‘We want young people calling us directly’: head of the new children and youth unit in the Ontario ombudsman’s office (QP Briefing)

January 15, 2020

15 January 2020

The message Ontario’s Ombudsman Paul Dubé and the head of his office’s new children and youth unit want to share with young people across the province is: if you have a question, call.

By Sneh Duggal
Queen’s Park Briefing
January 10, 2020

The message Ontario’s Ombudsman Paul Dubé and the head of his office’s new children and youth unit want to share with young people across the province is: if you have a question, call.

The relatively new unit, headed by Diana Cooke, has a mandate to promote respect for the rights of children in care and to investigate complaints related to their situation, the way they are treated or whether their needs are being met, Dubé outlined while sitting in a conference room inside his Bay Street office in Toronto last fall.

“Children and youth in care and basically any child or youth with a question, even if they are wondering whether they fall within our jurisdiction, we would invite them to call,” Dubé said, although officially the unit’s mandate covers youth in care, which includes those living in group homes, foster homes or with family, but still receiving services from a children’s aid society.

It’s been a little more than eight months since the closure of the child and youth advocate’s office and the transfer of part of its role to the Ontario ombudsman. The advocate’s office, which was run by Irwin Elman, was shuttered at the end of April 2019 as part of the Progressive Conservative government’s plan to eliminate the positions of three independent officers of the legislature and merge them into the offices of the ombudsman and the auditor general. It was a move that was heavily criticized by opposition parties and those working with children and youth, with Elman, who was named "This link opens in a new tab child advocate of the year" at a North American conference in Las Vegas in July, saying it would harm already vulnerable children.

“The objective is to take as much care of children and youth as possible and to provide as much service as possible and information and we’re not going to leave anybody hanging high and dry — it’s too important a responsibility and we take it very seriously,” Dubé told QP Briefing. He acknowledged that the former office’s advocacy function wasn’t transferred over to the new unit, only its investigative role.

The new unit has early resolution officers who do some of what the advocates were doing in the previous office — taking phone calls, informing children of their rights, connecting them to resources and following up.

“Where it probably stops and what we won’t be doing is going with them to advocate in person, and accompanying them to a hearing or something like that,” Dubé said. “We’re always going to interpret the mandate broadly and offer as much assistance as we can.”

The government has said it would create three advocacy round tables “made up of those with lived experience in the fields of Indigenous child welfare, children-in-care and youth-in-custody” and “dedicated to sharing ideas for improvement.”

Cooke said both the advocacy and investigative functions are “very powerful safeguards for children.”

She said because of the loss of the advocacy function, the ombudsman’s office wouldn’t be holding the same sort of youth leaving care hearings that were facilitated by Elman’s office and held at Queen’s Park in 2011. But she hopes someone else will promote such initiatives.

“I think it’s something that should be happening in the system; young people should be given the opportunity to identify what the issues are and elevate their voices in more than just coming together in small little meetings that they run themselves,” Cooke said. “I think the idea that there could be another body perhaps the ministry or someone else really helping them powerfully raise their voice would be a good thing.”

One of the things the new children and youth unit has worked on is identifying “gaps” since the switchover and informing the ministry about them.

Cooke said in some instances they received calls where young people were unhappy with their placement, with the unit’s staff informing them of their right to appeal this. The unit’s staff contacted the youth’s case workers to inform them about this right to appeal.

“In the past the advocate’s office would have helped the young person through that process, in these cases we’ve been able to have workers already assigned to the young people help them through the process,” she said, adding that they flagged this for the ministry “because it could be the services providers associated with the young person can do it and should do it, but if there are any gaps, that’s one area that there may be some strengthening either to let people know about their obligations to help young people exercise their rights or to develop something else to assist them with those processes.”

Another “gap” when the changeover was announced was that the right of the advocate to be notified of a death or serious illness of a child in care was not going to be transferred to the ombudsman.

“We raised that and that was corrected in the spring,” Dubé said, with his office noting that this was done through a regulation which went into effect on May 1 last year.

