TORONTO — The Ford government's plan to close the local branch of the provincial Office of the Advocate for Children and Youth, in conjunction with phasing out the position of Child Advocate, came under fire Monday from Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP Judith Monteith-Farrell.
"Children and youth in care across the northwest, including Indigenous communities, will have nowhere to turn," Monteith-Farrell said in the legislature where she rose to call on the government to reverse what she described as a "reckless" decision.
Last week, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dube, whose jurisdiction will be expanded to include some of the responsibilities of the Child Advocate's office, said he plans to consult with northern and Indigenous communities"to ensure they are aware of and can access the Ombudsman's services."
Dube said the Ombudsman's new child and youth unit will include experienced investigators from the Advocate's team to help ensure its new responsibilities toward children are met. However, he also stated "It must be understood that an ombudsman is not an interest advocate; an ombudsman is an impartial investigator who advocates for fairness and good governance, but not for individuals."
After speaking at Queen's Park, Monteith-Farrell seized on that point in an interview with Tbnewswatch, noting that the Ombudsman's office "has a lot on its plate" already, in its oversight of numerous agencies.
"This is very specialized work. Every other province in Canada believes that they need a child advocacy role and agency to do that work," she said.
Allowing vulnerable children to "fall through the cracks," she added, is not the right way to try to save money. "There's plenty of other ways to do that...When we have a crisis with suicides, and a crisis with children in care, to take away their voice is unconscionable."
Monteith-Farrell said that although an ombudsman is able to conduct investigations, "You need someone who is attached to the problem, who is actually aware of the problem."
Although at least some Thunder Bay staff have already received termination notices, a spokesperson in the Ombudsman's office said Monday that "more details with regard to Thunder Bay will be announced once they are finalized."
Under new legislation, the changes must be completed no later than May 1.
Dube has noted that in place of the Child Advocate, advocacy for children and youth will be now coordinated within the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, and that the government will create "advocacy roundtables" for that purpose.