Queen's Park is "stonewalling" the provincial child advocate in his bid to get more information about 90 children in Ontario's child welfare system who died in 2007, says New Democratic Party Leader Howard Hampton.
"We are talking about children under the control of children's aid societies. These are troubled children, vulnerable children who are dying," Hampton said in the wake of Irwin Elman's annual report to the Legislature yesterday, which highlighted the deaths.
"As he says in his report, the government is stonewalling him, making it difficult for him to do his job," Hampton said.
Elman, who became the province's first independent child advocate last summer, said the government's refusal to share detailed information about the deaths with his office limits his ability to act.
"I'm not talking about doing investigations," he said yesterday. "I'm talking about having the information about my children and youth so I know what's going on with them."
He said he will "vigorously pursue" the issue by proposing an amendment to the provincial Coroner's Act to give him full access to all reports concerning the death of children and youth involved in the child welfare system.
In his report, Elman notes that the 90 deaths represent less than a quarter of all children who died in the province in 2007 and are a fraction of the 26,260 open cases of children's aid societies. But the number of deaths is "too high by any standard."
A sombre Premier Dalton McGuinty said the deaths are "troubling."
"If we lose just one child in care that's an issue. That's a cause for concern for all of us," the premier told reporters. "We need to better understand their particular challenges and to make sure that they are not just surviving but are in fact thriving."
In the Legislature, opposition members hammered Children and Youth Services Minister Deb Matthews for blocking Elman's access to detailed reports from children's aid societies, police and others in contact with a child before a death that are routinely submitted to the chief coroner's Pediatric Death Review Committee for review and analysis.
"You have decided that these reports must remain secret for privacy reasons," said Conservative MPP Julia Munro (York-Simcoe). "Minister, why won't you let the advocate receive these reports on children who have died so he can use them to help those still in peril?"
Matthews said the coroner has a detailed process of reviewing all child deaths, including those who have open files with children's aid societies or who had died within one year of their files being closed.
"When the coroner recommends that changes be made, we make those changes," she said.
In an interview, Matthews said her ministry "fully supports the child advocate" and has drafted a protocol to ensure Elman's office gets information he requests about children currently in the system within 10 days. But she refused to comment on possible changes to the Coroner's Act because it's not within her mandate.
A spokesperson for Community Safety Minister Rick Bartolucci, whose ministry oversees the act, said the chief coroner's office has met several times with Elman to discuss the matter and is trying to work out privacy concerns.
Children's aid societies say they are leery of the child advocate gaining access to detailed information about deaths of children in the system.
"The issue of children who have died I think is clearly and extensively covered by the role of the coroner's office," said Virginia Rowden, director of social policy for the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies which represents 51 of the province's 53 CASs.
Mary McConville, executive director of the Toronto Catholic Children's Aid Society, said "the issues of privacy and access to information are very complex.
"The death review process was not designed to make that detailed case information pubic to anybody except the people who sit on the (committee) itself," she said.
But David Rivard, head of the Children's Aid Society of Toronto, said he doesn't object to Elman seeing the files as long as he doesn't set up a parallel review system.
The National Youth in Care Network, which for 24 years has been
representing current and former youth in the care of children's aid
societies across the country, welcomed Elman's report for speaking out about
the deaths and for calling on the government to ensure the voices of those
children are heard.
With files from Robert Benzie