October 23, 2023
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I have had the pleasure of working with Diana Cooke for several years. Diana is the Director of Children and Youth at Ombudsman Ontario. Previously, she worked at the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth as the Director of Advocacy and later as the Director of Investigations. Diana’s experience includes working with young people involved in the youth court, child welfare, and emergency shelter systems. She holds both a Master of Social Work and a Master of Laws degree.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Diana to talk about her background working with children and youth, her current role as the Director of the Children and Youth unit at the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman, and the work of that unit. The following are her responses to a series of questions posed during our discussion.
What is the Ontario Ombudsman’s authority relating to issues affecting Children and Youth?
Following legislative amendments, on May 1, 2019, the Ontario Ombudsman became responsible for the investigative function of the former Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth. Under this new mandate, the Ombudsman may investigate any matter relating to services provided to a child by children’s aid societies or residential licensees such as foster homes, group homes, treatment centres, youth justice facilities, and secure treatment programs. The Ombudsman also has jurisdiction over a number of other programs and services affecting children, youth, and families including school boards and universities, the provincial and demonstration schools for students who are Deaf, Deaf blind or have severe learning disabilities, services to children with complex special needs, Ontario Works, driver’s licenses, the Ontario Disability Support program, and birth certificates. The Ombudsman can review and investigate complaints he receives and can investigate on his own initiative. Overall, our jurisdiction over matters affecting children and youth is quite broad and very robust.
Our Office is also a member of the Canadian Council of Children and Youth Advocates, the Children and Families Chapter of the United States Ombudsman Association, and we closely follow the work of the European Network of Ombudsman for Children. I mention this to point out that, across the world, the way Children’s Advocates, Children’s Ombudsman, and Children’s Commissioners approach their work is very similar and we operate under common principles.
Can you tell us about who works in the Children and Youth Unit?
We have about 25 people in our unit, most of whom are either Early Resolution Officers or Investigators. We also have a Research Analyst. They all have relevant backgrounds in fields such as social work, law, policing, children’s mental health, residential care, justice, epidemiology, and health.
All of our staff also have a strong understanding of the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017, Ontario’s children’s services sector, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families. In addition, they are all trained in children’s rights and in conducting child rights impact assessments.
We work in collaboration with other operational areas in the Office, including the Legal Services, French Languages Services, and General units.
How can people reach the Children and Youth Unit?
Our Unit has its own local and toll free phone numbers and a dedicated email address. However, we find that most people reach us by phone. Our Early Resolution Officers are generally the first point of contact for callers and are skilled at resolving issues and making relevant referrals.
Typically, we will ensure someone has used existing complaints mechanisms before we become more heavily involved. Under the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017, there are a number of options including complaints to the children’s aid society/out of home placement in question, the Child and Family Services Review Board, Residential Placement Advisory Committee, Custody Review Board or raising issues through plans of care, Status Review hearings, and Alternative Dispute Resolution. Our Early Resolution Officers listen to the problem and try to figure out the best way to resolve it. When issues cannot be resolved at the local level, we often delve into matters further for instance by obtaining documents and making our own inquiries. Sometimes, we will initiate a formal investigation.
While many of our callers are parents and relatives, we also receive calls from police, lawyers and other professionals, foster parents, youth in transition workers, and sometimes whistleblowers. Police often raise concerns with us about young people involved in human trafficking or the conditions they see in group or foster home placements; lawyers and youth in transition workers have called about young people who have been denied services by a children’s aid society or the placement of a young person in a hotel/motel, and foster parents call with concerns about children not having their needs met.
Last fiscal year, our Office received 1,678 complaints about children and youth in care, 279 of these came from young people. When the caller is a child or youth, we stay closely involved in order to ensure their rights are protected, their voices are heard, and their concerns are looked into appropriately.
How do children and youth find out about the Ombudsman?
Under both the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017 and the Ombudsman Act, service providers are required to tell children and youth in care (which includes young people in custody) about our office and how they can contact us. They also have to allow young people to speak to us privately.
However, we also go out to see young people in group homes, foster homes, treatment centres and custody facilities to ensure they know about our office, their rights, and how to contact us. We usually meet with each young person privately to give them a chance to tell us about any concerns they have.
In addition, we regularly meet with the Ontario Association of Foster Parents, Youth in Transition Workers, and the Ontario Association of Child and Youth Workers to learn about the trends they are seeing and to encourage their members to help young people contact our office when issues come up.
We also have child friendly presentation materials, including comic videos on our website that explain our office and how we can help.
