We all have a role to play in supporting vulnerable children, youth, and families in our communities. Misunderstandings about privacy can sometimes make people hesitant to share information about potential abuse or neglect with a children’s aid society. On the flip side, overreporting can lead to unwarranted surveillance of vulnerable and marginalized families. In this episode, Commissioner Kosseim speaks with Nicole Bonnie, CEO of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies. They discuss privacy and equity issues in the child welfare sector and how the collection of race-based data is providing the evidence needed to fuel positive change.
Hello, I’m Patricia Kosseim, Ontario’s information and Privacy Commissioner and you’re listening to Info Matters, a podcast about people privacy and access to information. We dive into conversations with people from all walks of life, and hear real stories about the access and privacy issues that matter most to them.
Hello, listeners, and thanks for tuning in. With the arrival of autumn colours come more colours. I’m talking about Dress Purple Day. An awareness campaign started nearly 30 years ago by children’s aid societies in Ontario. The goal of the campaign is to raise awareness of the important role we all play in supporting vulnerable children, youth, and families in our communities. It’s intended to remind those who are facing challenges, particularly those who are marginalized communities, that they are not alone. There are services and resources available to help them including children’s aid societies. Children’s aid societies are often the first point of contact when someone suspects there may be risk of harm to a child, or neglect.
In Ontario, they have the legal authority to investigate and determine whether a child is in need of protection. Unfortunately, despite this broad authority, privacy myths abound when it comes to sharing information with children’s aid societies. Health providers, police, teachers and social workers sometimes hesitate to report information to child protection workers, citing privacy concerns as the reason. Since 2020, children’s aid societies have strict privacy obligations in place to keep this information secure under Part X of a law known as Child, Youth and Family Services Act. As of 2021, they’re also obligated under Ontario’s Anti-Racism Act to collect data about those seeking services from them as part of a broader provincial strategy to root out systemic racism by revealing where there may be hidden biases and disparities in the system. But that too, can raise thorny privacy concerns.
In this episode, we’ll address some of those privacy concerns, and will do so through what my guest calls an “equity lens.” My guest today is Nicole Bonnie, CEO of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, and association representing 49 member organizations across the province. Nicole, welcome to the show.
Hello, Commissioner, thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Thank you for joining us. Just to warm up a little, I was hoping you can tell our listeners more about yourself and your work and what led you to study social work and pursue a career in the child welfare sector.
For years, I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, specifically a high school teacher. So that was, you know, friends and top of mind, and what I was most passionate about. And one of the jokes that we often remember is the fact that growing up, I loved teaching so much that I would have like little kids from the neighborhood in my backyard and pretend to do summer school, even though they weren’t supposed to be. But I would just recreate school. When I did have an opportunity to do some assistant teaching within the Peel board, I discovered that my love for teaching was real, but my concerns for the students on the barriers as to why they weren’t learning was actually more profound. And it made me start to question kind of the root of what I’m really passionate about, which is really the – it was the well being of children and youth and all the barriers to, you know, their home situation and different contexts that a number of them brought to the classroom. So that’s kind of how I ended up doing social work and changing streams from teaching – from education to working more in the Social Work realm.
By the time I got to the graduate level of my research was involving social justice, looking at anti-black racism. I ended up getting a placement as a CAS to work within their anti-oppression department. There was enough problems to solve in the area of inequities within child welfare that it has kept me there for a number of years later, moving in different organizations. And of course, being in the position I am now to even look at this, not just at an institutional organizational level, but doing this work at a provincial level amongst all the other areas within child welfare. So that’s in a nutshell kind of how I arrived here.
What an interesting career pathway and the connecting thread through all of it is passion. In 2019, you were named the first black CEO in the history of Ontario children’s aid societies. I wanted to ask you personally, what did that feel like? How important in your view is it to have a diversity of lived experiences in the senior leadership ranks of the child welfare system,
When you’re in the position to, and you have the privilege of making history, meaningful history, it’s humbling. And it’s powerful, and it’s grounding. And I remember, I received a call from a community member, randomly, and she wanted to thank me for accepting the position and started to cry while she was on the phone with me, and saying that she has two young black girls who are in high school, and what my position symbolizes for them, and how she’s able to leverage this historical moment to letting her daughters know that they can achieve positions of influence within society and make change. It was so meaningful and so powerful, because at that point, I was just kind of in my own zone around thinking, how am I going to navigate this. Not that I didn’t realize what it meant for the larger community and the fact that we’ve been underrepresented as, as a black community within Ontario within decision making spaces, I knew that. But I think until I heard the real raw emotions of a mother, who is looking and grasping at examples for her daughters on the fact that it’s achievable and it’s real, because here’s an example, it certainly is an image and an experience that I often go back to when it gets really hard. Understanding that it’s for a larger purpose of change, not just for children and youth who are in the system and families and, but also for community members who are drawing strength, and example of possibility, and the kind of possibility that I was lacking in seeing examples for myself. So it continues to encourage me to continue on with this role.
