Provincial inquests offer meaningful and valuable insights into tragic deaths and how they can be prevented from happening again. Jeffrey Baldwin’s death in 2002 was a tragedy that shocked and saddened the entire child welfare sector. The inquest into the death of Jeffrey Baldwin and the jury’s recommendations, which were released on February 14, 2014, provided meaningful insight into his death and further opportunities for improvement of the child welfare system.
The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) and its member Children’s Aid Societies (CASs) have conducted a thorough review and analysis of the 13 recommendations directed at CASs across Ontario. Here are the 13 key ways child welfare practice is responding to the inquest recommendations and improving child welfare practice in the province.
1. Confirming a caregiver’s identity during an investigation
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When a concern about abuse or neglect has been raised by a teacher, doctor, or concerned community member, a child protection worker needs to be able to confirm the identity of the person caring for the child. CASs are developing a best practice statement on obtaining identification from a parent or alternate prospective caregiver. Although a knock on the door from a child protection worker can feel intrusive, workers do their utmost to engage families in a respectful way while carrying out their duty to protect children.
How does this improve child welfare practice? During an investigation, the accurate spelling of a person’s name allows a worker to conduct a comprehensive records check, potentially leading to important information being revealed about a person’s previous involvement with Children’s Aid. Identity cards provide confirmation of identity and accurate spelling of names.
2. Conducting criminal record checks and vulnerable sector screening checks as part of an investigation
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When a child protection worker determines that it’s not safe for a child to remain at home, an alternate caregiver must be found to ensure the child’s safety. CASs are reinforcing compliance with the requirement that detailed information be collected about a prospective caregiver — such as a member of the child’s extended family — to determine whether they have been previously convicted of criminal offenses and (or) pardoned for sexual offenses. CASs are determining the viability of also using vulnerable sector checks as an additional means of assessing the safety of child placements.
How does this improve child welfare practice? Reviewing a prospective alternate caregiver’s history of involvement with the justice system helps a child protection worker determine whether a child will be safe in their temporary placement. Detailed checks minimize the risk of a child being endangered by their caregiver.
3. Initiating an investigation when new concerns arise about a child already involved with Children’s Aid
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When a child protection worker becomes aware of new concerns about the safety of a child who is already involved with Children’s Aid, a new investigation is initiated. In 2006, new child protection standards and training changed to guide workers through an investigation in a more systematic way. A worker’s supervisor serves as an additional checkpoint to review their decision-making process and plans for next steps.
How does this improve child welfare practice? Child protection workers now carry out subsequent investigations in a standard way, which helps workers to avoid missing any potential risk factors about a child’s safety based on their previous knowledge of a family.
4. Training caregivers to properly document disclosures by children about past abuse
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A child who is removed from a traumatic environment and placed with an alternate caregiver, such as a foster parent, will gradually fall into a new routine. Once they’re settled in, the child may start talking about some of the things that happened to them in the past. These disclosures can happen while sitting at the dinner table, getting ready for bed, or walking to school. CASs are developing ways to support disclosures to alternate caregivers, including a practice guide on how they should document information that a child might share with them about past traumatic experiences.
How does this improve child welfare practice? After Jeffrey’s death, his siblings began to tell their foster mother about the severe abuse that Jeffrey and his siblings had endured. Recording this type of information correctly will help child protection workers take appropriate action to keep children safe, including conducting a follow-up investigation and notifying police.
5. Providing financial and counselling support to a child’s caregiver
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Alternate caregivers looking after children who have experienced trauma need additional support in the face of the extra demands being placed on them. CASs are developing a best practice statement to ensure that foster parents and other caregivers receive adequate emotional support and counselling when they are looking after children who have experienced traumatic events. CASs have developed a request to the Government of Ontario to provide financial support to kin service providers.
How does this improve child welfare practice? Processes and resources need to be in place to immediately support skilled caregivers looking after children who have been severely abused or neglected. This additional support will help caregivers effectively deal with the challenges of caring for a child who has left a traumatic environment and minimize their own vicarious trauma.
6. Sharing the history of a traumatized child with their caregiver
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Since 2006, provincial standards have been in place on the sharing of a child’s history with alternate caregivers to ensure the safety and well-being of both the caregiver and the child in care. CASs are reinforcing these standards and developing a best practice statement on sharing important background information with alternate caregivers so they can properly care for the child.
