Ontario unveils revamped child protection laws at Queen's Park

Ontario’s child welfare system will now put children front and centre when it comes to making decisions about their care, the government announced Thursday.

Recommendations from Katelynn Sampson inquest at heart of changes

Liberal MPP Michael Coteau tabled a private member's bill that was shot down in early May. (CBC)

Ontario's child welfare system will now put children front and centre when it comes to making decisions about their care, the government announced Thursday.

Michael Coteau, the Minister of Children and Youth Services, unveiled the new Child, Youth and Family Services Act at Queen's Park and told reporters it still "baffles" him that a system is in place where children don't get a say in their care.

Coteau called the proposed legislation "the biggest game-changer in child protection in decades."

The government has been reworking the laws in part to incorporate more than 170 recommendations that came from the inquest into the death of Katelynn Sampson, a 7-year-old who was killed by her legal guardian and another man in 2008.

If passed, the new legislation will replace the Child and Family Services Act, which has been in place since 1985.

The bill features several major changes to child protection laws, including:

  • Increasing the age of protection from 16 to 18
  • Ensuring more culturally appropriate services, particularly for Indigenous and black children and youth
  • Improving the oversight of service providers, including children's aid societies

Coteau said several changes could have an immediate impact. Changing the age of protection, for example, could help some 1,600 youths avoid dangerous situations like homelessness or human trafficking in the first year.

There's also a renewed focus on keeping Indigenous children safe, while respecting their culture. Coteau said that means, as much as possible, keeping children in their home communities.

"When you have a child removed from a community it creates anxiousness among the family. People are left heartbroken," Coteau said, adding he finds it "unacceptable" that some children lose contact with the place where they were born.

"As much and as often as possible, we will honour the traditions of Indigenous communities … keeping children close to home and close to what they're familiar with."

Legislation builds on recommended changes

Ontario's government is implementing some of the recommendations from the inquest into Katelynn Sampson's death in its new laws.
According to the province, the 38 children's aid societies and wellbeing services operating in Ontario helped some 113,000 families in 2015, even though the average number of children in care is down by 19 per cent since 2009.

NDP child and youth services critic Monique Taylor already tabled a private member's bill in November, dubbed Katelynn's Principle, which urged the province to recognize children as individuals.

Coteau said the plans are consistent with Katelynn's Principle and even build upon them.

The new legislation affirms the rights of children receiving protective services, and it will be made clear to children that they have a say in what happens to them.

The act says there will be "clear expectations" about how service providers work with children.

The government plans to set up a group of experts from the child welfare field to help implement the new legislation. Coteau said he expects youth who have experience with childcare will be involved in the committee work as well.