Former youth advocate 'devastated' after Ontario cuts watchdog post for children

Judy Finlay says Ontario is taking away "one of the strongest safeguards" for young people.

Ford government announced elimination of child advocate office as it presented economic plan Thursday

Vic Fedeli, Ontario's minister of finance, tables the government's fall economic statement for 2018-2019 at Queen's Park in Toronto on Thursday, Nov. 15. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
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A former Ontario child advocate says she was "devastated" to learn that Premier Doug Ford's government was scrapping the province's child watchdog role. 

Judy Finlay, now an associate professor at Ryerson University's School of Child and Youth care, fears the move will increase the vulnerability of young people that the office had been advocating for.

Finlay was Ontario's child and youth advocate from 1991 to 2007, when the role was under the ministry. In 2008, Irwin Elman became Ontario's independent child advocate.

Three watchdog positions — environmental commissioner, French language services commissioner and the child advocate — are being eliminated as part of Premier Doug Ford's fall economic statement. The government says the work will be taken over by the auditor general's office and the ombudsman.

Children, Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod has said, "The fiercest child advocate in this province will be me."

Finlay spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of that conversation:

How did you react when you heard the announcement that the Ontario child advocate post was being scrapped?

Actually, I was quite devastated.  

We'd worked for many years to make this office independent and report to the legislature as opposed to reporting to a minister within the government.

The reason we did that was that there would be no conflict of interest, and there would be no ability to sort of undermine the role of the advocate — and here, this is exactly what's happening.

The Ford government has revealed some of its plans to help balance the books in Thursday's fall economic statement. We talk to Finance Minister Vic Fedeli about tax breaks, programs cuts and controversies. 9:18

The Ontario government says the duties will be taken by the ombudsman. Does that give you any confidence?

I have great respect for the ombudsman. But this is a child advocate's office.

When we talk about children and youth in particular, it takes special skills to be able to understand children developmentally — particularly really vulnerable children.

It takes knowledge and understanding and skill to be able to intervene with these young people.

Without that capacity — and that capacity is built over a long time as you can see with the child advocate's office ... it's really difficult to apply the same kind of standards, the same kind of practice, the same kind of skills that you would have when you work with adults.

When I started, quite frankly, it wasn't just a child advocate's office. I also was responsible for advocating for people who were on social welfare and … developmentally challenged people. That just consumed the office. There was no time or energy or resources directed at children.

My fear is that same thing will happen again.

Judy Finlay is a former child advocate in Ontario. (Submitted by Judy Finlay)

What is being lost, in your view, with not having an independent child advocate in this province?

The children that we're talking about, for the most part, are the most vulnerable children in the province. But also they're children that don't have a voice.

They're children that are in the care of the state in one kind of way. They largely don't live at home … so they don't have parents beside them advocating on their behalf.

We're taking away one of the strongest safeguards that we have for these young people. These vulnerable young people who usually have histories of trauma, usually don't have a voice, or have difficulty raising their voice — we're pulling that resource away from them.

It just increases their vulnerability from my perspective.

We know, we have seen, that young people in certain circumstances — where they don't have a voice or they don't have the opportunity to have someone speak on their behalf — they're highly at risk.

We've seen young people die in residential care. We've seen the deaths of Aboriginal youth in the north. We've seen all kinds of circumstances where it's really, really important to make sure that this safeguard is in place.

Why do you think Ontario is doing this?

Actually, I don't understand it at all.

When I was the advocate there was the same attempt to undermine the role of the advocate and to remove the powers and the authority of the advocate.

It's a political issue, from my perspective. And I think sometimes governments don't understand the importance of young people having a voice, having the ability to contribute to decisions being made about them, having the ability to participate in civil society — all of that.

When young people have rights and they understand their rights, they also understand the rights of others. And so, it's a two way street.

I think often adults, in particular, believe if we empower young people that somehow we're disempowering adults — and we're not at all.

This Q&A  has been edited for length and clarity. Written by Katie Geleff. Produced by Katie Geleff and Chris Harbord.

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