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Blueprint for Fundamental Change to Ontario’s Child Welfare System

Final Report of the Youth Leaving Care Working Group
January 2013

INTRODUCTION

In July 2012 the Youth Leaving Care Working Group was established by the Minister of Children and Youth Services in conjunction with the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth. Its mandate was to act on the first recommendation of My REAL Life Book – Report of the Youth Leaving Care Hearings1, which was received by the Provincial Legislature in May 2012. Recommendation 1 states:

1My REAL Life Book: Report from the Youth Leaving Care Hearings. Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth May 2012

The province of Ontario should recognize that the current system needs to fundamentally change to better prepare young people in care to succeed. To this end, the province should work with young people in and from care and other stakeholders to complete an Action Plan for Fundamental Change by November 2012.


The Working Group included nine youth in and from care and seven community representatives from across the province. The youth represented a range of places, identities and experiences from within the child welfare system; all had participated in the hearings and/or related youth processes. The community representatives were from a wide range of youth-serving organizations including children’s aid societies, mentoring organizations and counselling agencies. In addition there were observers from the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies and the Association of Native Child and Family Services Agencies of Ontario. The group met 11 times between July 30th, 2012 and January 4th, 2013. A list of members and observers is included as Appendix A.

Working Group members were given the responsibility of building a plan for fundamental change to the child welfare system on behalf of children and youth across Ontario. Members worked with passion and dedication to do justice to this task.

The group was conscious of the importance of respecting the various ages, locations, cultures, identities, sexual orientations, abilities and experiences of children and youth in and from care across the province. It consistently considered who was not reflected in each discussion and how to include them in the recommendations.

The Working Group did not rely only on the experience of its own membership. It was informed by My REAL Life Book and all the consultation that went into that process. It had input from government and agency observers who were asked to provide further information and a continuous flow of support from ministry staff from the Child Welfare Secretariat. Members also sought feedback from individuals and organizations across the province on an earlier draft of the recommendations. A list of these individuals and organizations is included as Appendix B.

The Working Group considered the input from all of these sources and developed recommendations that would lead to fundamental change. As part of its mandate, the Working Group has provided advice on the relative priority of these changes to the ministry.

The Working Group's mandate was to develop an action plan, or "Blueprint for Fundamental Change." This report contains the Working Group's recommendations to the ministry about what should be involved in that change.

Addressing the Needs of Aboriginal Youth

The Working Group acknowledged from the outset that First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and youth in care, particularly those coming from on-reserve communities, continue to face distinct and in many cases extreme challenges in housing, health, education and access to culturally-appropriate services and supports. It recognized that the development of recommendations for these children and youth needed to be considered in relation to the broader issues and inequities faced by their communities. Given this, it was clear that the Working Group could not do justice to its mandate in this area.

The Working Group therefore recommends that the ministry immediately implement a separate process in partnership with youth, relevant organizations and leadership from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities to identify issues, develop recommendations and produce a separate action plan for fundamental change.

Why Change is Needed

The youth who shared their stories at the Our Voice Our Turn Hearings spoke powerfully about the challenges faced by children and youth in and from care. My REAL Life Book captured these voices from across the province. Youth members on the Working Group confirmed through their own experiences and those of their peers that, while there are many committed workers, effective agencies and positive initiatives under way across the province, there are policies that need to change, and inconsistencies in practices that require urgent attention.

Statistics support their stories: many children and youth in and from care struggle compared to other Ontario youth. Only 44 per cent of youth in and from care graduate from high school compared to 82 per cent of Ontario youth. Youth in and from care are over-represented in the youth justice system and more likely to experience homelessness. Aboriginal children and youth in care often face additional challenges, and are more likely to come into contact with the child welfare system in the first place: although only 2 per cent of Ontario's population is Aboriginal, Aboriginal children and youth make up 22 per cent of Ontario's Crown wards.2

2Statistics collected in My REAL Life Book: Report from the Youth Leaving Care Hearings. Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth May 2012, p 33.

