Child-welfare agencies failed Indigenous girl from North: Ombudsman (Sudbury Star)

April 13, 2023

13 April 2023

Actions not taken when young teen went missing from foster care, report finds

This link opens in a new tabSudbury Star
April 13, 2023

The Ontario ombudsman says multiple agencies failed to protect an Indigenous girl who experienced sexual abuse and a drug overdose while under their watch.

“Misty,” as she is described in a report issued Thursday, hailed from Northwestern Ontario but in 2020, at the age of 13, was placed with a foster care provider in southwestern Ontario.

The girl had “unique vulnerabilities, a history of substance abuse and was a suspected victim of sex trafficking,” according to release from the Office of the Ombudsman.

While in the care of Johnson Children’s Services — a private company — she went missing seven times from her foster home, according to the report, titled Missing In Inaction, Misty’s Story.

“At one point, she disappeared for 19 days,” the release states. “During these absences, there is evidence she was physically and sexually assaulted, used hard drugs, and suffered an overdose.”

Ombudsman Paul Dubé launched his investigation “after concerns were raised about the adequacy of measures taken to ensure Misty’s safety by Johnson,” as well as by Anishinaabe Abinooji Family Services, an Indigenous children’s aid society near her home community, and the CAS in the southwestern city where she went missing, according to the release.

The First Nation organization, based in Kenora, placed Misty with Johnson “when it was unable to find resources near her home community in Northern Ontario that met her complex needs,” the report found. “Although Johnson had a chequered history of failing to comply with provincial regulations, AAFS considered itself out of options.”

Misty spent 47 days altogether under the supervision of JCS.

“It is a sad and longstanding reality that Northern Ontario lacks sufficient resources to offer the treatment and care required to address the complex challenges faced by Indigenous children like Misty,” states Dubé in the report. “It is particularly pressing that agencies in southern Ontario such as Johnson Children’s Services educate themselves and their staff on the learnings from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and consider the risk factors unique to Indigenous children in their decision-making around their care.”

The ombudsman found Johnson did not provide the one-to-one support for Misty that it was paid to provide.

The organization also “overlooked the requirements of its protocols related to missing children, repeatedly assured police there were no concerns regarding her safety, and delayed notifying police for more than four hours after Misty disappeared for what turned out to be 19 days,” according to the release.

The investigation also noted significant gaps in the agency’s documentation, record-keeping and training practices.

The Indigenous child-welfare agency in Northwestern Ontario also shares some responsibility, however, for the poor service Misty received,  the ombudsman concluded.

During the girl’s 19-day disappearance, Anishinaabe Abinooji Family Services “did not consider using a child-welfare warrant, which gives police or child-welfare workers legal authorization to bring a child against their will to a place of safety,” the report found.

It also failed to scrutinize the conditions placed on Johnson’s licence, monitor the quality of care it provided, and notify the southwestern CAS that Misty was in its catchment area.

“The southwestern CAS didn’t know about Misty’s presence until it was contacted by police after one of her disappearances,” the release states.

The CAS did provide services to Misty, despite the absence of a formal agreement, but it also failed to protect the girl in several respects.

The agency, for instance, “did not obtain a child welfare warrant because it said Misty already had several other arrest warrants for breaching her bail conditions.”

In addition, both AAFS and the southwestern CAS were required by regulation to report the type of injuries Misty suffered to the Ombudsman’s Office, but failed to do so.

Dubé found Johnson’s conduct relating to Misty to be “unreasonable” and “wrong” — terms, as laid out in legislation, that the ombudsman can use to describe findings from an investigation. The conduct of AAFS and the southwestern CAS were also deemed to be “wrong.”

In his report, the ombudsman makes 58 recommendations to the three agencies to improve services to children and young people in care — 31 directed at Johnson, 23 to AAFS, and four to the southwestern CAS.

Among other things, he urges Johnson to ensure all of its foster parents and staff are given Indigenous cultural safety training, as well as training on relevant legislation and the agency’s own policies.

The recommendations to AAFS similarly focus on improving staff training and record-keeping, as well as obtaining signed service agreements with other agencies. Those to the southwestern CAS focus on child welfare warrant guidelines and reporting of serious incidents.

Dubé’s criticisms of the child-welfare agencies were welcomed by NDP representatives Monique Taylor, the MPP for Hamilton Mountain, and Sol Mamakwa, MPP for Kiiwetinoong — a riding in the far northwest of the province.

“Thank you to the ombudsman for this important and timely report,” the opposition members said in a statement. “We’ve seen repeated and damning reports in recent years that Ontario’s reliance on private providers of child protective services (group and foster homes) does not meet the complex needs of vulnerable children in care.”

The report also confirms a “well-established” lack of provincial resources for First Nations in the North to “provide culturally appropriate wrap-around services to children such as Misty,” the MPPs added. “This government has not ever adequately addressed this.”

All three organizations have accepted the ombudsman’s recommendations, including that they report to his office every six months on their progress in implementing them.

The ombudsman will monitor their efforts and report on their progress in subsequent annual reports.