Outgoing child advocate asks province to 'amplify' voices of most vulnerable children

"I have a lot of pride in what this amazing group of staff and an incredible group of thousands of young people did and built for the province," says Irwin Elman, whose last day on the job is Friday.

Friday marks the last day Ontario will have an independent child and youth advocate

Irwin Elman, Ontario's outgoing independent advocate for children and youth, says he has "worry and concern" that the province's most vulnerable children will be affected most once his office is closed. (Submitted by Irwin Elman)

On his last day as Ontario's child and youth advocate, Irwin Elman says he's proud of the work his office has done but that he fears what its closure means for the province's most vulnerable children. 

"I have a lot of pride in what this amazing group of staff and an incredible group of thousands of young people did and built for the province," Elman said in an interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Friday.

"They've influenced the province and no decision of government can change that."

The Progressive Conservative government announced last November that it would close Elman's office and, as of May 1, fold its duties into those of the ministry of children, community and social services and the province's ombudsman. 

Elman says he's been dealing with a barrage of emotions since, including anger, worry and concern for the children and youth of Ontario moving forward. 

Elman, who was appointed in 2008, was Ontario's first independent child advocate, a position that continues to exist in various forms in most other provinces. 

Just days after he took on the role, seven-year-old Katelynn Sampson was murdered. Sampson went into septic shock after a period of prolonged physical abuse at the hands of her drug-addicted legal guardians, a coroner's inquest found. The young girl had 70 wounds to her body when she died.

Elman says her death made him realize that the ultimate purpose of his job was to give a voice to "invisible" children within the child welfare system — youth he says are too often regarded by bureaucrats and society as a "nuisance."

Throughout his tenure, Elman pushed for policies that centre the needs of those children.

"That means talking to the children first, and then figuring out what we need to do," he explains. 

While the province has made progress on that front, Elman believes the closure of his office is a "lost opportunity" to continue building on that work.

Government insists cutting role won't put children at risk

The government maintains that no children will fall between the cracks as a result of its decision to scrap an independent advocate. But critics point out that the ombudsman does not have the same expertise as the child and youth advocate, and also has a limited authority to investigate specific cases.

The ministry can also chose to keep any of its own investigation results from the public, critics say.

Elman points to a report published by Manitoba's Advocate for Children and Youth earlier this month on the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine as an example of the kind of important work that will be lost once his office is gone.

The Ontario ombudsman is also not notified when children in the care of the province die, while the coroner has limited resources to launch inquests, Elman adds, and neither of those roles include advocacy work.

Elman says one of his lingering concerns is that children who die while in the child welfare system in Ontario will "go behind closed doors again." 

Still, Elman says the children of Ontario "continue to give me hope that things will be okay, because they will lead us."

As for a parting message for the adults of the province? "Listen to children, find opportunities to amplify their voice."