To underscore the need for change, youth members identified links between their recommendations and the articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.3 The Working Group as a whole agreed to the importance of acknowledging these links as further evidence of the urgency of the requirement for fundamental change in Ontario's child welfare system and recommends that the spirit of the Convention be followed as the Blueprint is implemented. A summary of key articles from the Convention is included as Appendix C.

3See United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc.htm.

How the Blueprint is Organized

The Working Group was established to build on the goals and recommendations from My REAL Life Book to prepare an action plan that included strategies, timeframes, and the relevant parties required for implementation. The Working Group recognized that it would be the responsibility of the ministry, working with other ministries, children's aid societies, youth and a wide range of other community stakeholders to implement the Blueprint. It therefore focused on naming the areas of the child welfare system that needed to change and on providing guidance to the ministry on the critical components of that change. The Blueprint can be seen as a map that shows the destinations; the ministry's task, with its partners, is to choose the right vehicles to reach those destinations.

The Blueprint is organized under the following themes:


Recommendations are organized into short-term (1-3 years), medium-term (4-6 years) and long-term (7-10 years) time frames. These time frames recognize that while some recommendations are relatively straightforward to implement, others will require additional consultation, development of new policies, processes, or partnerships, and in some cases may require legislative change.

The Working Group believes that these themes and recommendations are all necessary areas for change and must be acted on together. To be successful, the child welfare system must allow every young person in and leaving care, no matter where they are, who they are, or what their circumstances are, the best possible opportunity to achieve their potential.

The Scope of Work

The Working Group's mandate was to develop a blueprint for fundamental change to the child welfare system that built on the recommendations of My REAL Life Book. From the beginning, the Working Group was aware that, in order to complete the Blueprint on time and within its Terms of Reference, there were areas that it would not be able to cover and population groups whose needs and issues they would not be able to address sufficiently. The recommendation above relating to Aboriginal youth is a prime example. Limitations to the scope of the work are noted below, with the recommendation that the ministry and the reader take them into account as they read the Blueprint.

The Fiscal Situation
In recognition of Ontario's current economic reality, the Working Group was asked to work within the Ministry of Children and Youth Services' fiscal allocation. However, some of the key recommendations from My REAL Life Book and others that emerged in discussion were considered too central to the wellbeing of children and youth in and from care to omit, despite having significant financial implications. The Working Group balanced the urgency for system change against financial constraint in the following ways:


The Complexity and Range of Experiences of Children and Youth in and From Care
The Working Group realized that the complexity of the child welfare system and the variety of experiences of young people in and from care meant that they could not examine every issue. While the Blueprint identifies many of the most pressing issues and recommends actions, it does not address all aspects of care or the experiences of all children and youth.

In particular, the Working Group found that many youth in and from care expressed concerns about their experiences in group care. The Working Group came to believe that the group care system, and the policies and practices across the various kinds of group care settings, in many cases did not support the best outcomes for youth. While many group care providers offer high quality care, during the hearings and while seeking feedback on the draft blueprint, the Working Group heard about inconsistencies in what was available to youth in group care and how it was offered. There was not the opportunity in this process to explore fully how the group care system could be improved to meet the needs of children and youth more effectively. As a result, the Working Group recommends that the group care system be evaluated to make sure that it focuses on the best outcomes for youth, starting with a process that listens to the voices of youth in and from group care.

Implementation
To provide the ministry with the fullest picture of the changes necessary in child welfare, the working group focused on what needed to change, not how to change it. The creation of specific implementation plans has been left to the ministry, to be guided by the discussions and recommendations of the Working Group and input from relevant stakeholders.

Despite the Working Group's efforts at representing the diversity of youth in and from care in the development of the Blueprint, many initiatives will require consultation with youth and other stakeholders before they can be implemented. Few issues have one-size-fits-all solutions that address such matters as the diversity of language, race, culture, health, sexual orientation and identity, physical and/or intellectual ability, regional differences and immigration status. The Working Group recommends that implementation of the Blueprint includes consultation with stakeholders who reflect the range of children and youth in and from care and their circumstances, as well as the key organizations and systems that work with them.