I talked a little earlier in my introduction about privacy misunderstandings, and, you know, the fact that privacy is often cited as the reason for not sharing information with a CAS about a child who may be at risk of harm. And, as you know, my office released a publication some years ago called “Yes You Can” to dispel some of those myths around privacy laws to make the point that those laws are not a barrier to reporting information with children’s aid societies when the need arises. So from your experience, what are some things that people should be considering before they make that call to the Children’s Aid Society?
You’re absolutely right. And I really do appreciate the resource that your office has put out around Yes You Can in terms of dispelling some of the myths because we are talking about people’s lives. And making decisions like that, in terms of calling CAS is never an easy decision to make. And it’s often fraught with feelings of guilt, certainly feeling like you are tattling and all that comes with it in terms of the implications, and just downright feeling that you are breaching confidentiality, as you said, right? It’s not an emotionless task, at least we don’t want it to be, and want to normalize the emotions that come with making a call to CAS because it’s a serious decision. And it’s one that we ought to not take lightly. Because we know it’s not a neutral system, that there are implications to calling us and so we want to be thoughtful in that process. We want to be seen as CAS, as being one of the resources available. Now mind you, the CAS’s are mandated to provide the services that they are so we are different than a counseling service, or we’re different than a community led service, in that we have the mandate to investigate any allegations have been suspicions of neglect and abuse, which makes us very different from others. And there are also times where we have seen that it didn’t necessarily require, the issues didn’t require CAS, right. Maybe it required support with food from a food bank, but not necessarily an intrusive method of investigation. And so we are one of the many options within a community to support families and to support children and youth.
And it certainly is not lost on us around our history in residential schools. In the 60s scoop, there’s a colonized history that exists and continues on to this day and that we need to be able to disrupt the ways in which not only that we have been implicated in the past, but that we continue to be implicated and families lives for the right reasons and at the right time.
For almost 30 years, children’s aid societies in Ontario have used October to remind people of their role in keeping children and youth safe from abuse and neglect. But last year marked a significant shift in the Dress Purple Day campaign. Can you talk to us about some of the reasons behind that changing focus?
Really, the focus at its inception was a heavy focus on child abuse and neglect, education. And the whole reason it’s purple even was to signify the bruising, because that’s how heavy it was around child abuse and the symbolism around the purple. And the campaign grew over the years. And eventually, the month of October was proclaimed as Child Abuse Prevention Month. Dr. Barbara Fallon, from the University of Toronto, has done a longitudinal study on the front door of child welfare. And in comparison to other provinces, Ontario has the highest number of referrals to CAS than any other province. And one could see and say that this is great. We’re a vigilant community, we call CAS’s, whenever there’s a suspicion of neglect and abuse, like we do not hesitate to call.
On the flip side of that what data also shows is the level of over representation that’s within our Ontario system, particularly of First Nation, Inuit, Métis children, youth and families and of African Canadians, those that are most likely to be seen as under the suspicion of neglect and abuse have often fallen within the category of indigenous and racialized. One could say, “Well, maybe it’s because these communities have more issues than everybody else, there are higher incidences of abuse than everyone else.” But the study that’s done by U of T has also dispelled the myth that all of these calls are actually warranted. More than half of them are unsubstantiated as being abuse or neglect, right. And so we’ve gone through the process of contacting families, the trauma of like knocking on the front door, and all of that just to say “Oops, sorry, there actually isn’t a problem here.” Which then lends us to really looking at what’s known as the Dress Purple campaign, and that it’s not just about making calls to CAS, where we really want to encourage a community responsibility in terms of how are we one of the many levers of support within the communities, and that we are appropriately called at the appropriate time because we understand the power in who we are as CAS.
As I said before, we’re not neutral, and we’re not benign. We are a powerful entity and so we, on our end, within CAS’s are trying to strengthen how we do this work, how we engage communities where we get the calls coming in, and how we also engage families in a different way so that we decrease the kind of harm and impact that happens when community members come in contact with CAS again. We’ve been around for over 100 years and we’ve been in existence at a time in Ontario, where oppressive practices was the norm. And so the legacy of that continues in our practice that we need to recognize and continue to examine ourselves and do a better job.
The focus of the Dress Purple campaign is really one where we want to be able to look at how can communities help? How can we be a part of a larger community network of supports for families? And how do we become stronger in partnership in terms of other services in the community where we don’t necessarily need a CAS intervention. But maybe what’s needed is counseling, or an ethnos specific organization that will support the family from an indigenous perspective, or from a South Asian, you know, perspective and values. Maybe what’s needed, as I said before, is clothes and food to help to mitigate for any issues that we may see of income security or food security. So we’re seeing this as a holistic approach to engaging families engaging communities, then really hoping to reshape it from just watching for bruises.