In addition to our regular visits to children and youth in group and foster homes, we have four specialized outreach teams who connect with children, youth and families who are overrepresented in the child welfare system and/or may be particularly vulnerable. These teams are our Indigenous Circle, Black Children, Youth and Families Roundtable, 2SLGBTQ Outreach, and our newly formed Provincial and Demonstration Schools Team. The main role of these teams is to connect with children, youth, families and, at times, service providers to provide case consultation, and review particular cases that come to our attention through the Death and Serious Bodily Harm Reporting system.
Our Indigenous Circle team has the capacity to incorporate Indigenous Cultural practices into their work such as smudging, the use of an Eagle Feather, and the participation of Elders. Our brochures are also available in Cree, Ojibway, and Oji-Cree.
What is the Death and Serious Bodily Harm Reporting System?
Under regulations to the Ombudsman Act, children’s aid societies and residential licensees are required to notify the Ombudsman’s Office any time they become aware of an incident of death or serious bodily harm to a child who has received services from a children’s aid society within the past 12 months. The Children and Youth Unit has a specialized team that reviews each of these reports weekly to identify systemic issues or cases for follow up. The team also meets monthly with the Office of the Chief Coroner’s Child and Youth Death Review Analysis Team to identify any issues of concern and any deaths that were not reported to the Ombudsman. The Coroner conducts death investigations, but once they are complete, our Office can make further inquiries or investigate outstanding concerns about the services provided by a children’s aid society or a licensed residential service provider.
Can you discuss some of the Ombudsman’s formal investigations concerning issues affecting Children and Youth?
Over the past couple of years, the Ombudsman has released three investigation reports relating to issues directly affecting children and youth: Lost Opportunities, A Voice Unheard: Brandon's Story, and Missing in Inaction: Misty’s Story. In brief, the investigations are about the closure of custody and detention programs at two youth justice facilities in northern Ontario; a 10 year-old boy who was apprehended by police after the children’s aid society failed to act; and a young 13 year-old girl placed thousands of miles from her home community who went missing for 19 days. The first investigation reflected a collaborative effort on the part of the Children and Youth and General Units.
In Lost Opportunities, the Ombudsman made 16 recommendations including that the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services ensure its staff are aware of the Ministry’s Trans Young Persons Policy and consult young people identifying as transgender prior to making placement decisions.
In A Voice Unheard: Brandon’s Story, the Ombudsman issued 18 recommendations addressed at improving a children’s aid society’s compliance with regulatory requirements and the Ontario Child Protection Standards, and enhancing its child protection services. For instance, one key recommendation stressed the importance of interviewing children privately in accordance with the standards.
Finally, in Missing in Inaction: Misty’s Story involving an investigation of three agencies, the Ombudsman issued 58 recommendations, including that children’s aid societies and placing agencies should obtain a copy of the residential service provider’s license and any conditions imposed on it prior to placing a child in a residence.
Since the Ombudsman issued these reports, I understand they have been used as learning opportunities by organizations beyond the specific agencies that were involved in the investigations. One of our goals in publicizing our reports and recommendations is that it will encourage positive change within the broader system.
What is your relationship with the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services?
The Ombudsman is independent from the ministries and other bodies he oversees. However, our Office regularly works proactively with government organizations to discuss trends and promote system improvements. We meet monthly with representatives from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services in an effort to identify and resolve issues before problems escalate. We also write submissions and make recommendations to Government on legislation and policies that affect children and families. Most recently, we made a submission as part of the five-year review of the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017. One of the issues we focused on was the importance of ensuring young people have accurate information about their rights to Voluntary Youth Services Agreements and the Ready, Set, Go Program and know that we are there to help them if they have any concerns about their access to these programs.
Anything else you want our readers to know?
When I talk about our Unit, I always want to ensure that people come away with the following key messages about our work:
Reflect the best interests of children in our work
Receive, respond to, and resolve complaints
Investigate when necessary and issue public reports and recommendations
Promote and Protect children’s rights
Monitor the effectiveness of complaints mechanisms for children and youth
Meet with children and youth in care to tell them about their rights
Conduct outreach to families, service providers, and community agencies to provide information about the rights of children, our office, and how we can help
Administer the Death and Serious Bodily Harm Reporting system
Make recommendations to Government for improvements benefiting Ontario’s children and youth
For those wishing to learn more about the work of the Children and Youth Unit you can visit the unit’s webpage on the Ontario Ombudsman’s website.
This article originally appeared on the OBA's This link opens in a new tabChild and Youth Law Section articles page.