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Opinion Axing Ontario’s child advocate puts our most vulnerable kids at even greater risk

Suzan Fraser is a Toronto-based lawyer who advocates for children’s rights

The Ontario government came out swinging at the province’s most vulnerable in its fall economic statement. In it, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli announced the end of Ontario’s child advocate, a development that will put children at risk. It is the worst kind of politics – cuts for the sake of cuts with no regard for children – sacrificing them on the altar of financial efficiency.

Ontario had the first child advocacy office in Canada, created in 1978, the International Year of the Child. It received its first legislated mandate in 1984, under section 102 of the then-Child and Family Services Act, a change introduced under the Bill Davis government.

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Now there are legislated child advocate offices across Canada whose staff are specially trained to speak and work with young people subjected to our service systems (child welfare, provincial and demonstration schools, youth justice). The children that the advocacy offices serve are often out of view of the public, and they need help to advocate for their rights – rights that often ensure their safety and humanity.

Children and youth living in residential care are particularly vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment because they are isolated from their natural advocates such as parents and other relatives, and because the facilities in which they live are often isolated from the community. Depending on the type of residential care facility, some children and youth are made more vulnerable because they are stigmatized (for example, young offenders in custody and young people in mental health facilities) or because of disability (young people who are blind or deaf, or who are developmentally disabled).

This vulnerability is exacerbated by the difficulty children and youth in care experience when attempting to report or complain about inappropriate treatment. Many children and youth report concerns of reprisals and a climate of fear and intimidation in residential care facilities. Also, children and youth report that they are deterred in reporting or complaining about abuse and mistreatment because of a perception that complaint and reporting mechanisms – and the people responsible for them – are part of the same institutions and systems that permitted the abuse or mistreatment in the first place.

In 2003, a ground-breaking report, It’s Time to Break the Silence by Matthew Geigen-Miller for Defence for Children – International Canada, launched a movement to make the child advocate independent and directly responsible to the Legislature as a whole. The report detailed concerns from the inquest into the death of Stephanie Jobin, who died when group-home staff held her down with a bean-bag chair. The jury heard that at the time, the actions by the then-government prevented the child advocate from putting up posters in group homes, telling children of their rights, and how to contact the child advocate. This in turn became the subject of debate in the Ontario Legislature.

In 2007, the inquest into the custodial death of a young First Nations man from Sachigo Lake recommended a new independent advocate have an office in Northern Ontario. When the Liberal government finally introduced the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Act, 2007, Lisa MacLeod, the then-opposition critic for Children and Youth Services and presently our Children’s Minister, criticized the government of the day for not going far and fast enough.

In her remarks in 2007, Ms. MacLeod gave credit where credit was due. She called Premier Davis a visionary and said he was “ahead of his time” when he saw “a government body which would bring together expertise in the areas of child welfare, children’s mental health, developmental disability, youth justice, education, health, family treatment and children rights in order to best serve Ontario’s children.” Ms. MacLeod went further: “Because of Bill Davis’s vision and leadership, Ontario’s child advocate became a model for governments across this country, and our chief advocates, Les Horne and Judy Finlay, have set the standard worldwide for effective advocacy on behalf of children everywhere."

So this recent announcement is an about-face for Minister MacLeod and the Ontario government.

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Since being granted independence, the child advocate’s powers expanded, with all party support. The child advocate now has powers of investigation. More importantly, the child advocate has built an impressive advocacy office, trusted by children and youth and the people working in the sector.

Now this government wants to tear it down, buried in a budget bill. The government doesn’t even have the courage to put the issue before the legislature in a standalone bill.

We can’t let it. As young people once told me, with the assistance of an advocate: “It’s time we were taken into account. We want a world fit for children, because a world fit for children is a world fit for everyone.”

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