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Jeffrey's legacy is whatever we can learn Add to ...

Jeffrey Baldwin should not have died. It is always a tragedy when any child is hurt or dies, and it is particularly heart-rending in this case because members of Jeffrey's own family have been charged in his death. It is also clear there were some terrible errors made in the child-welfare system.

It is the role of others -- the courts in particular -- to assign responsibility for Jeffrey's death. I hope they act swiftly and with the full weight of the law. But for those in the child-welfare field, and for concerned citizens in general, the priority must be to look closely at what each of us can do to prevent future tragedies.

The Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies believes that Jeffrey's tragic story provides the impetus for the child-welfare field to examine its practices and make changes to the system in collaboration with the Ontario government.

Much has changed since Jeffrey's death in 2002, and more changes are required. Here are some of the critical areas:

Mandatory training in forensic investigations for children's aid workers, in collaboration with police. One of the best ways to protect children is to have qualified, highly trained staff who are experts in conducting child-protection investigations. There are hundreds of such people in Ontario who have had the opportunity to receive state-of-the art training, including training in forensic investigation.

While forensic investigative training is now used widely, it is neither mandatory nor included in the training for new workers. We believe changes that would make such training mandatory at or near the beginning of a worker's tenure would greatly enhance the system's capacity to protect children.

Some say the job of conducting investigations should belong to the police, given their experience in dealing with criminals; others defend the role of the Children's Aid Society worker, who is trained to understand children's needs. Both views are valid: Investigations must be a shared responsibility. The pooled knowledge and different skill sets of a police officer and a child- protection worker investigating jointly provides the best protection for children.

Across the province, Children's Aid Societies and police services have protocols in place to govern joint investigations by defining the roles and responsibilities of each organization. Even more joint training of CAS workers and police in child-protection investigations would be the best way to fill a serious gap in our system.

Enhancing the coroner's role in reviewing and reporting on child deaths. When a child is harmed or dies under questionable circumstances, or as the result of maltreatment, there are extensive reporting procedures, including a review by the Office of the Chief Coroner and its multidisciplinary pediatric death review committee.

Unfortunately, the information from child death reviews is not regularly available. No analysis or interpretation of the reviews is provided except to individual CASs that are involved. If the coroner's office were to receive sufficient resources to publish this information on an annual basis, the system could learn valuable lessons that would enhance its capacity to protect children.

Passing kinship care legislation. The unfortunate reality is that the high standards that have been applied for years to foster care have not applied to kinship care -- that is, when a vulnerable child is placed in the custody of a relative. We believe the same rigorous standards that apply to foster care should apply to kinship care, too.

The government is listening. Ontario has recently introduced a wide array of initiatives designed to build the capacity of the child-welfare system. They include amendments to the Child and Family Services Act, policies around kinship care, new assessment and planning tools and a new funding model.

Workload relief for CAS staff. Children's Aid workers in Ontario conduct more than 82,000 investigations a year and provide in-care services for more than 30,000 children. Children's Aid Societies operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Child welfare is a highly regulated sector -- as it should be. CASs are subject to 16 different review mechanisms within the Child and Family Services Act. Each CAS is accountable to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, which reviews its performance. CASs are also accountable to the courts and overseen by boards of directors that represent the communities in which they serve.

In this complex environment and with this huge workload, the demands on workers can be overwhelming. It is critical that sufficient resources be put in place to enable them to fulfill their vital mission. Ontario's most vulnerable children deserve no less.

The responsibility to report: raising public awareness. Even with all these changes, our biggest ally in the fight to protect children is the public. Each and every one of us has a responsibility to report any circumstances in which we suspect a child is -- or may be -- at risk of harm.

Children's Aid workers are dedicated to child welfare. They are equipped to respond around the clock, and when they get a call, they respond very quickly. They have been protecting Ontario's most vulnerable citizens, its children, for more than 100 years.

But there are limits to what these workers can do. In a society that still has serious social challenges and too much violence directed at children, CAS workers need help. That is why a child's family, friends, neighbours and the general public must be the eyes and ears of the child-welfare community.

Even as society brings those responsible for Jeffrey's death to account, there is a broader challenge -- and there are larger lessons we must all learn. By making the right changes today, we can prevent countless tragedies tomorrow.

Jeanette Lewis is executive director of the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies.

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