Ten years after, Ontario still waiting for unified children’s aid system

The wheels of change are turning at an agonizingly slow rate for Ontario’s most vulnerable citizens.

In the late 1990s, the province was racked by a series of horrific deaths of children in the care of children’s aid societies.

Public outrage sparked reforms and investigations into the failings of the system. A key recommendation made by the Child Mortality Task Force was to implement a comprehensive single information system across all 52 agencies loosely organized under the umbrella organization, the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS).

But over 10 years after Jordan Heikamp was found starved to death in 1997 while in the care of Toronto’s Catholic Children’s Aid Society, the single information system (SIS) is still not in place.

“We really need a unified system,” says Marcelo Gomez-Wiuckstern, communications manager at the OACAS. “If a child moves from Thunder Bay to Toronto, the current systems used by agencies are not the same or integrated, so Toronto may not get the child’s data. This is a huge gap and concern.”

Work on SIS development began in 2006, three years after the government of Ontario formed a new organization, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS), to oversee improvements in delivering and integrating services.

In its transformation agenda report, the MCYS noted some major gaps in tracking children through the system: “The current collection of information systems does not provide provincial information about some of the most basic characteristics of children receiving child welfare services. There is no central capacity to report province-wide on the types of reported and investigated maltreatment, the age and sex of children receiving services … or the proportion of children who received services and are re-victimized.”

Vendors selected to develop SIS were IBM and Curam Software, a Dublin-based social services software developer, and IT consultancy Chartwell Inc. provided project management services. In April 2007, pilot testing of the new SIS system began at three agencies: Timiskaming Child and Family Services, Renfrew Family and Children’s Services and Simcoe Children’s Aid Society.

The Children’s Aid societies involved in the pilot are struggling to both implement the changes associated with the MYCS’ transformation agenda while also testing the new system. “We’re working really hard to get there but it’s a huge project that costs millions,” says Gomez-Wiuckstern. “In the next few months, the pilot tests of the new system will be completed, and then the Ministry will evaluate the results.”

Oversight and decisions about SIS’ implementation are ultimately the MCYS’ jurisdiction, he adds. “We’re a volunteer membership organization, and we aren’t funded by the government. We provide advocacy, community and public awareness but OACAS is not a head office. We don’t tell our agencies what to do – they’re accountable to the Ministry, as it provides their funding.”

But no definitive date for implementation was provided by the MCYS, which declined an interview. However, MCYS’ media spokesperson Anne Machowski noted via e-mail that SIS is a multi-year, multi-phased project. “The year-long pilot phase of the SIS in nearing completion and a comprehensive evaluation has begun. The Web-based system is designed to support improved casework planning and decision-making by increasing direct social worker contact with clients through streamlined data entry processes, and will improve reporting on outcomes, transparency and accountability.”

Attempts have been made in the past to introduce a unified system. “For the last twenty five years efforts have been underway to achieve a common information system for Ontario’s Child Welfare system. In the early years the technology was a major barrier to successfully developing the system. Over the years there have been a number of efforts to achieve the goal of a common information system. For a variety of reasons the efforts of many people never achieved the desired outcome,” wrote George Leck, SIS project sponsor, in a client testimonial posted on Chartwell Inc.’s Web site.

Problems with the delivery of Ontario’s child welfare services due to a lack of a common system have been spotlighted again in recent years. In 2006, Jim McCarter, the provincial auditor of Ontario, criticized the OACAS agencies for slow response times in his year-end report, noting some at-risk children were left in abusive or neglectful homes, sometimes for months, without social workers following up within the proper time frames.

And in a 2006 presentation to the Southeast Region Community Services, a report noted that six years after the overhaul of children’s services and processes began in Ontario, investigations have doubled and the number of children in care increased 70 per cent – but present service/financial data does little to explain why volumes are increasing, the types of risks children face or the effectiveness of services.

Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She can be reached atrosie@rosie-lombardi.com.

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