NDP call on ombudsman to launch ‘emergency’ investigation into child welfare deaths

They also want government to reinstate independent child advocate

Breanne LeClair’s late son Kyler died in 2014. Kyler was in what’s known as a kinship out of care agreement. That means an agency was involved but he was living with relatives, which was decided by the agency.

The Ontario NDP is calling on the ombudsman to launch emergency investigations into the 11 deaths of Indigenous children connected to child welfare since March.

“Not one more child should die due to provincial neglect,” said a joint statement from Monique Taylor, NDP critic for children and youth services and Sol Mamakwa, NDP critic for Indigenous relations and reconciliation.

The call comes a day after APTN News reported the deaths following months of pushing the Ford government for the data, which it refused to freely provide. Instead it told APTN to file a request through the Freedom of Information Act, which APTN did, yet continued to face roadblocks.

Then this week the office of the chief coroner provided APTN with the data.

“No child should die in Ontario for lack of care and support. These children should have been protected, and cared for,” the NDP statement said.

“We need answers from the Ford government on how it failed to protect these children.”

Since the novel coronavirus turned the world upside down on Mar. 11, child welfare agencies have reported 11 deaths of Indigenous children to the chief coroner as of July 16.

Of the 11, three deaths are classified as “in care”, meaning they were likely living in some sort of foster or group home, while the other eight had “society involvement” within the last 12 months before their death.

That typically means the child had an open file at an agency, known in Ontario as children’s aid societies or Indigenous wellbeing societies, both legally mandated by the Ontario government.

Having a file open can mean a variety of things, such as having lived in foster homes for years only to be suddenly sent home. APTN is aware of several deaths by suicide this way in recent years. It could also mean a parent wanted counselling services on-reserve but the only place to get help is the child welfare agency.

Families have repeatedly told APTN they fear having a file opened because it’s difficult to close.

It also includes children that have died in what’s known as informal customary care agreements, where the on-reserve agency determines where the child will reside, usually with family, but the child is not classified as in care.

The cause or manner of death in the 11 cases was not provided to APTN, as the coroner’s office said it was still too early to provide that information, as the files haven’t been closed, which could take months.

The first move the Ford government made on child welfare after getting elected in 2018 was to close the office of the Ontario child advocate, which was led by Irwin Elman.

Right when the office was officially closed in early 2019 the office was just beginning to really hit its stride and could investigate complaints about abuse in the system. It also acted as the go-to for many First Nations children in care.

“New Democrats call on the Ombudsman to conduct an emergency investigation into each of these deaths, and the child welfare system during the state of emergency. We also call on the government to re-instate the independent advocate for children and youth. Not one more child should die due to provincial neglect,” the NDP statement continued.

“Doug Ford’s recent actions have made life more dangerous for children dependent on government oversight.  He removed the provincial child advocate, who provided a voice for Ontario’s children, and loosened oversight of foster homes. Now we can see the disastrous results.”

When Elman’s office was closed a scaled back version moved into ombudsman’s office.

“The Ombudsman must conduct in-person investigations and act immediately, with the full unimpeded cooperation of the ministry, and using the precautionary principle, if they have any doubt that children in care are not protected,” the statement said.

They also want inquests for the children that died, calling on the coroner to hold home for each and expedite them. However, whether an inquest is held is up to the coroner. It’s not automatic for deaths in the child welfare system, unlike when an inmate dies in a provincial jail.

“During this time of crisis, children in care need more support and resources. Doug Ford must act now to provide it,” the NDP said.

Indigenous child make up half of the total number of deaths in care during the pandemic, as there were six in total.

The total number jumps to 36 deaths, including non-Indigenous children, overall during that period when including society involvement. As mentioned, 11 of the deaths were Indigenous children, meaning they make up a third of the deaths.

The coroner’s office also provided the total number of deaths for 2018 and 2019, where were first reported by APTN Wednesday.

Data shows 35 Indigenous children died in 2019 with society involvement. Just one was classified as “in care”. Overall the number was 121.

In 2018, the coroner says 18 Indigenous children died. Two deaths were in care. The total number of deaths 119.

Looking at the in care deaths of Indigenous children for those two years shows there are already as many deaths  in care of Indigenous children in the last four months.

Just some of the children that died connected to Ontario’s child welfare system between 2013 and 2017.

APTN previously reported there were 102 Indigenous deaths between 2013 and 2017, with half of the deaths happening in 2016 and 2017. Below is a chart from that investigative story: Death as Expected: Inside a child welfare system where 102 Indigenous children died over five years

Adding up the 2018 and 2019 deaths, as well as up to July 16 of this year, shows the total number of deaths is 172 since 2013.

If you have information on deaths, or other concerns, involving the child welfare system contact APTN reporter Kenneth Jackson at [email protected]

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