In September I wrote an open letter to Tracy MacCharles, Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth Services. Some of the reasons why are chronicled in my wife’s blog. I received the following response, which I transcribed from the printed letter. I wanted to share and highlight in particular that the Minister in her response letter is inviting active involvement in the review of Ontario’s Child and Families Services Act, which is currently underway. Please see the end of the letter for the link.
Before receiving the letter from Minister MacCharles, I also got an emailed reaction to his letter from the PC Party critic for Children and Youth Services, Jim McDonell, which is posted below the Minister’s letter. Although my wife and I recently ended our own adoption journey, we are grateful to Minister MacCharles and Jim McDonell for taking the time to respond and react. I had also shared the open letter with the NDP’s critic Monique Taylor, and with Mary Ballantyne, Executive Director of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies. Neither bothered with a reaction.
Letter from Minister MacCharles – Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Oct 17 2014
Dear Mr. Hofmann:
Thank you for your kind words of congratulations and for your correspondence to me and Deputy Minister Alexander Bezzina regarding adoption. I appreciate the opportunity to respond and provide you with some information.
I am pleased to hear that you are passionate about improving Ontario’s adoption system and want to thank you for sharing your recommendations. The government is committed to increasing the number of children in care placed in permanent homes so they can reach their full potential. In 2008, the Expert Panel on Infertility and Adoption was established to provide advice on improving Ontario’s adoption system. The panel’s August 2009 report, Raising Expectations: Recommendations of the Expert Panel on Infertility and Adoption, included 39 recommendations related to increasing adoptions and improving adoption services.
The government has implemented many of the recommendations, including:
- removing the legal barriers to adoption for Crown wards with an access order through the Building Families and Supporting Youth to Be Successful Act, 2011;
- providing additional funding to children’s aid societies to reduce the length of time persons have to wait for a homestudy to be completed in order to be approved for adoption;
- expanding the number of Adoption Resource Exchange events across Ontario; and
- providing targeted subsidies through societies to eligible parents who adopt or gain legal custody of Crown wards who are either siblings or ages 10 and older to help with the cost of caring for those children.
The Ministry of Children and Youth Services recognizes the importance of making it easier for prospective adoptive parents to navigate the adoption system, and increasing the number of children placed in permanent homes. That is why we provide funding to the Adoption Council of Ontario to manage the AdoptOntario program. This is a bilingual website tool that provides technological support to children’s aid societies to find the best match for children with prospective adoptive families across Ontario. The website also allows for collaboration and sharing of adoption resources between adoption practitioners, increasing the possibility of finding a match for prospective parents and children who are registered on the databank.
In your letter, you identified the need to improve the adoption process after Adoption Resource Exchange events. This year, the ministry is supporting the Adoption Council of Ontario to develop new automated features in the AdoptOntario program. The new features will send electronic updates on recruitment to adoption workers to help them identify appropriate strategies, track progress, and identify next steps in the process for each child registered on the AdoptOntario databank and presented at an adoption event. This will help societies improve follow-up with prospective adoptive parents after Adoption Resource Exchange events.
You also identified the need to improve oversight of children’s aid societies. Our government understands the importance of ensuring there is appropriate oversight of the child welfare system. We believe in the important work done by children’s aid societies and have mandated mechanisms in place to ensure the accountability of societies. For example, we require all societies to have clear, transparent and consistent complaint review procedures as set out in the Child and Family Services Act. We have established independent bodies such as the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth and the Child and Family Services Review Board. We have also provided the Ombudsman with the authority to investigate complaints, report and make recommendations arising from reviews about the board.
As part of Ontario’s Open Government initiative, we are taking steps to further strengthen oversight of the sector. We have re-introduced Bill 8, Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, 2014, to strengthen accountability, enhance oversight, and increase transparency in the public and broader public sectors. This bill, if passed, will amend the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Act, 2007, to give the Provincial Advocate new powers that are similar to the Ombudsman, and will allow him to investigate matters relating to services provided by children’s aid societies.
While much has been accomplished to increase permanency for children and youth in care and help more families to adopt, the government recognizes that more needs to be done. That is why improving outcomes for children and youth through permanent placements, including adoption, will be a key area of focus in the third review of the Child and
Family Services Act that is currently underway. The review was announced recently on September 24, and is to be completed in 2015. I encourage you to be actively involved and engaged in the review process. More information about the review can be found on our website at: www.children.gov.on.ca/htdocs/English/about/CFSA2014/index.aspx. The ministry will continue to work closely with the child welfare sector to improve adoption services. We will also review other jurisdictions’ practices to better support children and youth in care to reach their full potential, and ensure appropriate mechanisms are in place to hold societies accountable.
