Ontario’s child welfare system is so rule-bound it regulates the bath temperature and the size of a bedroom window in foster homes. Yet there is no tangible evidence that these regulations, the hundreds of other rules and all the accompanying paperwork achieve the one goal that really matters: ensuring children are happy, healthy and getting the care they need.
Similarly, Children’s Aid Societies are well-funded to apprehend and put children in foster care and group homes. But, they are not adequately funded to do the harder, time-consuming work for what are often better options for kids: helping them safely stay with their families or finding them permanent homes through adoption and kinship care.
A commission set up by Children’s Minister Laurel Broten to provide advice on making CASs more financially sustainable has recommended a new way of doing business. It deserves attention.
The report calls for a “shift away from a focus on compliance against standards to a focus on outcomes for children,” and an end to a funding formula that creates “perverse incentives” that can “discourage good performance.”
These changes and others are desperately needed. After decades of political tinkering with our child welfare system, we’re still largely failing these vulnerable children. Crown wards are much less likely to graduate from high school and much more likely to rely on social assistance as adults than children raised in stable families.
The commission was born out of a crisis last year, when many of Ontario’s 53 CASs could not make ends meet and the government balked at topping up budgets. (Costs have nearly tripled over the last decade to $1.4 billion.) What they have come back with, though, is not a series of budgets cuts but a welcome vision for a system that would put the needs of children first. That, ultimately, should reduce costs and, more importantly, improve outcomes for children.
Over the next two years, the commission will produce detailed recommendations to make a child-centred system a reality. Then, it will be up to the province to implement it. So far, the government’s response has been encouraging. When the report was released last week, Broten said her ministry would take immediate action to reduce duplication and unnecessary administrative requirements.
Right now, for example, multiple people often fill out reports on the same incident, and a child’s case worker may file several different types of reports on a single incident. The purpose of “serious occurrence reports” has become so clouded that some workers fill them in for matters as trivial as a scraped knee.
The administrative burden — that is, time spent doing things that do not protect children nor provide effective accountability — has grown to the point that the report estimates only 15 to 30 per cent of CAS staff time is spent on direct service to clients.
The commission’s goal is not to reduce oversight in the child welfare sector but to create mechanisms that are “appropriate, focused and usable.” In doing so, though, great care must be taken to ensure our most vulnerable children do not fall through the cracks.
What we want to know is how kids are doing. Are they safe and are they improving? And, we need a system that spends public dollars in ways that make sure those answers are yes. The commission’s first report solidly sets us on that path.