Ontario children’s aid society handed $1.3M after Global News report

Click to play video: 'Sarnia Children’s Aid Society’s debt erased following Global News report'
Sarnia Children’s Aid Society’s debt erased following Global News report
Sarnia-Lambton Children’s Aid Society which has become a stand-out for its progressive approach to child welfare has had its $1.3 million debt erased by the province – Mar 23, 2023

An Ontario children’s aid society has received $1.3 million in new funding from the province one week after being profiled by Global News.

Sarnia-Lambton Children’s Aid Society (CAS), located in southwestern Ontario, received the new money and is home to a groundbreaking initiative in the child-welfare system called “Chasing Zero.”

The agency has avoided placing kids in group homes for more than four years.

Click to play video: 'No group homes: Sarnia Children’s Aid Society’s bold approach to child welfare'
No group homes: Sarnia Children’s Aid Society’s bold approach to child welfare

Instead, Sarnia CAS has focused on supporting families in need, as well as “kinship” placements – keeping kids with relatives or other adults they already know. Foster homes are only used as a last resort.

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Dawn Flegel, executive director of Sarnia CAS, said the one-time funding announcement was “huge” for the agency which has an annual budget of $14.7 million.

When she received a call from her local MPP Bob Bailey with word of the good news, Flegel said she thought it was a “crank call.”

“It puts us in a much better position,” she said, adding that the new money will help “a lot of kids.”

“It just eases the worries and allows us to continue to focus on the prevention work.”

Sarnia-Lambton CAS had been asking for help from the province for two years in the face of a mounting deficit.

The “Chasing Zero” initiative has been hailed as revolutionary by child welfare experts, but in a cruel twist it created budget headaches for the agency.

Under Ontario’s funding formula, children’s agencies receive cash partly based on the number of kids in care. Sarnia CAS, which has focused on keeping kids out of care in the first place, has seen its annual budget decline by over $1 million over the past decade.

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The agency has been running deficits for the last two years and is anticipating another this year.

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Flegel is grateful for the funding. But in order for agencies to continue focusing on preventative work, she said, there needs to be a “fundamental” change in how cash flows to children’s aid agencies.

“You can’t tie funding to the number of kids in care,” she said. “If it doesn’t change, we’re going to be in the same boat going forward.”

The idea for “Chasing Zero” came after Flegel heard first-hand accounts about the brutal conditions some kids faced in group homes.

Ontario group homes are mostly run by for-profit companies. They hire shift workers — who are often underpaid  — to look after kids who’ve experienced abuse, have complex mental-health needs or, in some cases, are orphaned.

A year-long investigation by Global News has revealed how some private group home companies are allegedly placing profits before the quality of care kids are receiving, according to interviews with dozens of current and former workers.

The investigation found poor conditions at for-profit group homes across the province, including properties in states of disrepair, reports of limited food and clothing budgets, extensive use of physical restraints, and allegations that kids were overmedicated.

Cutting corners can mean big profits for companies who receive hundreds of dollars a day to care for kids.

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Sarnia-Lambton CAS pushed back against the conventional thinking on group homes by attempting to keep kids with relatives. The money saved by avoiding private group homes — roughly $4 million annually — has been used on vital prevention and early intervention services meant to keep kids out of the child-welfare system altogether.

There is, however, a massive disparity in funding for these families who take in kids.

Relatives who provide what the province calls “kinship service” can get up to $1,000 annually, per child, from the child-welfare system.

Another government program, Ontario Works, gives them $274 per month for the first child they take in, and $224 for each additional one.

That’s significantly less than the amounts foster parents and group-home operators receive.

Click to play video: '‘There was no village for us,’ says former group home youth'
‘There was no village for us,’ says former group home youth

Foster parents get roughly $900 a month per child, while group homes are paid an average of $9,500 per month.

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Any agency which is in deficit can’t spend more money to help kinship service families, said Flegel, whose hands were tied. Eliminating the agency’s debt changes this, she said, opening up the potential for new funding for families.

Caregivers are retired grandparents on fixed incomes. The amount offered to them to care for relatives just isn’t enough, according to experts.

In terms of providing for kinship families, Global News found Ontario to be among the least-generous provinces.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said the province created the “Balanced Budget Fund” in 2020 to support financial sustainability in the sector.

“In November 2022 we advised the sector that we would be prioritizing the allocation of this funding to societies that are working towards clearing their historic deficits,” the spokesperson said. “We continue to expect all children’s aid societies to balance their budgets annually.”

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With the agency’s debt wiped out, Flegel is evaluating how best to spend the money.

“Prevention work and early help for families, that’s what we need to be doing,” she said.

— with files from Michael Wrobel

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