Additional Considerations

Some specific areas that the reader is asked to consider in reviewing this document are:

Asset-Based/Strengths-Based Approach
The Working Group was committed to an asset-based approach to developing solutions for all children and youth. It focused on assets and abilities, seeing “problem behaviour” as a shared responsibility between youth and caregivers. This approach avoids the risk of reinforcing negative assumptions about people's abilities and motivation. The Blueprint attempts to build on the strengths and potential of every child and youth and to recommend changes to the child welfare system from a place of trust and respect.

The Working Group also recognized that there is a risk when focusing on “what is wrong with the system” of failing to recognize the many positive examples of practice among staff, volunteers, programs, agencies and institutions across the province. Its approach was to identify the barriers that prevent these good practices from being applied consistently and to recommend strategies to integrate them throughout the system.

Anti-Oppression, Inclusion and Human Rights
The Working Group respected the principles of anti-oppression, a framework that recognizes that there are assumptions embedded in society that lead to exclusion, discrimination and denial of opportunity for many people. In the child welfare system and for youth leaving care in particular, this approach means consistently creating systems, programs and policies that are inclusive and that break down barriers to achievement. The Working Group strongly recommends that when working to find solutions, the ministry and its partners apply an anti-oppression framework to ensure that all groups who may be affected by each issue are included. The objective is to respect and support everyone's culture, race, identity and circumstance, and to address barriers to equitable inclusion in all aspects of community life.

Partnership
The areas of change identified in the Blueprint are not limited to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and children's aid societies. Some recommendations require collaboration with other ministries (Training, Colleges and Universities; Community and Social Services; Health and Long Term Care; Education; Community Safety and Correctional Services; and the Ministry of the Attorney General) and other child and youth-serving sectors. The Working Group expects the Ministry of Children and Youth Services to take the lead in bringing the relevant parties to the table and moving the agenda forward. The Blueprint also refers to the “broader community” to recognize the roles of all sectors that affect the lives of youth in and transitioning from care.

RELATIONSHIPS

Supportive, long-lasting relationships are critical to the success of children and youth in and from care. Children's aid societies, caregivers4, and the ministry5 need to commit to keeping children, youth and families as the central focus of their work and to provide them with guidance and support.

4"Caregiver" is used to refer to foster care, group care, kin and customary care providers.

5"The ministry" refers to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.

Short-Term Recommendations

It is essential and urgent that...


It is very important that...


EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT

Children and youth in and from care have a right to education. They need support to help them achieve their full educational potential from elementary school through to post-secondary education, training and employment.

Short-Term Recommendations

It is essential and urgent that...


6Section 23 classrooms are directly supported by the Ministry of Education to provide education to students whose needs are not best met in regular or special education settings.


Medium-Term Recommendations

It is essential and urgent that...


HEALTHY DEVELOPMENT

Children and youth in and from care need support to maximize their healthy physical, emotional, social and cultural development.

Short-Term Recommendations

It is essential and urgent that...


It is very important that...


TRANSITION SUPPORT

Youth in and from care require support to successfully transition to independent living.

Short-Term Recommendations

It is essential and urgent that...


It is very important that...


Medium-Term Recommendations

It would support fundamental change if...


YOUTH JUSTICE

Caregivers and workers need to help youth in and from care stay out of the youth justice system. The recommendations in the Blueprint are designed to improve the positive experiences and opportunities for youth in and from care and will serve as prevention strategies. If youth become involved in the justice system, however, they require support to prevent further involvement and to transition to successful adulthood.

Short-Term Recommendations

It is essential and urgent that....


GROUP CARE

Inconsistent practices across group care settings prevent some youth from receiving the supports and opportunities that they need to transition from care successfully. The Working Group sees the recommendations below as a starting point for positive change.

Short-Term Recommendations

It is essential and urgent that....


MINISTRY POLICY

Children and youth in and from care need child welfare policies that are responsive to their needs and promote the best outcomes.

Short-Term Recommendations

It is essential and urgent that...


It is very important that...


It is important that...


Long-Term Recommendations

It is essential and urgent that...


