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Unions and management warn of crisis in Ontario children's services

Management and unionized staff at children's aid societies and children's mental health agencies said in a statement Tuesday that they’ll “mark National Child Day this Friday, November 20, by wearing blue ribbons and distributing message bookmarks to the public warning that children are in danger if the government does not act soon.”

Three unions (CUPE, CEP and OPSEU) and two major children’s associations (Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies and Children’s Mental Health Ontario) have joined forces, calling on the government “to stop the denial, admit there is a crisis and agree to fix it.”

They said 49 of Ontario’s 53 Children’s Aid Societies (CASs) face a budget shortfall of $67 million this year, representing up to 30 per cent of their costs.

York Region Children’s Aid Society is short $7.3 million or 16.2 per cent of its budget. On November 10, the agency issued 60 days notice of layoff to 18 employees, who will be laid off as of January 15 if the agency doesn’t receive additional funding.

Chatham-Kent Children’s Services is short $1.6 million or 7 per cent of its budget; the agency will be unable to meet its payroll past March 12.

Payukotayno: James and Hudson Bay Family Service is short $1.9 million or 14 per cent of its budget. The agency will be unable to continue operations past December 14. Layoff notices have already been given to all 120 front-line and management staff.

“We’re here today because there’s a funding crisis in children’s aid and in children’s mental health which the McGuinty government fails to even acknowledge and is steadfastly refusing to address it or fix it,” said Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), during a press conference Tuesday at Queen’s Park. “Thousands of vulnerable children and youth are at risk as a result.”

In 2008, Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies member agencies provided care to 27,152 children and 42,811 families.

“Children’s aid society funding has gone from $500 million to $1.4 billion in the last ten years,” said Laurel Broten, Minister of Children and Youth Services during question period Tuesday. “That level of increase is not sustainable. We need to find a way to do better and we need to find a way to deliver more services and better outcomes to the kids.”

That’s not good enough, said Thomas.

According to unions and management, the government’s funding model for CASs doesn’t reflect the hours needed to manage caseloads and follow statutory requirements or, in some cases, the real cost of treating high needs children.

Thomas said the loss of supervisory and clerical positions means frontline child protection workers will spend much more time doing paperwork and less time visiting families.

“Their cases will not receive the same quality of supervision as before,” he said, adding “in hard times with so many communities suffering as a result of the recession the demand on our community services rises.”

This is also the case with children’s mental health services, where child and youth mental health service providers have said they’ve experienced up to a 50 per cent increase in referrals for service during the recession.

Research shows that almost one out of five Ontario children and youth has a diagnosable mental health disorder that causes moderate to severe impairment, with two-thirds of those children having more than one disorder.

But five out of every six children with specialized mental health problems aren’t getting the help they need, according to the Ontario Child Health Study; those who seek help face an average wait time of five and a half months.

“The chronic and persistent under funding of children’s mental health services means providers can’t meet the increased demand for services,” said Thomas. “Left unattended, these problems will only escalate and the impacts are felt in the family and the community.”

Sarah Cannon, whose 12-year-old daughter suffers with bi-polar disorder, understands the devastating effects of this potentially life threatening illness that claimed her husband nearly seven years ago.  

“My battle is one that sees me struggling to find services and treatment for my daughter so she doesn’t meet the fate that her father met,” said Cannon.

Where she lives, the average wait time to receive help is usually more than a year. “If my daughter had a physical illness, I wouldn’t have these struggles. But because it’s a mental illness, she is left to struggle and suffer in isolation and silence.”

Cannon said she’s now forced to leave her community to get services for her daughter, who can’t wait until they’re available close by.

“If we do not immediately react to this crisis,” she said, “we’re going to see much more unnecessary loss of child lives.

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