Teen’s pleas for foster care went unheard, Ombudsman finds

April 29, 2024

29 April 2024

York CAS accepts recommendations to improve use of Voluntary Youth Services Agreements; Province to work with agencies to improve knowledge

(TORONTO – April 29, 2024) York Region Children’s Aid Society (York CAS) failed to respect the rights of a 16-year-old girl who repeatedly asked for a foster placement before she died, Ombudsman Paul Dubé’s latest investigation has found.

In his report, Rights Unrecognized: Mia’s Story, released today, the Ombudsman details how “Mia,” whose family had been involved with children’s aid societies in the past, was in “emotional crisis” after she was “kicked out” of her home in October 2019 and left without safe and permanent housing.

With no other family members willing or able to house her long-term, she entered into a Voluntary Youth Services Agreement (VYSA) with York CAS in December 2019. Such agreements are supposed to give 16- and 17-year-olds the “full range” of protection services that are available to younger children in care.

But even though she specifically asked York CAS to help with a placement and re-enrolling in school, Mia never received the support she sought. She was not provided with a foster placement, and at one point it was suggested that she could “stay in a shelter,” the Ombudsman found.

Her death in 2020 prompted a series of reports and reviews that are mandatory whenever a child dies within 12 months of receiving child protection services. Such deaths must be reported to the Chief Coroner of Ontario and the Ombudsman. (The Ombudsman’s Office regularly reviews these reports and identifies trends and cases that require follow-up; Mia’s case was one of these.)

The Chief Coroner found that Mia’s death was not related to the child protection services she received. However, the Ombudsman identified concerns about the adequacy of her care, and launched an investigation into those concerns.

The investigation, conducted by the Ombudsman’s Children and Youth Unit, uncovered several failures in York CAS’s handling of Mia’s case, for example:

  • Staff were pressured to stick to an “admission prevention” approach (i.e., avoiding putting young people in foster care), and did not fully consider her personal circumstances;

  • They had little understanding of VYSAs and what services they include;

  • They did not consider Mia’s right to be heard or participate in the decision-making affecting her, or her specific, repeated requests for foster care;

  • Instead, they suggested she seek a bed in a shelter.

“Because her voice was never heard and her requests for services were not adequately met, Mia never had the chance to regain stability and achieve her goal of returning to high school. Although her death was not the fault of York Region Children’s Aid Society, it highlighted significant deficiencies in the steps that were taken to protect her,” the Ombudsman writes in the report.

He also notes that this is far from the only case the Children and Youth Unit has flagged regarding complaints about the administration of VYSAs. His Office flagged 90 such complaints – dating back to 2019 and involving 30 different CASs – to the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. Given the Ministry’s oversight in this sector, it was also invited to respond to the findings in Mia’s Story.

The Ombudsman found York CAS’s actions “unreasonable and wrong” under the Ombudsman Act and made 20 recommendations for improvement, all of which the agency has accepted.

Among other things, he recommended that York CAS:

  • Take several measures to ensure the voice of any youth requesting or receiving voluntary services is heard, including documenting their views in writing and providing them with detailed explanations about decisions affecting them;

  • Ensure staff are trained in how to make decisions that are in a youth’s best interests and incorporate their voice, and in the legislative and policy requirements around VYSAs;

  • Regularly audit the services it provides to youths who request or receive voluntary services;

  • Ensure the best interests and needs of children prevail over agency strategies such as admission prevention;

  • Revise its VYSA policy to ensure shelters are not considered as a housing option unless specifically requested by the youth and the shelter would provide significant stability, safety, and meet the youth’s needs for supports and resources.

York CAS has agreed to report back to his Office every six months on its progress in implementing these changes. “I am pleased by York CAS’s positive response to my report and its commitment to improving care for youth seeking or receiving voluntary services,” the Ombudsman says in the report.

In its response to the Ombudsman’s findings, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services acknowledged the importance of increasing knowledge and training in the child welfare sector about VYSAs and said it would work collaboratively with CASs, their associations, the Office of the Children’s Lawyer and the Ombudsman’s Office on the issue.

The Ombudsman’s jurisdiction was extended to children and youth in care in May 2019. Since then, the Ombudsman’s Office has received more than 7,700 cases about young people in care, and nearly 1,000 cases about youth justice centres. In addition to assisting thousands of children with issues related to child welfare, the Office also provides outreach and services to children in provincial and demonstration schools, and oversees a wide range of services for children in the social services, health and education sectors.

Ombudsman Dubé will be available for media interviews today between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Razane Changuit, Communications Officer, Children and Youth Unit

Patrick Cochrane, Communications Officer, Children and Youth Unit

About the Office of the Ombudsman: The Ombudsman, established in 1975, is an independent and impartial officer of the Ontario Legislature. Under the Ombudsman Act, the Ombudsman reviews and resolves complaints and inquiries from the public about provincial government organizations, as well as French language services, child protection services, municipalities, universities and school boards. The Ombudsman does not overturn the decisions of elected officials or set public policy, but makes recommendations to ensure administrative fairness, transparency and accountability. The Ombudsman's investigations have benefited millions of Ontarians and led to widespread reforms, including better newborn screening, a more secure lottery system, more tracking of inmates in segregation, and improvements to the Landlord and Tenant Board and to long-term care home inspections.