The Ontario government is proposing sweeping new fines and “tougher consequences” to crack down on individuals who violate provincial standards when caring for vulnerable children living in group and foster homes.
The proposed regulatory changes would increase the power of inspectors in the child-welfare system, allowing them to issue fines without the attorney general’s approval and issue compliance orders for service providers who fail to adequately care for kids who often come into the system after experiencing trauma or have complex mental health needs.
Announced last week by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, the planned amendments would seek to create a list of “prohibited practices” in licensed residential settings, which would become offences under the Child, Youth and Family Services Act (CYFSA).
The infractions would include: depriving a child of basic needs; locking up a young person’s personal possessions as a punishment; directing racist language at youth; and inflicting abuse or harm, including spitting.
The province is considering increasing fines for individuals convicted of breaking child-welfare laws from $1,000 per day of non-compliance to a maximum court-imposed fine of $250,000.
Experts in the child-welfare field said the proposed regulations could help to strengthen the licensing process for group and foster home providers. But they also add that the possible changes fail to provide support and resources to help keep kids with their families in the first place, and out of the child-welfare system altogether.
There are also few details on how some of the proposed changes will be enforced.
“It’s late. It shouldn’t have taken a number of tragedies and unfortunate circumstances within group home spaces to come to this place of regulation,” said Nicole Bonnie, the chief executive officer for the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, which represents 49 organizations across the province.
Bonnie said using fines on “bad actors” and being able to affect group home operators’ bottom line sends a “strong message.”
The proposed legislative changes come just over a year after Global News and APTN began publishing their “Profiting Off Kids” series that revealed allegations of neglect in Ontario’s child-welfare system, which oversaw more than 11,500 kids — 17 years old or younger — in 2021-22.
Interviews with hundreds of former and current group home workers, youth and other child-welfare experts revealed that kids in the system are sometimes left in crumbling homes with little food or clothing budgets and underqualified staff.
The investigation also found instances of kids who say they were overmedicated and subjected to unnecessary and painful physical restraints – where staff can pin a child to the ground face down.
Global News also obtained dozens of inspection reports from group homes across the province which revealed a child sleeping on a soiled mattress, a lack of access to dental care, kids without proper clothes and several instances of youth not receiving timely medical care.
Under the proposed regulations, inspectors can issue fines in cases where a child’s basic needs are not being met or issue compliance orders that have to be remedied on the spot.
Last fall, Global News also revealed that the province was failing to disclose the names of “high-risk” foster care and group homes to children’s aid societies – the organizations responsible for placing kids in care.
The ministry is also now seeking the ability to publish more information publicly about licence-holders in a bid to increase transparency in the system.
“Governments respond to pressure, especially in child welfare,” said Andrew Koster, the former director of Brant Family and Children’s Services, noting Global’s past reporting.
While the proposed changes are a positive step, he said they don’t address the core issue: placing kids in group homes in the first place.
“It’s perpetuating the use of group homes and it’s going to make some people feel it’s OK to keep on using them when it’s not,” said Koster, who said there should be a focus on prevention and keeping families together.
He said it was “deplorable” the potential regulatory changes fail to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in the child-welfare system.
“We want services to be much closer to home so that these kids don’t lose their culture, their language and their family,” he said.
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“Right now that doesn’t always happen.”
This sentiment was echoed by the executive directors for children’s aid societies in Ottawa, Stormont and Highland Shores.
“The distraction of trying to make tweaks to the current system continues to delay real changes that are needed, such as resources in northern communities and treatment resources throughout all of Ontario,” said Tami Callahan, the executive director for Highland Shores, which services parts of eastern Ontario.
As part of the more than 30 amendments, the province is also planning to make the use of improper physical restraints a new offence under the proposed changes.
Restraints are supposed to be a last resort – used only when children are at imminent risk of injuring themselves or others. But many youth and group home workers said restraints were often used as a punishment.
Global News found that physical restraints had been used on children more than 2,000 times between June 2020 and May 2021. The reporting also uncovered that staff frequently didn’t have sufficient training to handle kids with complex needs or mental health conditions, and many had little prior experience working with youth.
Group home operators or children’s agencies could also see their provincial funding clawed back or completely withheld if they fail to use the money to provide care for children under their watch, according to the planned amendments.
The province is also proposing to require children’s aid and Indigenous well-being societies to increase the number of required visits kids receive from workers and require better information-sharing between agencies.
Children’s aid agencies and well-being societies would also be required to consider entering into interagency service agreements. This means that if a child from northern Ontario is placed in a group home in the south, the placing agency would enter into an agreement with the local society for supervision and oversight of the child.
Crystal Doolittle, the director of family well-being at the Association of Native Child and Family Services Agencies of Ontario (ANCFSAO), said she doesn’t have confidence new legislation will get at the “root of the problem” of why kids end up in care.
“These are symptoms of a bigger problem and you have to go to what lies beneath,” she said. “(There’s) absolutely a need for investing in communities and giving them those services.”
The proposed amendments for group home and foster care providers follow new regulations that came into effect July 1.
They require new workers to have a degree, diploma or certificate in a relevant field or experience and skills relevant to their duties. The changes stop short of calling for a degree or diploma in child and youth care, specifically.
“On July 13, we posted new proposed legislative and regulatory enhancements that include tougher consequences for service providers who have repeated non-compliance issues,” the ministry said in a statement. “We are at the public consultation stage and we will be reviewing the feedback prior to finalising any legislative and regulatory enhancements.”
A deadline of Aug. 12 has been set by the government for feedback from the public and stakeholders on the potential legislative changes. If the amendments are passed, they wouldn’t come into effect until after Jan. 1, 2024.
— with additional reporting from Michael Wrobel