Again, thank you for writing and sharing your recommendations.
C: Deputy Minister Alexander Bezzina
Email from Jim McDonnell, PC Party Critic for Children and Youth Services, Oct 14, 2014
Thank you for CC’ing me into your correspondence to the Minister of Children and Youth Services. As the PC Critic for the Ministry, I am pleased to respond.
It is vitally important to provide a developing child with a strong, supportive and stable family environment in which to grow and thrive. Willing and suitable adoptive families should not have to face the administrative hurdles that many experience today.
The Ontario PC Caucus has previously supported expanding the Ombudsman’s oversight to Children’s Aid Societies and we expect to do so again when the issue eventually comes before the House. The Ombudsman is a trusted official whose advocacy on Ontarians’ behalf is strong and constructive. Most CAS workers are dedicated to their clients’ welfare and to ensuring children can exit CAS protection and succeed – Ombudsman oversight will ensure Ontarians trust them wholeheartedly to fulfill this mandate.
Family law and adoption procedures need to reflect the need for strong protection for the child (which includes thorough background checks) and to ensure the child’s biological family is not placed at a disadvantage. Several constituents who have sought my office’s assistance in CAS and adoption matters have imparted to me how each family and each child are different, and cannot be fit into a one-size-fits-all approach.
I will work with all stakeholders to ensure prospective adoptive parents have convenient access to all the services they need in order to prove their eligibility for adopting a child and that the procedures for placing a child with a family, or transitioning a child from foster status to adoption are as smooth as possible.
Member of Provincial Parliament
Adoption for the Rest of Us: Seven Recommendations for Ontario
Open Letter to The Honourable Tracy MacCharles, Minister of Children and Youth Services, Sep 15, 2014
Dear Minister MacCharles,
Congratulations on your recent appointment to Minister of Children and Youth Services in Ontario. I was happy to read that you have a background in human resources and are passionate about “organizational change and effectiveness”. Please apply your passion and skills to improve Ontario’s inefficient adoption system.
The first time my wife Lori and I attended the semi-annual Adoption Resource Exchange (ARE), an event to help “locate and match adoptive families with Ontario children needing adoption”, the profile video of a little girl stuck with me. Looking straight into the camera, she told her viewers that “if you are good parents, please adopt me; if you are bad parents, don’t apply”. Based on the number of available waiting families, one would think that there are enough “good” potential parents for her. Yet, more than a year later, the girl’s profile was still listed as available for adoption.
The longer Lori and I are a “waiting adoptive family”, the more it becomes clear that unless it is a kin adoption by relatives, Ontario’s system struggles to connect prospective parents to the many waiting children. It is time for the Ontario Government to improve adoption for the rest of us.
People working in the system keep saying to us that “it’s all about putting the interests of the children first”. We wholeheartedly agree with the premise. But why then are non-kin adoption numbers so low? Why does adoption often take years? If Ontario is serious about putting the interests of the children first, it should speed up its slow system. Here are seven thought starters.
1. Move adoption to the top of your to-do list
Many of the flaws in the system were identified and put into government reports by 2010. Nothing substantial has happened since then. Years have been lost. How is this inactivity helping the waiting children? Please make adoption a top priority for your mandate as a minister. Act now.
2. Learn from other jurisdictions
A good start would be to look at how other jurisdictions have improved their adoption systems. For example, England was able to reduce adoption times, so that parents “can now become approved as an adopter within six months and can have a child placed with [them] within three months after that”. Change came through the leadership of people like David Akinsanya, a former foster child who was frustrated about never being adopted. Please talk to David and others with the right experience.
3. Put real oversight in place
Perhaps the biggest systemic flaw is the lack of real oversight of Children’s Aid Societies. We have personal experiences with the effects of this. One example is a child profiled at ARE, a forum that is supposed to help speed up adoption. We submitted a letter of intent through AdoptOntario to the responsible Children’s Aid Society (CAS). After three months of silence, the CAS said it never received our letter. AdoptOntario says they definitely sent it. No resolution. Hopefully, the child has been matched with a family whose application wasn’t lost.
My wife has received emails from other prospective parents with similar stories of inefficiencies and random decision-making. People in the system have told us that collaboration between the provincial and local parts of the adoption system is difficult. There is clear friction. “Putting the children first” would mean overcoming obstacles to an efficient partnership, and working together to get children and parents matched.
