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Report claims Ontario seeks to minimize, contain and silence advocate.

TORONTO -- The Ontario government lacks commitment to children's advocacy and "is deaf to the voices and concerns of vulnerable children" warns a recently released report on the role and functions of Ontario's Advocacy Office.

The report comes as the provincial government and Children's Advocate Judith Finlay argue over the terms for renewing her contract, leaving the future of the Office in doubt. Finlay is resisting ministry vetting of the reports of her office. Opposition parties are backing the concept of an Office accountable to the Legislature and not to the Ministry.

In a scathing report produced by Mathew Geigen-Miller of the Defence for Children International-Canada, the author charges "the only government that would consider this situation to be acceptable is a government seeking to minimize, contain and silence the Advocate."

The 50-page report, It's Time To Break The Silence: Creating Meaningful Access to Rights and Advocacy Services for Young People in Care in Ontario, compares services provided by Ontario's Advocacy Office to children under provincial care to services provided by other provincial Advocacy Offices.

It also concludes with 25 recommendations to improve the Office's functions through making it truly an arms-length agency by developing legislation to establish a new Office of the Child and Youth Advocate with the Advocate being appointed as an officer of the Legislature.

The report recommends that the Office's budget be placed with the Legislative Assembly to avoid starving out of an outspoken Advocate and Office by the government. Other recommendations include a requirement for an annual report to the Speaker, an expanded mandate, an increased right of entry and investigative powers and increased public education and communications.

In his review, Geigen-Miller rated the Ontario Advocacy Office based on five indicators. These indicators were the legislated mandate of the office, staffing levels, public information and communications functions, power to act and the ability of the office to monitor child deaths.

In all instances the Ontario Advocacy Office fell short of the norms. Its legislated mandate ranked last.

Raising concerns about the Office's mandate, Geigen-Miller notes the legislative reach of the Office is limited to young people "who are in care under the authority of the Ministry of Community, Family and Children's Services," to the exclusion of young offenders in the phase two system, in precourt custody, residents in adolescent mental health units of hospitals, and those who board in residential schools for the blind, deaf and learning-disabled.

Although the Advocate has some role with the excluded children, it is only at the grace of the other lead government departments through a "patch-work of agreements" that "unnecessarily complicates Ontario's system of child advocacy."

As well, Ontario's Advocacy Office "is resourced with a dangerously low number of staff" when compared to staff ratios for other provincial Offices, such as Newfoundland, which rated first and Saskatchewan, which rated second with Manitoba rated as a five.

Geingen-Miller compared the ratios of advocacy staff to young people in care and the ratio of advocacy staff to children under 18 years of age who live in the general population in six provinces. Ontario ranked last in both comparisons with each Advocate having the largest number of children of any province or the smallest number of Advocates per population.

In the category of Outreach and Public Reporting, Ontario again ranked last in the five areas compared--a dedicated website for the Office, production and distribution of information materials describing the Advocacy Office and the rights of children in care, the ability and/or the requirement to produce a public annual report, the ability to produce additional public reports on special topics and one or more staff dedicated to communications.

While Saskatchewan and Quebec's offices contained all communications functions with British Columbia and Newfoundland rating second followed by Alberta and Manitoba rated at third and Nova Scotia fourth, Ontario had no discernible communications in any of the comparison functions, including no mandated information materials describing the Advocacy Office. In fact, Geigen-Miller notes that the Advocate under oath stated at a Coroner's inquiry that the provincial government has stopped the Advocacy Office from producing these materials.

In the other categories, such as Powers granted to Ontario's Advocacy Office, Ontario ranked last meaning the Office "is granted the fewest powers under the law" compared to seven other provinces where Nova Scotia ranked first.
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Publication:Community Action
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Jul 14, 2003
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