“If we’re going to be responsible for promoting the rights of children and youth in care and keeping an eye on the issues that arise, it’d be important to have that accountability, to have agencies have that obligation to report,” he said.

“And it happens all the time, I was stunned by what the numbers were,” he added, although his office said it could not provide these numbers and referred this request to the ministry. “To have that kind of accountability, somebody should be getting the numbers to be able to keep track of what’s going on.”

Hannah Anderson, spokesperson for Jill Dunlop, associate minister of children and women’s issues, said in an email that 2018 and 2019 data is not available “at this time.” She said the Office of the Chief Coroner’s (OCC) Paediatric Death Review Committee — Child Welfare collects and reviews information about deaths or serious injuries of youth in care and publishes an analysis of its findings.

“We anticipate their next report to be published later this year,” Anderson said. The OCC’s December 2018 report said the coroner investigated 122 deaths of youth (ages 0-18) involved with children’s aid societies in 2017, slightly up from 2016 when there were 115 deaths investigated.

Dubé said a focus for the unit has been and will continue to be on outreach and that it’s their “duty” to put out as much information as possible for youth about what their rights are and inform service providers of their obligation to facilitate contact between youth and his office. Last year, the team developed videos, brochures and posters which made their rounds on social media and were distributed to children’s aid societies. They also made presentations to different organizations associated to child welfare.

Cooke said the team also planned to visit places “that have the most young people to begin with.

“We’ll pick the group homes that have the largest number of young people and the institutions, and go out and directly talk to the young people,” she said. Cooke and her team plan to start visiting some of these homes and child protection agencies this month.

Staff members have visited several youth custody facilities during the past few months and plan to continue doing so this year. Dubé said he was also going to visit Indigenous communities in northern Ontario. He met with Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler during a trip to Thunder Bay in December. Dubé has also spoken at some conferences including the Youth Justice Ontario annual conference and an Indigenous child and family well-being conference last fall.

Cooke acknowledged the challenge of reaching children in areas that are more isolated or who are living with family, with Dubé saying that social media, including Instagram, is one tool they can and are using.

The children and youth unit has received nearly 1,300 calls or complaints since May 2019, with Cooke noting in early fall that most of the approximately 600 calls they had received up until that point were from adults. Even the advocate’s office used to get many adults calling on behalf of children, but the proportion of children calling during the initial months has been lower, she said.

“We don’t have as many children calling as we’d like and that just highlights the importance of getting out to directly reach the young person,” Cooke said. “We want young people calling us directly.”

The unit currently has more than 20 staff — early resolution officers, investigators, a manager, communications, IT, reception, administration — and is in the process of hiring to boost the team up to close to 30 people. It is located in the same space as the former advocate’s office, just down the street from the ombudsman’s office.

Dubé labelled the closure of the child advocate’s office and the transfer of part of its role to his office as “challenging,” while Cooke said it’s been a difficult process.

Both found out about the change that first came to light in November 2018 through media reports. Dubé was clear in stating that he “didn’t solicit this change,” but when it was announced, he saw an opportunity to “combine the strengths of the two offices.” They had to figure out what the unit would look like and turned to the ombudsman’s office in Nova Scotia, which has a similar unit, as a model.

“It’s been very challenging and I think that the fact that we’ve succeeded in having a transition that we have speaks to the devotion of the staff and the resilience in (the) units,” he said, noting however that while some of the staff from the advocate’s office were transferred over, many were not.

“It was quite tumultuous, there were 83 people there before and down to 30,” he said. “That was difficult ... because the majority of the people were advocates and we were not getting the advocacy function, so we needed to keep the investigators, but not keep the advocates.”

Cooke, who served as director of advocacy and later investigations in Elman’s office and was the interim advocate for about a month after his departure, said that while she was happy to see Dubé embrace the change, it was a tough journey.

“It was difficult, of course, because it was a shock and then there was a period of uncertainty when we didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said. “We had to keep doing our work anyways, then we had to dismantle the office and still not know what was going to happen.”

This article was originally published on This link opens in a new tab Queen’s Park Briefing and is republished with permission.