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Ontario child advocate ‘shocked’ to learn through media about office closing

Last Updated Nov 20, 2018 at 1:52 pm EDT

Irwin Elman, provincial advocate for child and youth for the province of Ontario, leaves a Toronto coroner's courthouse following the first day of the inquest into the federal prison death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith on Jan. 14, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu

Ontario’s child advocate says he learned through the media — not the government — about the province’s plan to close his office.

Irwin Elman said he received “no official notice or briefing” about the Progressive Conservative’s plan to repeal the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Act, announced during the fall fiscal update on Thursday.

“I find it shocking that I learned through the media this morning of this government’s plan to repeal the legislation that governs the work of the Ontario Child Advocate,” he said in a statement.

“Our office is independent of government and has had a very specific legislative mandate to advocate and investigate on behalf of the most vulnerable and marginalized children and youth in the province.

Elman said his office represents those who receive child welfare services, who are in the youth justice system and who are Indigenous, as well as those with disabilities or mental health issues.

He said his office has conducted reviews and investigations that have exposed gaps and failures in the system that have put children and youth at “significant risk.”

He pushed for the inquest into the death of seven-year-old Katelynn Sampson, who was abused and ultimately killed by her legal guardians in 2008.

“When children and youth do not have the ongoing protection of their parents, additional safeguards are absolutely essential. Our office has ensured that these children are not ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” Elman said.

“Instead, the government has proposed that the ministry monitor itself and advocate for the thousands of children in its care. This is dangerous. This government must pause, consult and reconsider its plan.”

According to Bill 57 — the Restoring Trust, Transparency and Accountability Act introduced by the province on Thursday — all 74 employees of the child advocate’s office, including Elman, will not lose their jobs. They will instead move to the office of the ombudsman when the bill becomes law.

The government said the ombudsman’s office will assume the duties of the child advocate’s office, including complaints against children’s aid societies and matters involving young offenders.

Lisa MacLeod, minister of Children, Community and Social Services, said she would stand up for children in the absence of the advocate’s office.

“I can assure everyone in this legislature that the fiercest child advocate in this province will be me,” she said at Queen’s Park on Thursday.

The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) said it is “deeply concerned” about the closure of the child advocate’s office.

It said the office “has shone a light on what children and youth experience when they are in care” since it was established in 2007, and its closure will affect Indigenous and black children and youth in particular.

“The Ontario Child Advocate is the public body that children and youth in provincial care most often turn to, and which has the appropriate independence and expertise to raise their concerns and to resolve issues,” the OACAS said in a release.

Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories are they only other Canadian provinces without a child advocate.