York teen 'failed' by Children's Aid, says report into her death (CBC)

April 30, 2024

30 April 2024

York Region Children's Aid Society says many changes already in place to prevent future incidents

Clara Pasieka
This link opens in a new tabCBC News
April 30, 2024

York Region Children's Aid Society (CAS) failed to respect the rights of a 16-year-old girl who repeatedly asked for a foster placement before she died, the Ontario Ombudsman found in a report released Monday.

The teen, who the report refers to as "Mia," died suddenly in January 2020 after she asked the children's aid society to place her in a foster home when she was "kicked out" of her mother's house in September 2019.

Ombudsman Paul Dubé said it was a "dire situation" that he hopes can be prevented.

"She was desperate to have security and stability in her life, and she wanted to finish high school," Dubé told CBC Toronto. "What this report does is tell the story of a vulnerable girl who was failed by the child welfare system."

Mia turned to child protection services, citing significant concerns with staying with family members. The report pointed to instances of abuse within family homes, including sexual assault and a sibling who had been taken into care in 2015.

Despite this, Mia was never offered a place to live, the report said. Mia was eligible for the full range of protective services, but Dubé's report found she received "virtually no support" from York CAS, saying her wishes and best interests were not well considered.

According to the report, Mia was told by staff that a shelter was her only option, even after three homes operated by external providers met her needs and had space. Additionally, staff told the Ombudsman that York CAS put pressure on employees to not offer foster placements as part of a strategy to reduce the number of children admitted to care.

The report made 20 recommendations to enhance services that York CAS offers to 16- and 17-year-olds in need of protection, including offering more training to staff, listening more to youth seeking assistance and making decisions in their best interest.


York CAS says changes already in place

Changes to the laws that govern child protection — the Child, Youth and Family Services Act — and a directive from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Service (MCCSS) made it possible for a 16-year-old like Mia to enter into a Voluntary Youth Services Agreement (VYSA), said York CAS' CEO, Ginelle Skerritt.

VYSAs can help CAS transfer youth to independent living settings or support them in other environments, such as foster homes. Mia eventually entered into a VYSA in December 2019.

Skerritt told CBC Toronto that homes available were "outside paid resources," which can include services like group homes or "professional foster homes."

Despite the agreement, Mia was not placed into any of those settings, the report said.

"At the time, there were lots of people who were trying to figure things out and re-allocate resources," said Skerritt.

When decisions about Mia's care were being made in late 2019, the report said VYSAs were still relatively new and rarely used, with some staff noting they had received minimal training when they first came into effect.

"There were some other factors going on at the time with respect to safety and protection concerns for children in those outside paid resources," said Skerritt.

The Ombudsman recommended York CAS put the interests of young people over strategies to reduce admissions, and ensure the voices of youth are heard and better considered. It also recommended that shelters should not be considered a housing option unless requested by the teen.

In response, Skerritt said the organization has "made some significant changes in the way that we're working."

"We are handling everything differently," she said.

When asked if youth in similar circumstances today would be told they had nowhere appropriate to send them, she said the organization has "an issue with a shortage of available foster homes," adding she is encouraging more people to try to become foster parents.

"I want to take the opportunity through this tragedy to make something positive happen," she said. "And that would be that we would increase the number of foster families that are available for young people in situations like this."


Former child advocate says system turned back on Mia

Irwin Elman, the province's former Child Advocate, told CBC Toronto that Mia "was a child who reached out through adults who she thought would protect her."

"The system turned their back on her and now this child is dead. People need to sit with that," he said.

The Ford government eliminated the provincial watchdog role in 2018 but swept many of the responsibilities under the Ontario Ombudsman's purview — something Elman said is inadequate.

"The Office of the Child Advocate would have been following Mia to ensure she got a VYSA agreement and then to ensure that she got what she needed," said Elman.

The Ombudsman report indicated it received 90 complaints relating to 30 different children's aid societies raising concerns about VYSAs since 2019, identifying uncertainty and inconsistency in the way they've been handled.

In a statement to CBC Toronto, a MCCSS spokesperson said its working to ensure the sector understands how and when to use VYSAs.

"The ministry is carefully reviewing the Ombudsman's report to help improve our child welfare system and better protect our most vulnerable youth," reads the ministry's statement.

Dubé said the Ombudsman does the same thing the Office of the Child Advocate did aside from some "specialized advocacy work." His recommendations, he said, should "reduce the odds" of something like this from happening again.

But Elman said the focus is on "institutional solutions" that no longer centre youth voices in the push for change.

"A year from now, we'll be talking about another Mia," he said.