The generic information we received from your Ministry of Children and Youth Services and from the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies make it sound like standards are in place, including a complaints process involving the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, the Child and Family Services Review Board (CFSRB), and the Provincial Ombudsman (who can only investigate the CFSRB). This convoluted process seems designed to proactively avoid being helpful or meaningful.
A key recommendation in Bill 42, currently stuck in the weeds at Queen’s Park, is to make Children’s Aid Society’s accountable to the Ontario Ombudsman. This would help eliminate some of the friction. I urge you to push the bill forward, convince your MPP colleagues of its merit, and improve oversight.
4. Create accountability in the system
Accountability mechanisms are missing or not working. For example, after the same ARE, we submitted a letter of intent for another child, along with thirteen other couples. Months later, and only after my wife persistently raised questions, the responsible Children’s Aid Society admitted (over the phone only) that the file had not been touched since the ARE event.
Isn’t it imperative that the few kids whose profiles have been prioritized for ARE over the thousands of other waiting children get matched quickly? Especially if there are fourteen waiting families interested in one child? Why bother highlighting these kids only to move them to the bottom of the pile again?
My wife heard from other adoptive families with similar stories. One family applied for a sibling group of three at one ARE, never heard back, and the same children appeared again at ARE a year later. From the perspective of those families it may be frustrating; but how devastating is it for a child in the system to think there aren’t any “forever families” for her or him?
These may be singular examples, but are they really exceptions? How many children are kept in foster care way longer than necessary? How much does it cost to keep them there? How many resources are clogged up because of inertia? Where is the accountability? How is the adoption progress of individual children tracked? Who is actually checking and following up on it? Please simplify and improve accountability in the system.
5. Change the approach
Changing the system is possible. One idea for shortening the adoption cycle is to better separate in-take of parents and case management of children. Given the severity of situations that adoption workers have to deal with, it is no wonder they struggle to both actively help traumatized, abandoned children, and manage the matching process with adoptive families. Of course they will prioritize an urgent situation, and rightly so.
This leads to bottlenecks. For example, Toronto CAS is only holding its second in-take meeting of the whole year this October. Why not centralize in-take and keep case management local? Appropriately staffed, these separate units would work more efficiently. It would require modifications to the heavily decentralized approach Ontario is currently taking with its legally independent Children’s Aid Societies. Your leadership in spearheading change in this area is critical.
6. Stop prospective parents from dropping out
Creating separate approaches for in-take of prospective parents and case management of waiting children may also help keep more adoptive families in the system. The P.R.I.D.E. training for adoptive families at the beginning of the process is an excellent introduction to adoption, and an eye-opener in many ways. Even there, participants are often told that a successful completion can last two to four years.
My wife writes a blog (http://DorothyWasAdopted.wordpress.com/) about our adoption experience, where she is also publishing this letter. She hears from other families a lot. Many write to say they have either given up or are thinking about it. How many prospective parents has Ontario lost because they abandoned the adoption process due to a slow system that scares away instead of nurturing interest? It’s in the interest of the children to find better ways of keeping waiting parents in the system.
7. Modernize processes and technology
Decentralization, fragmentation and outdated paper-based processes are working against the interests of the children. Bringing together disjointed databases of children across Ontario and Canada is a first step, but much more could be done to speed up the process. England has made the process fast and transparent by removing administrative barriers and putting accountability checks in place. Combine this experience with technology excellence that makes complex processes faster, easier and more user-friendly.
The Government of Ontario has created the MaRS Discovery District to foster research-driven and technology-based innovation. Why not team up experienced adoption workers with some of the young bright minds coming out of University of Waterloo and other Ontario universities to start a project for modernized adoption processes at MaRS?
In conclusion, I know that I am self-servingly looking at the adoption system through the eyes of a waiting parent. Frontline work with children matters most, and I truly hope the system is much better on that end. Based on what my wife and I have experienced since starting our journey two years ago, I wonder how often “putting the interests of the children first” is used as a phrase to shield from accountability and unwanted collaboration.
How many kids in Ontario grow up without ever having a family to belong to because the system denies them the chance, despite the availability of adoptive families?
Minister MacCharles, speed up the adoption process, so that more forever families are created faster. It is doable, someone at the top just has to lead the way. I hope you are the one to make a difference for the many waiting children and prospective parents in Ontario. Thank you for listening.