Last month, the Progressive Conservative government announced that it would eliminate the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth — and former clients and employees are worried that young people across Ontario will suffer.
The office was established by the Liberals in 2007 to investigate complaints from the children’s-services sector — including child-welfare, mental-health, and youth-justice systems — and to advocate for children and youth across the province.
The Tories announced the decision to scrap the office when they unveiled their fall economic statement on November 15. On Thursday, the legislature voted to repeal the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Act, finalizing the closure.
The government plans to move the investigative functions of the child advocate’s office to the ombudsman’s office — but many are concerned that youth voices will be lost in the transition. We talk to three people with first-hand knowledge of its work about what the closure of the advocate’s office could mean for children and youth in Ontario.
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Arisha Khan, 22, entered Ontario’s child-welfare system when she was six. But when she turned 18, she aged out of the system — and the Children’s Aid Society determined that she wasn’t eligible for such aftercare as an allowance and tuition support. She’d been working to help support herself; in the society’s view, she didn’t need additional assistance.
Khan fought unsuccessfully to have the decision reversed, but she didn’t fight alone. Staff from Ontario’s child advocate supported Khan throughout, accompanying her to meetings and helping her understand the process. “It was just so amazing to me that somebody would listen to me and just show up and be there,” she says.
Today, Khan is the vice-president of Youth in Care Canada, a national child-advocacy organization; she is also a Rhodes Scholar and will be heading to Oxford next year. She’s concerned that with the elimination of the child advocate, youth in Ontario will lose a vital form of support: “How much worse is it if you don’t have that capacity, and then to not have any sort of guidance at all?
Khan is not convinced that Tories’ new plan will do enough for youth in care. “They’re not going to come to that nine-year-old wherever they are in the province and make sure that they feel safe in a meeting and are able to understand things that are going on around them,” she says. “That’s something that can’t happen in the ombudsman’s office.”
Anna Amy Ho
On the day of Anna Amy Ho’s Grade 8 graduation, in 2007, she saw her mother’s partner murder her mother and grandmother.
“I experienced years of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at his hands,” she says.
Guardianship passed to her older brother. “We lived together for less than a year, and he struggled immensely with addiction, mental illness, grief, trauma,” she says. Ultimately, he was unable to care for her. Ho spent time living in foster homes, until, at 16, she moved out on her own.
She later got a job in the advocate’s office as a project lead. The office’s mandate to amplify and include youth voices is critical, she says, “because so often, decisions are made about us, without us, and I think that is one of the fundamental flaws of the system.”
Today, Ho, 25, is completing a master’s degree in social work at the University of Toronto and works as a crisis counsellor. After learning that the PCs would be closing the child advocate’s office, Ho and colleague Cheyanne Ratnam formed the Ontario Children’s Advocacy Coalition, which aims to assist youth in the children’s-services sector and involve them in decision-making processes — much as the advocate’s office did.
“I want to help other kids coming after me so that they don’t have to go through what I went through,” says Ho.
Bailey Beattie was 12 years old when she first turned to Ontario’s child advocate for help.
At the time, she was living in an Ottawa group home, where she says she was abused. “I left that group home with a concussion, lacerations, and contusions. They had been beating me for quite a few months,” Beattie says.
She knew that if she self-harmed, protocol demanded that she be taken to hospital. “I immediately reached out to the doctor there,” she says. She told the doctor that she was trying to escape an abusive group home and wasn’t suicidal.
The doctor called the child-protection agency responsible for Beattie’s care, and she was removed from the group home. The next day, she called the Ontario Child Advocate’s office, which opened an investigation. While it did not result in any formal discipline, Beattie says her experience with the child advocate’s office was life-changing: “For the first time, it felt like someone was in my corner, and they were listening, and they believed me.”
Beattie is now a youth peer mentor in Belleville for the John Howard Society. The 19-year-old is planning to study community justice at Loyalist College next year and intends to pursue a law degree. Her goal is to help young people — and to help change the structure of care and support in Ontario. “When I started to heal from my trauma, I realized that it’s not so much what is wrong with me but what’s wrong with our system,” she says.
She says she was “devastated” when she heard that the Ontario child advocate’s office was closing. “You almost feel like a piece of you is gone, because that was your voice. That was someone you had advocating for you.”