Ottawa Citizen Newspaper
Minister unenthusiastic about ombudsman overseeing CASs: Chambers lukewarm to Marin's proposal, but says she shares his concern for young
The Ottawa Citizen
Wed 14 Dec 2005 Page: C9 Section: City Byline: Jeff Esau Source: The Ottawa Citizen
Ontario Children and Youth Services Minister Mary Anne Chambers may share the provincial ombudsman's concerns about protecting children, but she's lukewarm to his ideas on how to do so.
"The ombudsman can say whatever he wants to say, but I, as the minister, cannot put myself in a position that could be defined as being in contempt of the legislative process," Ms. Chambers said earlier this week in response to ombudsman Andre Marin's proposal to place the province's Children's Aid Society under his office's oversight. She characterized the idea as only one of "a variety of options" for protecting children.
Last week, Mr. Marin told members of the legislature's social policy committee that if legislation to amend the Child and Family Services Act passes as is, Ontario would gain the "dubious distinction" of being "at the back of the oversight pack in Canada."
Mr. Marin noted that Ontario is the only province where child protection services are run by private agencies funded by the government -- in Ontario's case, to the tune of $1.2 billion each year. In other provinces, he said, child protection is a public function or is shared between government and private agencies. He also noted that all provinces, except Ontario and Quebec, have ombudsmen overseeing child protection services. The ombudsman then recommended this situation be rectified by granting his office oversight over Ontario's 53 Children's Aid Societies.
The minister, however, suggested Mr. Marin's recommendation regarding Bill 210 was too narrow. "The recommendation that the ombudsman is making is focusing on one particular solution.
Ms. Chambers said she and the ombudsman "share concerns about accountability on behalf of kids and families," but she questioned his assertion that Ontario affords convicted criminals housed in privatized provincial jails protection by the ombudsman, but fails to extend the same protection to children. "I don't think that's fair at all. We actually do have a number of opportunities for protection of children and youth. There are some provinces where the ombudsman has oversight, but there are some provinces where the ombudsman does not."
Ms. Chambers pointed out there is already a plan to make the ministry's child advocate -- currently an official reporting to the minister -- an independent officer of the legislature, similar to the ombudsman.
Mr. Marin dismissed the use of a child advocate for oversight as "not helpful in investigating complaints about the CASs." The child advocate, he said this week, is "like a town crier for children," which is a "world of a difference" from his own role as provincial watchdog. Unlike the ombudsman, "the advocate does not possess any investigative powers, is not impartial and is not neutral."
"We should be moving heaven and Earth to provide an investigative ability," said Mr. Marin. A child advocate "will not solve the problem of the CAS being without any oversight."
Not everyone agreed with Mr. Marin's view. Jeanette Lewis, executive director of the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, thinks the necessary oversight is already in place. Mr. Marin "has not very well articulated to the public the number of accountability mechanisms that exist for Children's Aid Societies," she said, pointing out such oversight functions as death reviews, Crown ward reviews, financial audits and ministry monitoring. As well, all decisions by child welfare workers to remove a child from a home are reviewed by the courts within five days.
"I'm not sure how the ombudsman's authority would then also deal with the court-related decisions," said Ms. Lewis.
The minister, meanwhile, noted the legislative process precludes her from responding in detail on what she expects regarding Bill 210. "If I am going to declare firmly and unequivocally what the outcome of a bill that we have introduced is going to be, why then do we have the legislative process?"
Ms. Chambers emphasized that with Bill 210 still at the committee stage, "there will be an opportunity for us right now to strengthen accountability and complaint mechanisms for Children's Aid Societies, and we're working on that."
Illustration:• Colour Photo: CNW Group Photo / Children and Youth Services Minister Mary Anne Chambers called the ombudsman's assessment unfair.