Message from Jocelyn Helland, Executive Director of Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth
The Ontario Government’s November 15th repeal of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Act and shutdown of the Ontario Child Advocate’s Office came as a shock. I am deeply concerned that young Ontarians who are already vulnerable will face further risks of abuse, neglect, and discrimination. This move means more young Ontarians will have to go to youth-serving homeless shelters for reprieve. When their foster, group home, and institutional living arrangements break down and there’s no one to call, they’ll have no choice but to come to us.
I am Executive Director at Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth, a Toronto-based organization that provides shelter and programs for homeless youth, and I have worked in child and youth care and rights for 18 years both nationally and internationally. I’ve seen what young people go through on many fronts. I have come to understand how important advocates are and how things fall apart without them.
Many come to us because the government systems in their lives have not enabled them to stay housed when things have broken down. In this way, youth shelters become “catch-all” places for young people who have no where else to go and few others to rely on.
Many people don’t know about the role of the Provincial Child Advocate. The Ontario Child Advocate’s Office serves the most marginalized children and youth, including those who are in the child welfare system; are First Nations, Inuit, and Métis; are living with disabilities; and are receiving mental health services. Many young people who become homeless and come to youth shelters like Eva’s are these very same young people. A recent national survey, for instance, found that 57.8% of young people who experienced homelessness had some kind of involvement with child protection services. Young people who get pulled into government systems are at high risk of becoming homeless.
Many come to us because the government systems in their lives have not enabled them to stay housed when things have broken down. In this way, youth shelters become “catch-all” places for young people who have no where else to go and few others to rely on. We see the vulnerability and discrimination they face and the troubles they have navigating services that don’t always meet their needs. We try to help but we are aware of our limitations. Emergency youth shelters are not designed or funded to take care of young people in the long-term. And we can’t replace specialized youth advocates with real power who stand apart from the government and can hold it to account.
There is no question that these government systems have to be watched carefully. The inquires, examinations, and reports that come out every year on systems that touch diverse young peoples’ lives point to big changes that need to be made. They are grappling with legacies of institutional racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism and targeting of low income families and communities. But institutional change takes a long time and it’s hard. There’s a whole culture to reinvent.
What about young people themselves? What happens when they are abused, pushed out, ignored, bullied, neglected, targeted, and oppressed by these systems that need to change? If vulnerable young people don’t have dedicated, empowered advocates to turn to, how will they get what they need right now?
It is unacceptable that the government is repealing the very act and removing the very office that protects and amplifies the voices of young people in difficult circumstances.
It is unacceptable that the government is repealing the very act and removing the very office that protects and amplifies the voices of young people in difficult circumstances. If our province expects underfunded services like youth shelters or the government itself to fill the gap, it is being unrealistic. You need real resources and expertise to hold systems to account and systems cannot hold themselves accountable. We fear young people already slipping through the cracks will slip further, not through any fault of their own but because the cracks are growing into chasms underneath them.
Ontario is the most populated Canadian province with the highest number of children and youth. We need a Provincial Child Advocate and legislation that keeps it robust, and we cannot let budget cuts take them away. The costs and suffering are too great and addressing problems after the fact is always more expensive than prevention and intervention.
How careless we are when we don’t lead the way in making things better and fairer for children and youth. What a blow to human dignity, quality of life, and our collective future when we allow vulnerable young people to stay vulnerable and tell them to try to advocate for themselves.
Related events and articles
Solidarity For Ontario’s Children: Press Conference & Rally (event on November 29, 2018)
Statement from Irwin Elman on the repeal of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Act, 2007 (Press release, November 15, 2018)
“We’re talking about our children’s lives here”: Ontario cuts child and youth advocate (CBC, November 15, 2018)
Eliminating the Ontario Child Advocate’s Office a mistake (Toronto Star, November 19, 2018)