Irwin Elman, the independent advocate for children and youth, releases his first annual report Feb. 23, 2009. In it, he vows to find out why 90 kids in our welfare system died in 2007 — and promises to listen to children and youth.
Irwin Elman was just weeks into his job as the province's first independent child advocate last summer when Toronto was rocked by the murder of 7-year-old Katelynn Sampson, allegedly at the hands of her legal guardian.
A week later, a reporter from Kenora called him about a First Nations youth in care who had committed suicide.
When Elman later discovered through the chief coroner's office that 90 children and youth involved in the child welfare system had died in the previous year, he was overwhelmed.
"The gift of Katelynn was that she said: `Wake up. This is where you're at,'" says the 51-year-old former high school teacher from Ottawa who has spent most of his career working in Toronto's child welfare system.
Elman figures he has met between 5,000 and 6,000 youth in care during the 20 years he spent building and running the Pape Adolescent Resource Centre, a community centre of sorts for Crown wards and youth in foster care that prepares them to make the transition to independence.
The internationally acclaimed program encourages youth to mentor their younger peers, lead groups and speak about their experiences to child welfare staff, schools and politicians.
In 2006, the centre was awarded the $50,000 Ruth Atkinson Hindmarsh Award for its work. Charles Pascal, head of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation (established by former Star publisher Joseph Atkinson), says the centre, under Elman's leadership, was "magical."
"The real relationships that Irwin's unassuming nature offered these kids was really impressive," he says.
Judy Finlay, who was child advocate for 16 years when the office was an arm of the government under several different ministries, says Elman's ability to connect with children and youth is "one of his greatest strengths and gifts."
It's "exactly" what the new office, created in August 2007 under new legislation, needs, she says.
"Young people view him very much as a role model," Finlay says. "We say that advocacy isn't a skill or a tool, it's a lifestyle. And Irwin lives that lifestyle."
Elman, who became a father for the first time four years ago to an energetic boy who loves Power Rangers, dancing and playing hockey, is anxious to make the voice of children and youth central to his office and everything it does.
But first, he says, he needs to deal with the deaths.
"I actually felt if I didn't say something about it, six months from now people could say: You knew about this and you didn't say anything?" he says.
"Saying it in the annual report sets the tone," Elman says. "It's not about blame. It's about bringing people together and saying, yes, we need to think about kids in our systems more. And we need to figure out how to do more together to help them."