAS.

She offered several reasons for that.

"They receive a certain amount of money for the children they take into care, which creates, in a way, a perverse incentive, rather than developing solutions so that children can maybe stay with extended family or in the community," she said of the overall funding formula of the CAS.

She also chalked it up to a misunderstanding.

"There's a tendency to equate poverty with neglect," she said. In racialized and Indigenous communities, barriers to the labour market can cause poverty and a lower living standard, which then look like neglect to social workers with CAS.

Race-based discomfort

Mendhane wants to see aggregated data about how a child makes his or her way through the system, from entering it to leaving it.

She thinks part of the reason the province's Children's Aid Society organizations have not been looking at this is that race can be a touchy subject.

"In many ways I think people are uncomfortable talking about race and race-based data," she said. "There is a deep discomfort about talking about race in a direct way."

But she said the fact that the affected societal groups — black and indigenous communities — appear to support releasing the data means it's a conversation we should be having.

The OHRC does have the legal power to compel the CAS to release the data under the Human Rights Code, but the question remains who is collecting the data, and how much information actually exists.

Before it gets to that, Mendhane is writing letters to CAS organizations across the province to ask for the data.