Ontario Opioid Epidemic Plunges Children's Aid Societies Into Crisis

Kim Streich-Poser has tried to reduce her staff with early retirement offers, but most of them are too dedicated to their work to take the bait.

“We’ve got people who are very, very committed to working with some of the most vulnerable children and families in our community,” the executive director of the Children’s Aid Society of Algoma told HuffPost Canada.

“They develop relationships with those people.”

So she’s had to cut costs the hard way. Streich-Poser, who is based in Sault Ste. Marie, says she’s given layoff notices to six of her 141 employees and is negotiating other “displacements” with their union. She’ll also close Algoma’s office in Hornepayne, Ont. and reduce two full-service district offices in Wawa and Blind River into small satellite offices with one employee each.

“We can’t afford to have more workers there,” she said.

The Children’s Aid Society of Algoma services a 49,000 sq.-km. swath of northern Ontario that stretches from Elliot Lake in the east to Pukaskwa National Park in the west.

Employees investigate allegations of child abuse, place children in foster care and work with birth parents so that they can provide a safe home for their kids.

Algoma’s society had already lost about 10 staff through attrition and early retirement before the director had to start layoffs.

“It’s left the remaining staff to sort of pick up the pieces,” adoption worker Lee-Ann Pettenuzzo told HuffPost. She’s also president of the local chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

She said she worries about what will happen to her co-worker left alone in Wawa.

“How is one worker going to cover this area? How is she going to meet the needs of the children?” Pettenuzzo asked.

“When you are talking child welfare, for her to be dealing with whatever crisis she’s dealing with and then not be able to debrief with anybody …”

Pettenuzzo trailed off.

“These are really emotional jobs.”

All of Algoma’s funding comes from the Ontario government. Over the past two years, their funding has decreased as Algoma transferred cases to Nogdawindamin Family & Community Services, an Indigenous-led child wellbeing agency.

But the rate of new kids needing care is going up, partially because more parents in northern Ontario are becoming addicted to opioids or dying of overdoses. So even though Nogdawindamin took over 66 cases, the number of kids Algoma is responsible for only decreased by 22.

The disproportionate cut in funding threw the children’s aid society into a “significant financial crisis,” Streich-Poser said.

This is happening in multiple areas of Ontario that have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. And workers say layoffs will force children’s aid societies to work crisis-to-crisis rather than focus on their mandate, which is to support birth parents so that they can be reunited with their children.

More than 600 Ontarians died of opioid overdoses in the first six months of 2018, according to numbers released Monday by Public Health Ontario. And there were 6,688 opioid-related emergency department visits in the province, up from 5,909 during the same time frame the year before.

Sault Ste. Marie, the largest community in Algoma with a population of about 73,000, had Ontario’s third-highest rate of hospitalizations for opioid poisonings in 2017, according to a report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

Program for kids with special needs cut

One of the casualties of Algoma’s cuts was an intervention program for foster children with special needs. All five workers who ran the program, which Pettenuzzo said was for children who may have behavioural issues or had pre-natal exposure to drugs and alcohol, lost their jobs last week.

If Algoma can’t find extra services to help those kids in the north, they may be sent to live with foster families in southern Ontario, Pettenuzzo said.

“How do you reunify a family when the children aren’t even in the area?” she said.

The kids in that program developed “tight relationships” with Algoma workers.

“When we aren’t that consistent person because now we have to move them, who are they connecting with? Who do they learn to trust?” she asked.

“If kids don’t know that they matter, they’re hopeless.”

26 children’s aid workers laid off in Brantford

Ontario’s highest rate of hospitalizations for opioid poisonings is in Brantford, a city in southwestern Ontario with more than 134,000 residents.

The director of Brantford’s children’s aid society, Brant Family and Children’s Services (BFACS), recently laid off 26 employees.

“My first job is to keep kids safe,” BFACS executive director Andy Koster said. “You can see now with the layoffs, that’s jeopardizing my role.”

The day before he spoke with HuffPost, two more children came into BFACS’s care because of opioid overdoses in separate homes.

“That’s how real it is to our staff,” he said.

“The stress on our staff trying to deal with this is horrendous. They never quite know what they’re going to find.”

BFACS has also transferred a number of cases to an Indigenous-led organization. But Koster says his agency has dozens more children in its care than it did this time last year because of the drug epidemic.

In the last year and a half, 22 of the children in BFACS’s care have lost parents to overdoses, Koster said.

On top of that, the province notified children’s aid societies in the fall that they would have to cover 75 per cent of the cost of subsidies for parents who adopt kids or take permanent custody. Agencies were expecting to cover only 25 per cent.

In the 2017/2018 year, subsidies cost BFACS $195,000. This year, that cost was $671,000. For Algoma, the cost soared from about $60,000 to more than $200,000. The government did not provide any funding to help cover these costs.

“It’s impossible that you could have planned that,” Koster said.

He said the province needs to change its funding formula for children’s aid societies.

“We just want to get through this fiscal year and start into the next … I’m worried about my staff, but I’m worried just as much or more about the kids and families that they serve,” he said.

“We’re the last hope for some of these kids.”

The Progressive Conservative minister responsible for children’s services, Lisa MacLeod, was asked about the situation during question period at Queen’s Park last Monday.

NDP MPP Sandy Shaw quoted Koster, who said that when governments cut child welfare services, children end up living in violent and neglectful conditions and some ultimately die.

MacLeod said her government is proud that Indigenous agencies are taking cases and blamed BFACS for not managing its money properly.

“What that member opposite is suggesting is that the 18 per cent of Indigenous youth who are going to a customary care model in an Indigenous-led children’s aid society don’t deserve the funding that is required for them to get the services that they need,” MacLeod said.

“This children’s aid society has refused to look after its fiscal house and get its services in order as we transition. This is not new.”

The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services did not respond to HuffPost’s questions despite multiple requests over the course of two weeks.

Koster stressed that he supports and respects Ogwadeni:deo, the agency that took over jurisdiction for children who live on the Six Nations reserve.

“We’ve always supported and had a great respect for Indigenous child welfare. That’s not the issue,” he said. “The issue is that children who are abused anywhere … should get the proper services.”

He said he appreciates that this government didn’t design the funding formula imposed on agencies as they transferred cases to Indigenous-led agencies.

“But they have an opportunity to fix it.”

Pettenuzzo, the adoption worker in Algoma, said the government simply doesn’t understand what it takes to do child protection work properly and how the long drives up north make it more difficult to be there for families.

“We shouldn’t have to service foster homes in Elliot Lake from an office in Sault Ste. Marie because of funding,” she said.

“Unless Lisa MacLeod has driven from Toronto to the Manitoba border, she has no idea.”

With a file from The Canadian Press

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said that the population of Sault Ste. Marie is 13,600. It is actually about 73,000.

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