It would support fundamental change if...


NEXT STEPS

The Working Group sees this Blueprint as the starting point for the next stage of fundamental change to the child welfare system. These changes are necessary to support all children and youth in and from care. The Working Group recommends that as the ministry develops implementation plans, it continues to work with all relevant partners, including youth with diverse experiences in care, academic experts, partner ministries, community agencies and children's aid societies. The Working Group further recommends that ministry staff meet with Working Group members and observers quarterly to review progress on Blueprint implementation.

To address issues that need more attention than the current process could provide, it is essential and urgent that....


APPENDIX A – WORKING GROUP MEMBERSHIP

Members

Patricia Benson
Youth Member

Nancy Chamberlain
Executive Director, Thunder Bay Counselling Centre

Lisa Doran
Manager of Children and Youth Services, Family and Children's Services of the Waterloo Region

Jessica del Rosso
Youth Member, University of Waterloo Student and Peer Mentor Team Leader of Family and Children Services of the Waterloo Region

Cathy Denyer
President & CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto

Michele Farrugia
Youth Member

Thaile-Paige Dixon
Youth Member, Youth in Care, The Voyager Project

Rebecca Harris
Executive Director, Ontario Association of Residences Treating Youth

Stacey Lauridsen
Assistant Director, Community Services, The Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa

Brian Quinney
Youth Member, Former Youth in Care

Jesse Ranville
Youth Member

Juanito Jiggy Reyes
Youth Member

Mandy Richard
Youth Member, Our Voice Our Turn Hearings Panel Chair, co-author My REAL Life Book

Bruce Rivers
Executive Director, Covenant House Toronto

Mike Stephens
CEO, Chatham-Kent Children's Services

Vera Williams
Youth Member, YouthCAN Program Coordinator, Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies

Facilitator

Tony Boston

Observers

Rhonda Andall
Youth Support Lead, Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth

Esther Levy
Manager, Child Welfare Secretariat, Ministry of Children and Youth Services

James McGuirk
Project Lead for Youth Leaving Care Hearings, Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth

Wendy Miller
Senior Policy Analyst, Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies

Jennifer Morris
Director, Child Welfare Secretariat, Ministry of Children and Youth Services

Theresa Stevens
Board President, Association of Native Child and Family Services Agencies of Ontario

Kevin Panton
Youth Support Lead, Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth

Staff from the Child Welfare Secretariat

APPENDIX B – INDIVIDUALS AND ORGANIZATIONS WHO PROVIDED FEEDBACK ON THE DRAFT BLUEPRINT


APPENDIX C – UNITED NATIONS CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD

The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets forth the fundamental rights of every child, building on the statement in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that children are “entitled to special care and assistance.” The Convention emphasizes that each child “should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding” to support “the full and harmonious development of his or her personality.” It includes specific articles for children and youth who do not grow up with family, noting that they “shall be entitled to special protection and assistance provided by the state” that considers “the child's ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background.” According to the Convention, decisions about children should be in their best interest and take into account their views.

The recommendations in this document and the articles in the Convention share the vision that children and youth should be supported to develop into active healthy adults who have a sense of themselves and their place in their communities. Both emphasize the importance of children retaining connections to their cultures, languages, and families. Many of the recommendations in the Blueprint connect directly to specific rights in the Convention. For example, recommendations on extracurricular activities are supported by the right of child to play and to participate in recreational activities, cultural life and the arts. The Convention's statement that youth justice systems should aim to “reinforce the child's respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of others” and promote “the child's reintegration and the child's assuming a constructive role in society” underscores the recommendations concerning youth justice. The Convention also emphasizes the importance of keeping youth out of detention when possible and appropriate. Children have a right to education that supports “the development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.” The Convention's statement that higher education should be made accessible supports the Blueprint's recommendations regarding post-secondary education and training. Under the Convention, children also have the right to access information that is important to their lives, a theme that is echoed though the Blueprint.

The Convention came into force on September 2, 1990. Canada ratified the Convention in 1991. The full text of the Convention is available at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc.htm.