Meaghan Martin is a government-relations professional and president of the Child Welfare PAC.
Recently, I requested a copy of my file from the child welfare agency that raised me as a Crown ward. I was told that I could only get a summary of my child-in-care file, and a staff member explained that this would contain “sufficient information.”
After two months of waiting, I ultimately received a five-page summary of my involvement with the Children’s Aid from 1995 to 2003. Though my childhood had been reduced to five pages, I saw much more than what was written.
I saw an agency that did not provide me with information I believe I should have a right to access. I saw an agency that seemed like it was making paternalistic decisions about what I could learn about my own life. I saw notes that seemed to spin a more positive tale than what I remembered. It felt like all the agency cared about was protecting the identities of adults who were involved in my upbringing.
For example, content that would be unflattering to workers or foster parents didn’t appear in the summary. I scanned the pages for important details I recalled about my experience such as my repeated requests to be removed from a foster home family that openly said they took me in for the money and routinely sent me away monthly to other foster homes so they could have “family time” with their real children. I also had multiple meetings with staff members about my situation at the time.
None of this was in the summary.
This raises questions about whether anyone ever listened to my concerns, or if these concerns were ever recorded. When I asked the agency why I couldn’t have my full file, or at least a redacted one that protected the privacy of others mentioned in my documents, a staff member responded: “I believe a summary from your file will have sufficient information.”
Those who grow up in the foster care system get the short end of the stick again. Unfortunately, these problems are not new. Indigenous communities – especially those affected by the Sixties Scoop – have been requesting their recorded histories from the child protection sector and receiving less-than-substantial, inaccurate accounts of their time in the system.
But there’s more. There are few safeguards on who can access these records within the agency. I went to high school with some of the current employees of the same agency that holds my personal history. Thus, I’m left with the feeling that these people could have access to my entire childhood, with little more than the click of a button.
Imagine the possibility of the most traumatizing and painful parts of your life being accessible to people you grew up with, and having no power over the availability of that information. It leaves me feeling exposed and anxious at the thought of whose hands my information could get into and how it could affect my future in a small community.
Why, as a former Crown ward and due to circumstances beyond my control, is my right to privacy less than that of juvenile offenders? Federal laws protect juvenile records by restricting access to them after a certain amount of time, depending on the offence committed, and rendering names unsearchable in any databases. Unfortunately for foster children, their files stay accessible and searchable for life. Unauthorized access is also difficult to catch. In a meeting with the Ontario Privacy Commissioner, Child Welfare PAC confirmed that access to files is only auditable if the file is formally edited – there is no electronic footprint when files are searched and accessed if no update and save has been made to the file.
With surprisingly little discussion around these issues, Child Welfare PAC has proposed some simple solutions. This legislative oversight can be easily remedied by sealing and archiving the files after a defined access period, and by giving Crown wards the choice of whether to expunge our names from the centralized software system once we leave care. In many ways, these concerns could be solved simply by having some respect for the lives and futures of the most vulnerable children in our society.