Tuesday, April 27, 1999

Caroline Mallan
Queen's Park Bureau

New law to guard children on way

Opposition agrees to speed bill through next Monday

Sweeping new child-protection powers could be enshrined in law within a week.

Under a deal announced yesterday at Queen's Park, the two opposition parties agreed to speed the legislation through in one day next Monday.

"The child-protection sector says we need these amendments, the coroner said we need these amendments, I don't care about the politics, I want this legislation through," Social Services Minister Janet Ecker said.

The amendments to the Child and Family Services Act would make it easier for Children's Aid workers to rescue children at risk of abuse.

They incorporate many of the changes recommended after a series of coroner's inquests into the deaths of children. The juries have argued that children are too often left unprotected because existing legislation places too high a priority on keeping families together.

It also follows a Star series in 1996 and 1997 that revealed widespread abuse of children by institutions set up to protect them. The series highlighted the manner in which children were bounced into and out of abusive situations.

The amendments are the first in a decade and were heralded by frontline child-protection workers when they were first introduced last October.

But that bill died on the order paper when the Legislature was prorogued shortly before Christmas.

Ecker vowed to re-introduce the bill, but experts in the field worried that it would be lost in the pre-election shuffle.

An election call is expected within weeks and voters will likely go to the polls in early June.

Failure to pass the bill was cited by Children's Aid workers in the suspicious death of a 13-month-old Scarborough child in February.

Mary McConville, executive director of the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, warned yesterday that passing the bill would only mark the beginning of the hard work to ensure that children in the province are safer.

"Just because the legislation is passed doesn't mean you can implement the changes right away," McConville said.

He added that the months lost have meant that essential re-training of child-protection workers, judges, lawyers, social workers and others who are in contact with abused children, did not happen.

"All of this is going to take several months just because of the sheer volume of people who have to be trained," she said.

'The child-protection sector says we need these amendments, the coroner said we need these amendments… I want this legislation through.'
— Social Services Minister Janet Ecker

The amendments would: Declare that the best interests of the child must be the main objective of child protection workers. Spell out for the first time "a pattern of neglect" as grounds for Children's Aid to take children away from their families. Clarify vague wording and loose definitions of children at risk and lower the threshold for declaring a child at risk. Clarify the rules for professionals and the public, who must report suspected cases of child abuse to the authorities. Make it easier for child protection workers to define a child as being at risk of "emotional harm." Make use of a person's past behaviour toward any child, not just a child directly in their care, during child-protection court proceedings.

Opposition New Democrats had called for public hearings on the bill but Ecker said they were unnecessary.

With the opposition Liberals already on-side to facilitate speedy passage, the New Democrats decided late last week that they too would help.

NDP social services critic Frances Lankin (Beaches-Woodbine) said she will go along with the amendments, but she is not happy about the process.

"Essentially the bottom line is blackmail," Lankin said, adding her party was told if the bill was not allowed to pass in one day, it would not get done in this Legislative session.

"I think kids are more important than that."

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Created: April 27, 1999
Last modified: January 31, 2001
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