York children’s aid failed teen by denying foster care before her death: Ombudsman report (The Star)

April 30, 2024

30 April 2024

When the teen requested foster placement from York Region CAS, staff denied her, saying she had two options: “a shelter bed or living on the street.”

Mahdis Habibinia
This link opens in a new tabThe Star
April 30, 2024

The York Region Children’s Aid Society was wrong to deny a 16-year-old girl help finding a foster home before her sudden death in 2020, Ontario’s ombudsman has found in a report detailing systemic training problems at the agency.

When Mia sought help in 2019, she desperately wanted to get her life on track but also knew she was not ready to live on her own.

No one in Mia’s life was “willing or able to provide her with a stable living environment, and York CAS failed to offer her an alternative living option or to provide concrete support that may have made it possible for her to stay with extended family,” ombudsman Paul Dubé wrote in his 50-page report released Monday.  

The document sums up the CAS’s shortcomings, describing minimal staff training around a 16-year-old’s rights, outdated and inadequate policies around who gets considered for foster care and a complicated hierarchy that never allowed Mia’s voice to be heard.

In order to protect Mia’s identity and her family’s privacy, Dubé’s investigation focused on the quality of child protection services in her case, and not on how she died; the report states Mia died in a hospital surrounded by her grandmother and aunt.

She was described as a “brave” girl who wanted nothing more than to finish high school and find stability.

In a statement to the Star, York CAS’s new CEO Ginelle Skerritt said the agency accepts all 20 recommendations in the ombudsman’s report.

Skerritt noted that “significant changes” have since been made following an operational review, the details and progress of which were published in April, including the creation of a Youth Advisory Council that centres youth’s voices and developing a holistic model to care for 16- and 17-year-olds.

In the months leading to her death, Mia’s mother had kicked her out of the house and staying with her father, whom she earlier described as physically abusive, wasn’t an option.

So, Mia began couch surfing. Mia described her grandmother’s home as “chaotic” and “unstable” because of her sister’s drug use; she then moved to her aunt’s before she was asked to leave.

When she finally requested foster care, a director at the CAS told staff she could instead “stay in a shelter.”

At the time of Mia’s request, there were no suitable foster homes available affiliated with the York CAS. While three homes run by external providers had space for her, the report states senior management at the society refused to approve any placements.

According to a 2018 directive, Ontario children’s aid societies are supposed to provide the “full range” of protection services to 16- and 17-year-olds that are also available to younger children.

These can be accessed through a Voluntary Youth Services Agreement — which Mia signed onto with CAS approval — and aims to support young people so they can live on their own or in an out-of-home placement.

According to the report, these agreements were rare at the York CAS and staff had “limited training” and were unfamiliar with how to offer these services.

The report goes on to note a gap in a York CAS policy at the time: staff were supposed to exhaust an array of alternatives to external foster care before approving it, but the policy was not updated to reflect the 2018 directive.

This means Mia was within her rights to be placed into foster care because she could not be protected at home, had no other safe options with family or friends and needed an out-of-home placement.

“The best interests of a child are supposed to be the paramount consideration in all child protection decisions,” Dubé wrote.

Staff told Dubé that York CAS put “enormous pressure” on them at the time not to offer foster placements as part of a strategy to reduce the number of children admitted. While Dubé calls it a “laudable goal” intended to ensure children are supported in their homes when possible, the initiative should not have been applied in Mia’s case without considering her personal circumstances.

Skerritt noted that Ontario children’s aid societies are still legislated to practise ”admission prevention.”

She also noted “quality and safety concerns” at the privately operated homes, adding that some operated outside of Mia’s community, which would have removed her from her school.

Mia told her case worker she would go “anywhere” to live in a foster home.

A damning report in 2020 found previous senior leadership at York CAS had created a “toxic” work environment.