For Teens Frozen Out of Ontario's Child Welfare System, a New Bill Offers Hope
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For Teens Frozen Out of Ontario’s Child Welfare System, a New Bill Offers Hope

Bill 88 would prevent children aged 16 or older from being denied age-appropriate aid.

Ontario lawmakers are set to vote on a bill that would quash a rule preventing some teens from accessing child welfare support services.

Under current Ontario law, if a 16-year-old comes to the attention of welfare services for the first time at that age, he or she is classified as an adult, and can only access adult benefits.

Bill 88, the Child and Family Services Amendment Act, seeks to change that.

First introduced by Barrie MPP Rod Jackson in June, Bill 88 is due for a second reading at the provincial legislature on Thursday. Campaigners are calling for cross-party support.

Jackson says this is an issue he has been passionate about since attending 2011’s legislative hearings on child welfare, where he listened to youngsters talk about their experiences.

“If kids go into the system at 15, they get child welfare benefits until 20, but if they are 16, it means they’re out of luck,” he said. “The options then are very limited, and often have negative outcomes. It’s just not fair.”

Child welfare provides children who lack parental care with help accessing the necessities of life: money, housing, school, and other things, like counselling. The service is specially tailored to the needs of kids, meaning it’s often more appropriate for teenagers than is adult welfare.

Johanna Macdonald, a lawyer with Justice for Children and Youth (JUST), said many of the young people who seek the assistance of JUST are ineligible for child protection services simply on the basis of their age.

“It means that on a daily basis I am not able to provide legal options for young people,” she said.

“They are often coming from an abusive situation, and we are trying to help them get set up. It’s frustrating not to have access to the child welfare system for these young people.”

Macdonald said that the adult welfare system is geared toward employment, and that 16-year-old homeless youths have very different requirements.

JUST, as an organization, strongly supports Bill 88.

“Ontario remains the only jurisdiction in Canada that limits access to child welfare services for 16- and 17-year-olds in this way,” the group said recently in a statement.

“This bill recognizes Canada’s international obligations to provide care for all Ontario’s youth in need.”

Jackson said he expects the bill to find broad support on Thursday, which would get it through to a third reading. After that, it’s up to the government to get it passed into law.

“This is not something I want credit for. The goal is to get it done,” he said.

“I am not looking to score political points. I think this is something that fell through the cracks, and perhaps needed someone to champion it.”

For those worried about the financial implications, Jackson argues it is not a “money bill” that will further strain the province’s finances.

“These children do end up engaging one type or another of support services; therefore, this bill is more about reallocation of resources.”