Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, October 12, 2002

Child protection has become a growth industry in Ontario

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Child protection in Ontario has become a booming industry with a 52-per-cent increase in intake over the past five years, and to realize just how big a business it is one needs a calculator.

There are 5,400 beds in licensed group homes in the province. The average daily rate for children placed by children's aid societies in group homes is $182 per bed.

If all beds are filled -- and with new group homes opening all the time they seem to be busy -- my calculator tells me that could work out to a cost to the taxpayer of $982,800 a day. Multiply that by 365 days in a year and the numbers read $358,722,000. One has to multiply that by only three years to hit $1.07 billion. That's an industry in anybody's book.

The figures were provided by the Ontario Ministry of Community, Family and Children's Services. It also provided a breakdown of the exploding intake. The figure for 2002 based on first-quarter projections is 17,131. In 1997 it was 11,250.

At the current per-diem rate, two children could live on $364 a day in a luxury hotel room, order room service, go back and forth to school by taxi and have change left over.

But what kind of supervision would there be? Which begs the question: What kind of supervision is there now? This summer on Rideau Street, former group-home worker Jane Scarfe held a hunger strike to draw attention to this issue. She claimed the homes she worked in, independently owned and operated, pay a basic hourly wage of $10. Requirements for employment are minimal.

A 13-year-old girl in care, a "runner" in the parlance of child protection, also roused curiosity about group homes. In care since she was apprehended five years ago, twice this summer she fled group homes. She found her way back to her parents from locations outside the city, and has since been given court permission to stay with her parents while more legal paperwork is moving around to set up more court dates.

We talked many times. She says she was one of seven girls in her last shelter, which had seven beds. Of the seven, five were smokers, including herself. Although they couldn't smoke in the home, they could step out into the yard. After her first run she says her clothing and shoes were taken away. She says it was easy to snowjob the new home's staff into trusting her, and when she got her clothing back she ran again.

Hers is a case I've watched for years. Neglect or abuse were not issues. A court made her a Crown ward based on what it believed were the best interests of the child. For the most part the evidence to support that belief came from psychology, including a spooky test that claimed to be able to project parents' potential for violence.

The explosion in intake can also be tracked back to an amendment in the preamble to the Ontario Child and Family Services Act. There used to be a clause that said it was important to try to keep families together. It was removed. What drives the system now is a clause that says decisions must always be in the best interests of the child. Nobody is able to define what those are, leaving it up to courts make the determination. Family courts are overcrowded, painfully slow, and focused on children, not families.

Another factor feeding the increase could be that since 1995 more than 1,700 more child protection workers have been hired. That's an increase of 77 per cent.

Meanwhile, in B.C. the emphasis to keep families together is part of the legislation and is credited with a drop in intake averaging seven per cent a year over five years.

Child protection insiders also blame cutbacks to the welfare system as it was reshaped from welfare to workfare. Financial strain is causing family breakdown and while the welfare system boasts massive savings, the child protection system shovels money out another door.

Question: If a child is placed in a group home because he/she is deemed uncontrollable, and that child decides home isn't such a bad place after all and swears to straighten up, is the group home going to recommend a return? With a monthly value of $5,600 would there not be a conflict of interest?

Since 1995, the Ontario government has increased spending on child protection by 139 per cent to a budget of more than $860 million this year.

There are currently 650 licences for group homes, officially called "children's residences."

While so much money is flying around, a growing number of families complain about not being able to compete for their own children. Where grandparents may be willing to provide care but money is an issue, there's nothing in the system to help. Families are expected to take care of their own, and if they can't, it seems presumed it isn't in the best interests of a child to leave her in a poor family.

The ministry reports $213 million went to the province's 54 independent children's aid societies to be passed along to group homes last year. Although the homes average less than 10 beds, one operator can own several homes.

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen