Teen's pleas to York Region CAS for foster care went unheard: Ombudsman (Newmarket Today)

April 29, 2024

29 April 2024

While York Region CAS had no fault in the death of 16-year-old 'Mia' in 2020, the Ontario Ombudsman found the agency was 'unreasonable and wrong' in its handling of her case; his 20 recommendations have been accepted

Joshua Santos
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April 29, 2024

York Region Children's Aid Society (York CAS) failed to respect the rights of a 16-year-old girl who repeatedly asked for a foster placement before she died, according to the finding of an Ontario Ombudsman investigation.

In his report, Rights Unrecognized: Mia's Story, released today, Ombudsman Paul Dubé details how "Mia," whose family had previously been involved with children's aid societies, was in "emotional crisis" after she was "kicked out" of her home in October 2019 and left without safe and permanent housing.

"Because her voice was never heard and her requests for services were not adequately met, Mia never had the chance to regain stability and achieve her goal of returning to high school. Although her death was not the fault of York Region Children's Aid Society, it highlighted significant deficiencies in the steps that were taken to protect her," the Ombudsman writes in the report.

With no other family members willing or able to house her long-term, Mia had entered into a voluntary youth services agreement with York CAS in December 2019, the report states. The agreements are intended to ensure 16 and 17-year-olds receive the same protection services available to younger children in care.

"But even though she specifically asked York CAS to help with a placement and re-enrolling in school, Mia never received the support she sought. She was not provided with a foster placement, and at one point it was suggested that she could 'stay in a shelter,'" an Ombudsman Ontario news release said.

Her death in 2020 prompted the series of mandatory reports and reviews when a child dies within 12 months of receiving child protection services. Such deaths must be reported to the Chief Coroner of Ontario and the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman's Office regularly reviews these reports and identifies trends and cases that require follow-up; Mia's case was one of these.

While the Chief Coroner found Mia's death was not related to the child protection services she received, the Ombudsman identified concerns about the adequacy of her care, and launched an investigation.

The investigation, conducted by the Ombudsman's children and youth unit, uncovered several failures in York CAS's handling of Mia's case, the release stated, including:

  • Staff were pressured to stick to an "admission prevention" approach (i.e. avoiding putting young people in foster care) and did not fully consider her personal circumstances;

  • They had little understanding of voluntary youth services agreements and what services they include;

  • They did not consider Mia's right to be heard or participate in the decision-making affecting her, or her specific, repeated requests for foster care;

  • Instead, they suggested she seek a bed in a shelter.

Dubé noted this is not the only case the children and youth unit has flagged regarding complaints about the administration of voluntary youth services agreements. His office flagged 90 complaints – dating back to 2019 and involving 30 different children's aid societies – to the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS), the release said.

He found York CAS's actions "unreasonable and wrong" under the Ombudsman Act and made 20 recommendations for improvement, all of which the agency has accepted.

Among other things, he recommended that York CAS:

  • Take several measures to ensure the voice of any youth requesting or receiving voluntary services is heard, including documenting their views in writing and providing them with detailed explanations about decisions affecting them;

  • Ensure staff are trained in how to make decisions that are in a youth's best interests and incorporate their voice, and in the legislative and policy requirements around voluntary youth services agreements;

  • Regularly audit the services it provides to youths who request or receive voluntary services;

  • Ensure the best interests and needs of children prevail over agency strategies such as admission prevention;

  • Revise its voluntary youth services agreement policy to ensure shelters are not considered as a housing option unless specifically requested by the youth and the shelter would provide significant stability, safety and meet the youth's needs for supports and resources.

In a statement, York CAS said the report released today references services delivered prior to the operational review by the MCCSS. It said it has implemented all of the recommended changes and has been building strong community partnerships focused on child, youth and family well-being over the past four years.

The agency also expressed its condolences over the tragic death of the teenager.

“Our organization has changed considerably since the period of the report, following the operational review ordered by the MCCSS," said CEO Ginelle Skerritt. "We are excited to have completed that process and look forward to more learning and positive changes with these new recommendations.”

Skerritt said the organization reviewed how it operates and changed the leadership team, which included bringing her on board as CEO in 2021. She added the leadership structure and decision-making process has changed to include input of the team.

“With respect to this type of case in particular, we have eliminated the need for a very top-down approach to decision making because we are in communication, listening to staff and also centring the children and youth that we’re serving,” said Skerritt to NewmarketToday.

The agency implemented a relationship-grounded, safety-focused approach, created by researching what works for professionals and families, for vulnerable and at-risk children, she said.

Skerritt and her team run focus groups, consult with the community, and engage young people through a youth advisory group, she said.

Reports like the Ombudsman’s give a different perspective.

“The more objective opinions on how we can do better, we welcome, so that we can continue to move in a positive direction,” said Skerritt. “This type of report gives us an opportunity to really consider other opinions. We’re very open to that.”

She said they look at what factors cause families to go into crisis, what the organization’s role is, and how they can work with community partners. They have stepped into advocacy work on issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, and housing. They have teamed up with 360kids and Blue Door for education, employment, and housing services and collaborate with school boards to aid young people experiencing difficulties.

“Our main focus is to work with community partners, so we become a part of the options that are available for people in the community for help and support as opposed to having a reputation that is not welcoming for young people,” said Skerritt.

York CAS has agreed to report back to the Ombudsman's Office every six months on its progress in implementing the recommendations.

"I am pleased by York CAS's positive response to my report and its commitment to improving care for youth seeking or receiving voluntary services," the Ombudsman said in the report.

In its response to the Ombudsman's findings, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services acknowledged the importance of increasing knowledge and training in the child welfare sector about voluntary youth services agreement and said it would work collaboratively with children's aid societies, their associations, the Office of the Children's Lawyer and the Ombudsman's Office on the issue, the release stated.

The Ombudsman's jurisdiction was extended to children and youth in care in May 2019. Since then, the Ombudsman's Office has received more than 7,700 cases about young people in care, and nearly 1,000 cases about youth justice centres.

In addition to assisting thousands of children with issues related to child welfare, the office also provides outreach and services to children in provincial and demonstration schools, and oversees a wide range of services for children in the social services, health and education sectors.