Parents giving up child custody in ‘messed-up’ mental health system


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Ontario’s child mental health crisis has become so severe — with desperate parents surrendering custody of their kids —  that the Windsor-Essex Children’s Aid Society is renting a house for “abandoned” youth.

Local CAS staff, whose core mandate is to protect children from neglect and abuse, have resorted to housing children in hotel rooms and even the agency’s downtown office building.

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One of the children currently staying in a Windsor hotel under CAS care is six years old.

Executive director Derrick Drouillard said similar scenarios are playing out across Ontario as families of children with “complex needs” struggle to find necessary services. He said the local CAS hopes to secure a rental home in the next couple weeks.

“That’s how messed up the system is,” said Drouillard. “So they’re abandoning their children to Children’s Aid, hoping their children will get what they need, the services they need if they come through the system.

“Which, unfortunately, is a myth. It’s not how things are playing out.”

Calling it a “horrific situation,” MPP Lisa Gretzky (NDP — Windsor West) raised the issue at Queen’s Park last week during Question Period. She warned about a “dire lack” of support for children who are in mental health crisis or have acute mental health illness. She said those situations can involve developmental and intellectual disabilities, or dangerous behaviours such as aggressiveness or self-harm.

“There are really no services in our area specifically for children and youth that have complex needs,” said Gretzky, the official Opposition critic for Mental Health and Addictions.

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She said the relatively few services available elsewhere, such as facilities in London, have long wait lists and require vulnerable children to leave their hometowns.

Parents are being forced to surrender their kids

“The need is there,” said Gretzky. “It’s not just a few kids. It’s a lot of kids, it’s a lot of families that need help.

“We need specialized programming in our community. We need the government to invest in that.

“But right now they need to address the fact that, due to lack of government investment, parents are being forced to surrender their kids to CAS.

“It’s heartbreaking to think that’s what they’re faced with. And to know that while CAS will do the best that they can, that’s not where the kids should be. They’re not going to get the supports and services.”

MPP Terence Kernaghan (NDP — London North Centre) also raised the issue last week, stating the province is “at a breaking point in social services.” He called for sustained multi-year funding for youth mental health care in the 2024 budget.

Kernaghan said children with severe mental health needs in London are also being placed in protective care when they shouldn’t be.

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The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) said it’s happening across the province.

In some cases, the association said those temporary placements, including hotels and motels, are far from the youth’s home and community.

“These are never the desired approaches for child welfare agencies — they are options of last resort and are the result of broader systemic gaps,” the association said.

“OACAS is increasingly hearing from our members that there is a lack of appropriate placement options and that they are increasingly dealing with families in crises who feel they have nowhere left to turn to get the help they need.”

Exterior of the Windsor-Essex Children’s Aid Society building in Windsor. Photo by DAN JANISSE /The Windsor Star

Drouillard said it has gone beyond placing children in hotels.

“It is a provincial issue,” he said. “There isn’t one CAS that I know of right now that isn’t facing this kind of dilemma to support young people.”

“Across the province there are children and youth living in hotels because we can’t find anything else for them. Children’s Aids are also retrofitting spaces in their buildings in emergency situations to try to care for these children and youth, all while not being trained or have the background in some cases to care for kids.”

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The Ministry of Health said it is helping children through its Roadmap to Wellness, a general strategy to address mental health and addiction issues.

“Our government is improving mental health supports for children and youth through the Roadmap to Wellness, our $3.8-billion dollar investment over 10 years to build a modern, world-class mental health and addictions system in every corner of the province,” the Ministry of Health said in an email.

The funding since 2020 includes $130 million to improve access to specialized treatment for children and youth, reduce wait lists, and expand or create programs to help manage stress, depression and anxiety.

The province said it is also spending $44.6 million to increase access to community-based intensive services for children and youth with complex mental health needs. The funding includes 10 complex care beds across the province, including London.

The funding will also add 2,200 training spots at Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) for clinicians who treat children with complex service needs across the province.

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The government didn’t give any specifics about what programs, if any, the funding will bring to Windsor.

Child in mental health crisis illustration
A photo illustration of a child dealing with mental-health issues. Photo by BrianAJackson /Getty Images/iStockphoto

One of the services the Windsor area desperately needs is a residential program for young people, according to Drouillard.

“In our own community we don’t have a single residential placement facility to help support these young children and youth.”

He said Windsor-Essex CAS recently had seven children living in “unlicensed” settings such as hotels, though a couple of them have been sent out of town for treatment.

When children are put in hotels, CAS staff is on-site 24/7 when necessary, staying in an adjoining room or across the hall.

We really have this crisis unfolding now

On a couple of occasions, Drouillard said Windsor CAS has also had to house children in its Riverside Drive office building. With no end to the problem in sight, CAS is renting a house.

“That’s how desperate the situation has become,” said Drouillard.

“We’re trying to alert our various ministries. We’re saying we’ve got a five-alarm fire folks, and some of the solutions being offered are like, ‘Here’s some batteries for a smoke detector.’

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“We need something that is far more intense for the acuity of these particular children. We really have this crisis unfolding now.”

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Drouillard said there is already a shortage of foster families across Ontario, including Windsor. And there are even fewer equipped to care for children with such complex needs.

“Even when we would have foster homes, some of these behaviours are so acute and intense, it wouldn’t even be appropriate for a foster home,” he said. “Especially if they have other children in their home that they’re already fostering.”

He said the issue isn’t new, but it has reached “an unmanageable crisis.” Families with nowhere else to turn have started surrendering their children, under the mistaken belief that CAS has access to the necessary services.

“You can well imagine those families who have children and youth with these complex needs,” said Drouillard. “Trying to fight and fight and fight to keep them in their own home, and then get to a point where their coping mechanism capacity is so exhausted they turn to Children’s Aid, thinking, ‘At least my child will get what they need.’

“And being shocked and horrified that the children are no better off coming into our care than if they were in their caregiver’s home.”

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