Reports Spur Changes in Ontario's Child Protection Law
from Spring 2000 Adoptalk
The most significant changes to Ontario's child protection laws in more than 10 years went into effect March 31, 2000. Under the newly amended Child and Family Services Act, child protection workers have clear guidelines for assessing children who need protective custody, establishing permanency plans for children more expediently, and restricting the rights of adults to gain access to children in custody unless the contact is deemed beneficial to the child.
The new law was spurred by recommendations from three reports commissioned by the Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS). The most significant report examined the deaths of more than 100 children in a recent two-year period, some of whom died after workers became aware of problems in the child's home, but due to existing law, felt unable to take the child into protective custody.
Passed unanimously by the Ontario legislature in May 1999, the new amendments:
Clarify that the Child and Family Services Act's chief purpose is to promote children's best interests, safety, and well-being. Because the Act's preface also lists five other purposes, practitioners have sometimes given more credence to a purpose stating that "the least restrictive or disruptive course of action" should be followed. By removing the phrase "least restrictive" and emphasizing the primacy of children's best interests, law makers hope to ensure workers can more expediently remove children from dangerous situations.
Broaden the scope of reasons workers can use to determine that a child needs protection. The threshold for risk of harm has been lowered by changing "substantial risk" to "risk" that the child may be harmed, and the threshold for emotional harm has been lowered from "severe" to "serious." The words "pattern of neglect" have also been added to grounds dealing with physical and emotional harm. Prior to the changes, the word "neglect" was not explicitly mentioned.
Shorten the length of time a child can remain in temporary children's aid society wardship before a permanent plan is established. Previous law allowed children to remain in custody without a permanent plan for up to 24 continuous months. The clock was set back to zero every time a child left and re-entered care. The new amendments shorten the time for children under age 6 to a cumulative 12 months. In addition, the planning timeline for all other children is now a cumulative 24 months.
Ensure that access to a Crown ward is in his or her best interest, and does not interfere with the child's ability to find a permanent placement. Until the recent change, children for whom an access order was on file could not be placed for adoption, even if the person with access had stopped contact with the child. The amended law gives courts guidance for establishing and terminating access orders based on children's best interests.
Under the amended law, childrenespecially those under sixwill be reunified with birth families or freed for adoption sooner, and find permanency far more quickly. Estimates are that under the old law, children spent about 44 months in care before parents' rights were terminated. The new restrictions on access orders should also help children under Crown wardship to be placed for adoption.
Unfortunately, new requirements for young children apply only to those just now entering care. In addition, less stringent guidelines for bringing children into protective custody will likely increase the number of children in care, and the number of children who ultimately need adoptive families. The Act includes no money to help agencies recruit additional families for those children.
Clearly, however, the changes represent a significant step forward. Sandy Moshenko, Manager of Accreditation for the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies says the amendments are already helping to "keep children at the center of the planning process"an approach that will benefit every child in the care of Ontario's 53 children's aid societies.