How does this improve child welfare practice? Children are often placed with other qualified caregivers in the aftermath of a traumatic incident. These children need specialized care, and caregivers need the right information to be able to provide this care.
7. Providing children who have been traumatized with timely access to mental health services
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Children who are removed from their homes and placed in care first need a chance to settle into their new surroundings. In most cases, once a routine has been established, they are ready to begin seeing a mental health professional. CASs are developing a best practice statement to ensure these children have their mental health assessed early and are first in line to receive the necessary trauma-informed care.
How does this improve child welfare practice? Children who receive trauma-informed care in a timely way have significantly better outcomes compared with those who are made to wait upwards of a year for the mental health services they need.
8. Providing parents whose children have been taken into care with proper support
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A parent whose child is taken into care is often struggling with addictions and (or) mental health issues. Intimate partner violence plays a role in nearly 50% of child abuse cases and is another common reason for children to be taken into care. To ensure parents are given a chance to address the problems that led to Children’s Aid becoming involved, CASs are reinforcing the importance of following existing provincial standards that focus on strengthening families. That includes helping parents understand the legal system, ensuring they receive mental health and addiction services, and connecting them with a social network for support.
How does this improve child welfare practice? Unless parents are given full support and the opportunity to address the reasons that caused their children to be placed in care in the first place, children are less likely to be reunited with their families.
9. Upon request, providing a child’s parents with family planning resources
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CASs believe that it is a deeply personal choice as well as an individual’s responsibility to decide whether to have additional children. The role of Children’s Aid is to provide services to children and families that keep children safe. Making recommendations around family planning falls beyond the scope of what a child protection worker is legislated to do. CASs are developing best practices for connecting an individual to family planning resources in the community when the service is requested.
How does this improve child welfare practice? Individuals need access to reliable and accurate information to make family planning decisions that are right for them. Through their many different community partners, CASs are able to connect individuals with the type of support they need when the service falls beyond the scope of what Children’s Aid can provide.
10. Intervening when parental access visits are denied
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When an alternate caregiver is granted legal custody of a child, a judge makes the final decision on a visitation schedule between the parent and the child. While CASs are not responsible for enforcing compliance with court-ordered visitation and access agreements in cases of legal custody, CASs are developing a best practice statement outlining their responsibility and that of child protection workers when the access plan is compromised.
How does this improve child welfare practice? The denial of parental access visits could be a red flag that something is wrong, which may prompt an investigation by a child protection worker.
11. Performing a thorough review of a child’s case when it is transferred from one CAS to another
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Interagency protocols in Ontario define how a child’s case is transferred between agencies. These protocols ensure that the child protection worker assigned to a child’s case performs a thorough review when a case is transferred to them from another agency. CASs are reinforcing current standards and expectations to ensure timely review of a child’s case when they are assigned to a new worker in another agency.
How does this improve child welfare practice? This review provides the opportunity to consider the history of a child and family’s involvement with Children’s Aid and the services that have been provided or may be necessary to ensure child safety.
12. Using provincial child protection standards to determine case closure when legal custody
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In 2006, the Child, Youth and Family Services Act was updated to include an option for legal custody for alternate caregivers when the court determines that a child is in need of protection. This process allows alternate caregivers to obtain legal custody more quickly. The jury’s recommendation was that a case should not be closed until legal custody is achieved. CASs have provincial standards that determine when a child is considered safe and when a case can therefore be closed. When a child safety concern has been resolved, it is not necessary to wait until legal custody is granted to close the child protection case.
How does this affect child welfare practice? Legal custody is one of the ways that can help to ensure child safety and permanency, but isn’t the only reason for determining when to close a case. The use of the provincial standards related to decision-making about case closures contributes to consistent child welfare practice.
13. ‘Closing the loop’ of communication when a child protection concern is received
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Individuals need to receive timely feedback that their concern about the safety of a child has been received by a child protection worker. CASs are reinforcing the importance of current standards, which includes providing timely acknowledgement to a person calling Children’s Aid about a child protection concern and reminding them of their ongoing responsibility to disclose child safety concerns.
How does this improve child welfare practice? Individuals are sometimes concerned about what happens to the information they share with a CAS related to their concerns about a child. When professionals and community members are provided with information that their concern has been received, they will feel confident that their concerns are being taken seriously by CAS.
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