May 4, 1999
New rules aim to save children from abuse
Bill updating 10-year-old law passed quicklyBy Caroline Mallan
Toronto Star Queen's Park Bureau
New rules to better protect young children from abuse cleared their final hurdle last night.
Bill 6 makes it easier for children's aid societies to move in at the first signs of abuse or neglect and rescue youngsters at risk from their families.
The bill, which amends the Child and Family Services Act, was speeded through the Legislature and unanimously approved by all three parties at third and final reading. It was expected to be proclaimed today.
Social Services Minister Janet Ecker smiled as the bill passed and thanked her colleagues from the Liberals and New Democrats for supporting the legislation. The changes update a law that was 10 years old and shifts the focus from keeping families together to putting the best interest of the child first.
``The purpose of these amendments is to provide new rules to ensure better protection of children at risk of neglect and abuse,'' Ecker said during debate. ``They create new and stronger tools to enable front-line workers, professionals and the courts to do their jobs more effectively.''
The new law:
The changes mirror many of the recommendations made by a series of coroner's inquests into the deaths of children. The juries found that the old rules put too much emphasis on keeping families together.
- Declares that the best interests of the child must be the objective of child-protection workers.
- Spells out for the first time ``a pattern of neglect'' as grounds for children's aid to take children away.
- Lowers the threshold for declaring a child at risk.
- Makes it easier for a worker to declare a child as being at risk of ``emotional harm.''
- Makes use of a person's past behaviour toward any child, not just a child directly in their care, during child-protection court proceedings.
A Star series in 1996 and 1997 revealed widespread abuse of children by institutions set up to protect them. The series highlighted the manner in which children were bounced into and out of abusive situations.
The changes were first introduced last October but the bill died on the order paper when the Legislature was prorogued before Christmas, prompting concern in the child protection community that it might not be reintroduced before a provincial election was called.
`Absolutely, it's a relief for us to see this happen.'
- Mary McConville
Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies
And with an election call that could come as early as tomorrow, children's aid societies province-wide welcomed the all-party agreement that led to last night's debate and passage of the bill.
``Absolutely, it's a relief for us to see this happen,'' Mary McConville of the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies said after Ecker brought in the bill again.
Liberal social services critic Sandra Pupatello (Windsor-Sandwich), while supporting the bill, told the Legislature that without a significant increase in funding, front-line workers will be unable to implement the changes properly.
``The number of cases at children's aid societies have skyrocketed and that's not something this government can be proud of,'' Pupatello said of the Conservatives during last night's debate. She said the child protection system has been operating on the brink for most of the past decade.
New Democrat critic Frances Lankin (Beaches-Woodbine) began her comments on the bill by listing the names of children in Ontario who have died after being abused.
Lankin said it was for the memories of those children and for others at risk that her party had agreed to pass Bill 6.
Lankin took issue with the government's reluctance to hold public hearings on the bill and accused it of bullying the opposition into agreeing to speedy passage instead of properly analyzing the contents of the bill.
The New Democrats also called upon the government to change the wording of the bill to emphasize the cultural sensitivities of First Nation communities - an amendment that Ecker rejected.
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