How Global News/APTN exposed alarming conditions in Ontario's child-welfare system

WATCH: Broken child welfare systems are a result of profits being put ahead of children, experts say

Last summer, Global News and APTN journalists started looking into Ontario’s child welfare system with a basic mission: uncover what life is like for the roughly 12,000 kids in its care.

This provincial system is one part of what’s been called Canada’s “modern-day residential school system.”

Census data shows Indigenous kids make up only 7.7 per cent of the country’s child population, but they account for more than one out of two children in foster care under the age of 14.

Residential Schools

An undated image of the Shingwauk Residential School that operated in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre

It shouldn’t have been such a challenge to investigate. Government inspection reports for daycare centres and long-term care homes can be viewed online, which helps families determine what kinds of conditions their loved ones would encounter in these regulated spaces.

Why wouldn’t the same go for child welfare?

We knew the system lacked transparency from interviews with child welfare experts and a government-funded review of the system done in 2016 that called on the provincial government to publicly disclose more data on quality of care and how kids in the system are faring.

But it quickly became apparent that Ontario keeps even the most basic information under wraps. When we started our investigation in June 2021, it didn’t even post a list of licensed group homes and foster care agencies online.

We had to ask for a list from the communications team at the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. As a backup, we also filed a freedom of information request.

The government has since created an online search tool that allows anyone to find the names and licensing conditions of the for-profit companies and not-for-profits delivering care to the province’s most vulnerable youth, but other vital information isn’t disclosed.

Encountering a system shrouded in secrecy and full of obstacles almost every step of the way, Global News and APTN had to file over 30 freedom of information requests with the ministry about everything from inspection reports to budget data showing how the $1.8 billion provided to the child welfare system is spent.

We had to pay roughly $1,500 in processing fees for those requests and waited months for responses.

Through one request, we obtained data from over 10,000 serious occurrence reports, or SORs. Homes are legally obliged to send these reports to the ministry when a child in care dies, is seriously injured or ill, goes missing or is physically restrained by staff — among other incidents.

READ MORE: NDP, Green Party call for end to for-profit care in Ontario child-welfare system

Even this information was released with reluctance. The ministry wouldn’t disclose entire SORs. Instead, they disclosed most of the fields that the reports contain – from an incident’s category and subcategory, to the location and date it occurred, to whether or not emergency services were called.

But they wouldn’t give us the detailed descriptions of each incident. Disclosing those would be a possible breach of children’s privacy, the government argued. Even if their names were redacted, the information contained in those textboxes could be used to re-identify specific youth, we were told.

Separately, we eventually obtained the list of licensed service providers through another freedom of information request. The list showed which group homes and foster care agencies are run by for-profit companies.

By merging that dataset with the SOR data, we found that private for-profit service providers account for 55 per cent of all SORs in group and foster homes, despite having only a quarter of the child welfare system’s beds.

With service providers receiving a per-diem for each child in their care, child welfare experts told us some for-profit companies view kids as “commodities.”

Global News and APTN tried to get the daily rate each residence receives, but the ministry withheld that data under a section of Ontario’s freedom of information law that exempts them from having to disclose the government’s or other organizations’ “trade secrets.”

READ MORE: Inside Ontario’s ‘scary’ child-welfare system where kids are ‘commodities’

Ultimately, though, the government records can only offer so much. Instead, it was personal accounts from young adults of their time in care that were the most insightful and poignant — and harrowing.

Finding those young adults wasn’t an easy task.

Our partner at APTN, Kenneth Jackson, already had an extensive list of contacts from the years he’s spent investigating the child welfare system. We scoured social media for weeks, looking for any posts by youth who had aged out of the system about their experiences within it. Whenever we spoke to one youth, we’d ask if they could connect us with others they’d met while in care.

One Indigenous youth explained to us how a group home’s windows were nailed shut and teens’ shoes and jackets were locked up so they couldn’t run away. She recalled being physically restrained by two staff members for reading a book after being told to turn off her light and go to sleep.

Another youth told us she was pulled down a flight of stairs and physically restrained for trying to make some toast after being told to return to her room. She also talked about the “helpless feeling” she felt as she was moved around the system 15 times.

“There’s nothing I could do about my situation,” she said.  “It’s really scary when you’re in it because you don’t know where you’re going.”

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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