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Ontario ombudsman finds ‘substantial increase’ in complaints involving kids in care

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The province’s child welfare system saw a “substantial increase” in complaints related to the quality of care for vulnerable kids, Ontario’s ombudsman said in his annual report.

Paul Dubé outlined trends and investigations his office handled between April 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022 in a report released Tuesday. It highlighted a notable jump in complaints involving child protection services, like children’s aid societies and group or foster home providers.

The ombudsman’s Children and Youth Unit, which has 25 staff members, received over 1,600 total cases, including 1,337 complaints from adults and 314 from kids or teens, according to the report. This was up from just over 1,300 total cases the year prior, Dubé said.

These were among the more than 25,000 complaints the ombudsman’s office received across all jurisdictions, like prisons, municipalities and school boards — a 52-per cent overall increase from last year.

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“The expansions of our mandate in 2016, and again in 2019, were very challenging for us as an organization,” Dubé said Tuesday.  “What I’m encouraged about overall is the more complaints we get, the more people we can help.”

Read more: Inside Ontario group homes where kids were called ‘paychecks’

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The most common complaints from young people involved in the child welfare system were requests to be moved to another placement, being denied access to siblings, feelings that their culture or personal identity weren’t respected, and problems with peers and staff, the report said.

Parents and extended family members, meanwhile, frequently filed complaints about their children’s living situation, or that the children’s aid society failed to respond to their concerns.

The ombudsman emphasized the use of physical restraints in group or foster homes as a “key concern,” noting it is often the subject of a young person’s complaint.

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A physical restraint can involve staff pinning a child to the ground by the shoulders and holding them by their wrists with their arms extended. Sometimes, kids are held face-down on the ground. Restraints are only supposed to be used as a last resort when a child poses an immediate risk to themselves or others.

“We treat such complaints with priority, as we do with any [report] we receive about a young person who has been injured as a result of a physical restraint,” Dubé said.

The office follows up on every single report by contacting the injured young person directly to check in with them, according to Dubé.

In 2021-2022, the office followed up on 59 cases where a child or youth was injured while being physically restrained.

The ombudsman’s findings follow an ongoing Global News/APTN investigation into the provincial child-welfare system, which has revealed alarming conditions inside private group home operators including the frequent use of physical restraints, a lack of qualified staff, poor living and working conditions and little oversight or accountability.

The Global News/APTN investigation also found a shockingly high use of physical restraints inside Ontario’s group homes, in which kids 17 years of age and younger live in communal houses with staff.

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The analysis found more than 2,000 reports of physical restraints across the province’s child welfare system in a one-year period.

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The rate of restraints was highest among privately-owned group homes. While these types of homes make up just 20 per cent of beds in the child welfare system, they account for 90 per cent of all restraints.

Irwin Elman, a former Ontario child and youth advocate who recently ran provincially as an NDP candidate, said Doug Ford’s government should reconsider its “ill-conceived decision” to close the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth.

Read more: Inspection reports reveal disturbing conditions inside Ontario group homes

The independent watchdog investigated the mistreatment of children in the child welfare system. It was shuttered in 2019 and folded into the ombudsman’s office as a cost-saving measure by the Ford government.

The Office of the Provincial Advocate received close to 2,800 calls related to youth seeking support in 2017-2018 before the office was axed.

The independent office also began an investigation into the systemic use of restraints which the ombudsman’s office has committed to completing. But in the three years since it has overseen child protection services, the ombudsman has never made the results of that investigation public.

Linda Williamson, director of communications for the ombudsman’s office, said the office follows up on all reports from children or adults.

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“There have been changes to restraint reporting requirements and which methods of physical restraint are approved by the province,” she said. “Legislation coming into effect next year requires young people to be told about what constitutes a physical restraint, the circumstances in which they could be restrained and when it needs to be reported.

“They must also explicitly be told that the Ombudsman’s Office can help them if they have any concerns about restraints.”

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Elman, however, said the culture of residential care continues to engender a “system of storage for young people that holds them until they are dumped out at 18 years.”

“We have lost the light into the system that the voices of children and youth provided,” he said.

Experts say the use of restraints is psychologically damaging to kids and needs to be drastically reduced or completely eliminated.

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“Restraints are a symptom of the problem,” Elman said. “There is no indication that the government has given much thought [to], let alone study of, the use of restraints in residential care.”

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