NDP, Green Party call for end to for-profit in Ont. child welfare system

Two of Ontario’s four major political parties are calling for an end to for-profit care inside the province’s child welfare system in the wake of a joint investigation by Global News and APTN.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said her party is immediately pledging to remove profit motivated group homes and foster care operators.

“It’s a commitment that we make right now to get rid of the profits out of the child welfare system,” she said in an interview Monday.

“The [investigation’s] findings are tragic, but they unveil a system that’s been broken for a long time.

“The child welfare system shouldn’t be a profit-making endeavour.”

Premier Doug Ford called the investigation’s findings “very disturbing” but stopped short of saying he will end for-profit care.

“I can tell you we are restructuring it,” he said during a campaign stop in Ottawa. “We need to do better.

“We need to have continuous improvement, because the stories I have heard, they’re very disturbing and can’t go on.”

The investigation’s revelations were drawn from interviews with more than 65 group home workers, youth, and child welfare experts. The reporting also included an exclusive analysis of more than 10,000 serious occurrence reports, which are filed to the province when a child dies, is injured, goes missing, or is physically restrained, among other reasons.

“The fact that kids are not getting enough food, that they’re being restrained, that they’re not getting the health care services that they need while some company reaps the profits off of that [is] completely unacceptable,” Horwath said.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner echoed the NDP’s calls to end for-profit care.

“Child welfare should not be privatized, end of story,” Schreiner said in a statement.

Related: Inside Ontario’s child welfare system where kids are ‘commodities’

In Ontario, nearly half of the 300 licensed group homes are run by private “for-profit” companies.

Former residents and experts in child welfare said the system lacks qualified staff and mistreats some children who have experienced trauma or who have complex mental health needs.

Ford vowed to be personally involved right after the election, but also blamed the former Liberal government.

“We inherited this mess,” Ford continued. “We’re restructuring it and it doesn’t happen overnight but we are moving as quickly as we can.

“I’m going to jump all over that one.”

Ford had previously received widespread criticism for shuttering the former Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, an independent watchdog which investigated instances of mistreatment or neglect in the child welfare system and reviewed the delivery of services to kids.

The position was previously held by Irwin Elman –  now an NDP candidate.

The former advocate’s office was just beginning to exercise its investigative powers, including the ability to compel evidence from service providers, when it was shut down in 2019.

In 2020, the province announced a multi-year restructuring plan to improve quality of care and find more permanent homes for children and youth in care.

And while it amends current regulations in the system – scheduled to come into effect in 2023 – experts say it falls far short of what’s needed.

The plan doesn’t include ending for-profit residential care, such as group and foster home companies, and fails to make it mandatory for frontline workers to have a degree or diploma in child and youth care.

Cheyanne Ratnam, co-founder of Ontario Children’s Advancement coalition, said the for-profit sector “should not exist” in caring for vulnerable children and workers need more specialized degrees.

“We are already traumatized when we come into care. We don’t need added trauma,” said Ratnam, who previously lived in the child welfare system.

“If you are not from a program that specifically looks at these issues … then you should not be working in the field,” she said. “Thanks to this investigation, I think that there will be a more in-depth focus on this issue.”

The reporting highlighted the stories of two young people who said they suffered years of abuse and were repeatedly restrained while in the care of Ontario’s child welfare system.

Data obtained for the investigation showed that while private operators make up just 25 per cent of beds across the province, they filed 55 per cent of all serious occurrence reports. This included 83 per cent of all physical restraints, 66 per cent of reports of missing youth, 62 per cent of medication errors, and 31 per cent of serious injuries.

Liberal leader Stephen Del Duca also refrained from calling for an end to for-profit care, instead calling for a “review” of the child welfare system, including “government inspection and oversight.”

“No child should ever be subjected to the abuse and troubling conditions they are currently experiencing in these facilities,” he said.

Del Duca said his party would make the “child welfare system more responsive, flexible and sensitive to the needs of children” which would include more placement options and educational support programs.

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