A mother is questioned by Ontario child protection workers for sending her child to school with Jamaican patties for lunch.
Children’s aid workers refuse an African-Canadian father’s plea to have his children temporarily placed with Black family friends — rather than white strangers — during a possible child abuse investigation.
Siblings in a Black family are removed over concerns about their parents’ “firm” parenting style.
Kike Ojo, manager of anti-Black racism initiatives for Ontario’s child protection system, has heard it all.
“Systemic anti-Black racism in our sector is real, and quite frankly, rampant,” she said.
It is why Ojo and her team are hiring two “community engagement workers” to help advise and support African-Canadian families struggling to navigate Ontario’s child protection system.
Until now, families facing oppressive behaviour by children’s aid societies have had nowhere in the system to turn.
Neither the provincial Child and Family Services Review Board nor the Ontario Child Advocate’s office are equipped to deal with complaints about anti-Black racism, says Ojo, manager of One Vision One Voice (OVOV), a provincially funded program of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, which represents the province’s 47 societies.
Launched in January 2015 after years of community pressure, OVOV is aimed at addressing the over-representation of Black children in the care of children’s aid societies, a problem highlighted by the Star and most recently by Ontario’s Human Rights Commission.
The new community engagement officers must understand how anti-Black racism impacts African-Canadian families, and have front-line and/or supervisory experience working in child protection, Ojo said.
“We need people from the field who understand the sector, who have credibility in these roles,” she said.
She hopes to fill the eight-month contract positions —which will pay up to $96,488 — by September.
“System navigation is not just advocacy and resistance. It’s also for support,” Ojo said. “Whether you are legitimately there (being investigated by children’s aid) is a secondary issue. When you are moving through the system, you need support to translate what is happening.”
The OVOV initiative began with a series of 12 provincewide consultations led by a committee of 18 African-Canadian community leaders in the fall of 2015. The committee heard from more than 800 Black families and youth, foster parents, child protection workers and community members. It concluded the system undermines African-Canadian families and “can, in fact, destroy them.”
The committee’s report, “One Vision One Voice: Changing the Child Welfare System to Better Serve African-Canadians,” released in September 2016, demanded every aspect of child protection in Ontario be transformed to fight anti-Black racism. It called for changes to provincial child protection laws, the Children’s Ministry, privately run children’s aid societies, and to the way educators, police and medical staff refer children suspected of being at risk of abuse or neglect.
New legislation introduced in December 2016 gave the province sweeping new powers over children’s aid societies and directed every society to collect and publish race-based statistics by 2020 to better track what is going on.
The system navigators are part of the second phase of OVOV. Other measures have included a symposium earlier this month that attracted 130 young people and was Ontario’s largest-ever gathering of Black youth in care. A provincewide gathering for Black children’s aid workers is slated for the fall.
Ojo’s staff are assessing anti-Black racism policies and practices at Ontario’s 47 children’s aid societies and offering implementation plans and guidance on how to address gaps.
A data specialist is combing through assessment tools used to evaluate how the system is treating children with a view to ensuring none of the tools perpetuate anti-Black racism, Ojo added.
OVOV is also compiling a Black services directory of all community support agencies available for families and children’s aid societies.
Part of the new community engagement workers’ role will be to help connect Black families and societies to those agencies, Ojo says.
However, Sonia Mills-Minster, who runs a counselling service that works with African-Canadian families involved with both the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto and the Catholic Children’s Aid Society, questions why the province is paying the child protection system to hire system navigators.
“This is work that should be done by the (Black) community,” she said. “Not everyone who has an issue is going to trust the system that has oppressed us for the last 100 years.”
Provincial funding would be better directed to help build capacity within services aimed at serving the African-Canadian community, added Mills-Minister, one of the 18 community leaders who helped create the original OVOV report.
But Ojo defends the positions. Both the Toronto and York district school boards have “system navigators” to help African-Canadian families who feel their children are not being well served at school, she noted.
All big systems that need to change have change-makers from within and from without, she added.
Trevor McAlmont, director of advocacy services for the Ontario Child Advocate’s office, says any increase in resources to help Black young people is a positive step.
“One Vision One Voice has created the opening for change in the child welfare system that is long overdue,” he said. “Changes in the lives of Black young people in the child welfare system must, however, be a community effort.”
Ultimately, Ojo would like to see the community engagement worker role transform into an independent provincial ombudsperson’s office responsible for addressing anti-Black racism in child protection.
“The sector has been constructed as if anti-Black racism doesn’t exist. And it does,” she said. “So what we need is a space to log that. This is a pilot version of what that can become.”
Laure Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb