A new funding formula for the 46 children’s aid societies in Ontario is raising fears that children who need protection won’t get it.
“There is a risk of the model having some unintended consequences,” says Mary Ballantyne, executive director of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies.
Some smaller societies with large geographic catchment areas are facing crunches. Others serving diverse populations may not see the increases they need to properly serve their communities.
Ballantyne says she is constantly reminding the Ontario government not to push too hard or too fast during this transition period. To do otherwise might destabilize some societies “such that kids may be at risk.”
Ontario’s child protection budget for the societies is capped at $1.46 billion, and a new formula disburses that money based on the volume of cases and demographics, including the number of children, low-income families, single-parent families and aboriginal residents in their catchment area.
Half the funding is based on volume and half on demographics.
The societies must sign “accountability agreements” promising to stay within budget. Ten societies with operating deficits have broken those agreements.
The Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, which oversees the societies, has the power to step in but senior bureaucrats say that option has not been used in the case of the 10.
Budget increases and decreases under the new formula are capped at 2 per cent a year. In areas like Peel Region, which scores high on the socio-economic side of the equation, it will take more than two decades of 2-per-cent increases before funding meets its socio-economic needs.
“We were delighted by the funding formula,” says Rav Bains, chief executive officer of Peel Children’s Aid Society. “We thought, wow, someone is listening to us; it’s about the community, it’s not volume driven.
“We thought Peel was going to get its fair share now. And then, bam, a 2-per-cent cap.”
The Toronto CAS will lose about $1 million in funding due to a statistical decrease in the number of single parents in its catchment area.
Ontario was forced to rein in spending on child protection after funding and budgets ballooned following high-profile cases in the late ’90s of child deaths in care. It resulted in a philosophy heavy on taking children from families.
Reforms in the mid-2000s tried to strike a better balance between protecting children and keeping families together. But children’s aid societies complain the ministry lectures them about “mandate drift” when they try to emphasize keeping families together, which often requires support to battle poverty, mental health and substance abuse.
Brant Family and Children’s Services, faced with a budget shortfall of $250,000 under the new funding formula, opted to shut down for three to five days instead of laying off staff.
Although no figures are available, there have been layoffs elsewhere.
In a “technical briefing” with top ministry bureaucrats, the Star was assured that the ministry had the means to step in and act if the funding issues placed any child at risk.
“If those issues were to be brought forward in some way, we would respond in kind,” said a senior ministry official.
The budgetary constraints are making less expensive options more attractive, and that may be better for children in the long run. Placing more children with family, for example, is less costly than foster care or group homes, which are also the least beneficial setting for a child.
The reporter on this story can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .