Prof. Wendy Thomson helps update Ontario child welfare services

Wendy Thomson, School of Social Work,  / Photo: Owen Egan
Wendy Thomson is the Director of McGill’s School of Social Work. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Neale McDevitt

Wendy Thomson calls it “my Discover Ontario Tour.”

The Director of McGill’s School of Social Work is spending much of the summer the same way she spent much of the past seven months – crisscrossing Eastern Ontario to get to know some of that province’s 53 Children’s Aid Societies (CASs).

Thomson is one of three commissioners appointed to the Commission to Promote Sustainable Child Welfare. Earlier this summer, the Commission released its first report (Towards Sustainable Child Welfare in Ontario), one that outlines a vision for a sustainable child welfare system in Ontario and provides a blueprint to achieve that vision by the end of the commission’s mandate in September 2012.

“The Commission was set up to address financial and service challenges facing the system, ” said Thomson. “An Auditor General’s report in 2006 made headlines with examples of CASs that were not managing their resources efficiently nor complying with the standards set by the Ministry. Also of concern, with Ontario having to tackle its soaring budget deficit, is the rate that spending on CAS has increased; funding has tripled in the last 10 years and now reaches $1.5 billion. ”

But Thomson says that the Commission’s early findings provide a more nuanced story about child welfare spending and service outcomes.

“While it is true that spending increased dramatically in the first half of the past decade, more recently it has grown at a slower rate than other social programs. The shift can be attributed to the largely positive ‘Transformation’ agenda introduced in 2005.”

The shift brought about by this policy change has seen a greater emphasis being placed on preventing children from coming into care, and finding more permanents families more quickly for children for whom ‘care’ is unavoidable. Over time, the effective implementation of these policies should improve outcomes for children at the same time as reducing the rate of spending increases.

Four-tier approach

In its report, the Commission has outlined a four-tiered plan to streamline and improve Ontario’s current child welfare system. One of the most pressing needs is to reconfigure the very structure of that system, or better yet, create a system where none currently exists.

“Children only end up at the hard end of the care spectrum if a lot of other things haven’t gone right,” said Thomson. “Poverty makes families more vulnerable, particularly where children are at risk of neglect. Also important is the support services available to help parents when they face problems of domestic violence, housing, mental illness or substance misuse. If a family doesn’t have the resources or access to proper support, sometimes they can’t cope.

“But if the proper services are in place then there will be far fewer kids in child protection. It is pretty clear in Ontario – as in many places – that currently there is no such integrated system of child and family-centered support.”

The organization of child welfare in Ontario is also unique in the sheer number of CAS agencies.

“Each CAS is all mandated under the same law and funded under the same formula,” said Thomson. “They are doing some very good work on the ground, but there is a lot of variation in the accessibility and type of services available across the province, and together they don’t really form a child-focused system”.

The number of agencies in Ontario is in stark contrast to what is found in other provinces. Another summer activity for Thomson has been researching and writing working papers for the Commission – one on “Jurisdictional Comparisons of Child Welfare System Design” shows that most provinces have reorganized children’s services in the last few decades and now have far fewer than Ontario. For example, there are 18 Centre de Jeunesse in Quebec , including 3 small centres in the North. These centres are part of an integrated health and social services system supported by the local Centre de Santé et Services Sociaux, and the full range of specialized services. Similarly, child welfare services are delivered in Manitoba through four “Authorities”, in Alberta through 10, in Nova Scotia through three.

“Agencies may do well by joining up with other CASs, particularly in smaller rural communities,” said Thomson. “By linking with mental health services or services for learning disabled children, they could become a nucleus for a whole range of vital services.” So the Commission has signaled that in the coming months there will be fewer CAS working in a more joined up way. More integrated and effective services should be the aim, with better outcomes for children the result.

Too many cars in the parking lot

In her travels, Thomson quickly found out that one of the biggest obstacles faced by field workers is increasing recording and paperwork. “Not only are children social worker’s main preoccupation, every transaction has to be documented to demonstrate that it complies with the hundreds of standards and requirements. There is a huge administrative burden being put on people, without clear evidence that kids are better off as a result. One of the Chief Executives described it as ‘a cars in the parking lot problem,’ meaning there are too many cars in the parking lot and not enough out in the community working with kids.”

In its recommendations, the Commission has suggested that less time and effort be spent on this type of paperwork and more devoted to collecting important data. “There is very little hard data systemically collected and reported in Ontario. Each CAS may have information about their results, but because there is no agreed outcomes or performance measures it isn’t possible to compare how long children stay in care or how those children do. Such basic information is a first step to understanding the variation in practice from one CAS to another, and learning what works best for children.