So a much more holistic, collective responsibility to these situations. You mentioned Dr. Barbara Fallon and I know that you yourself have built on her work and went on to co author a report, I think you released earlier this year. Can you talk to us about that study? And what were the results?
So the report that was released by one vision, one voice, which is a program held within the OACAS, to support and really look at systemic change, or an anti-black racism, we worked with U of T, to really look and examine the data. Why are we seeing the over representation of black children and youth in care? And how can we understand it better? So how do we look at the quantitative numbers that has come out of the Ontario incident report and studies to provide a deeper analysis. The report really shows the intersections that operate between multiple systems, that it’s not just child welfare, but we see the collusion of multiple systems in terms of education, the justice system, we get referrals from police. And we see how the interactions of multiple professionals, referrals and systems kind of create this cocktail of a response. In terms of when you look at anti-black racism across the board and multiple systems, you kind of get the effect of what we’re seeing now, which is an over representation, and the lack of supports – community supports and investments of resources to support communities, black communities on the ground.
So it’s kind of that perfect storm, right. And so the data that we saw, where things like black families are more likely than white families to be referred to child welfare, they’re also more likely to be investigated by child welfare, and also required to receive a longer term service. So exiting the system at a later time. Black children and youth are also more likely to be placed in out of home care during the course of an investigation as well. So instead of remaining with their family, they’re more likely to be placed outside of their home. There were more concerns with white parental functioning than there were with black parents. But yet, black children are more likely to be removed. And these are the kinds of ways that we’ve been looking at where are the disparities in decision making that happen in practice that happen on the ground? These are the kinds of dialogues and questions that we’ve been using the data and using the report to have within our sector. And I’m happy to say that unlike any other time, where I have seen such a different level of engagement with leaders and workers within the system to actually engage in the hard conversations, and to use, we leverage reports like these, to examine ourselves as a system and think about how we’re going to be doing things differently.
That study and the data that you cite from it is a great example how with a basis of evidence, you can reveal some really important systemic biases or trends. And speaking of which, as you know, since July 1, 2021, children’s aid societies across the province are now required to collect race-based data under Ontario’s race, Anti-Racism Act as part of the broader provincial strategy to reveal and rid itself of this type of systemic racism. So from your experience, and where you sit, how would you say children’s aid societies are managing so far, in terms of discharging this responsibility to collect data? Are they collecting it? Are they comfortable collecting it? Are they using it? How’s it going so far?
It’s certainly a work in progress. And you know, we’re talking about the kind of practice shift and change that doesn’t just switch at the at the drop of a request. But it takes the kind of change management and support and guidance in order to help workers to start to incorporate a different way of thinking and engaging with families. And I think that what’s been normalized for so long, is a colourblind approach and identity blind approach, we almost systemically have believed that if we don’t ask the questions, then the problem doesn’t exist. There’s a particular kind of discomfort that sometimes comes with asking questions around identity and engaging families and incorporating how they see themselves and so that we can then support them in a meaningful way. These are some the practice changes that we continue to try to emphasize with workers in order to be compliant, not just the compliance of the Anti-Racism Act, but that it’s the right thing to do.
I can’t emphasize enough on how important data is in the work of social justice in terms of transforming our systems, because it helps to keep us accountable as systems in terms of our strategies and our approaches. And what we do. So we know that it’s an uphill battle. We know that it’s a challenging change process that’s been happening within our system, but it’s necessary. And some agencies have been doing great in these areas, others, you know, that we need to come alongside and provide additional support around it. But that there’s that collective need to want to do better for sure.
So just so that I understand and listeners understand, part of the discomfort, I imagine comes with, in some cases, having to ask families to self-identify and those uncomfortable questions or uncomfortable conversations is that where the hesitation comes from?
That’s exactly where some of it comes from. It’s the fact that we have to actually ask, how do people identify and, and what’s interesting to me about that, is that we are a sector that is not short of asking uncomfortable questions. We ask questions about families, that involves history of trauma, abuse, sexual abuse, like we ask questions on a level that most professionals will never have to ask. And yet, questions around identity still impacts us in a way that we would rather than not ask that – we can ask everything else – but that brings such a discomfort that many will avoid asking it. So we’re continuing to kind of unearth that and work through that. But you’re absolutely right, it is the existence of the discomfort that often drives the lack of practice that happens in this area.
So what advice do you give to workers say in in your own organizations, on how they can do this in a culturally safe manner?
You know, one of the things is that we really have to recognize and deeply understand the importance of why are we doing it? Why is it necessary for you as a worker in your interaction to understand and meet the service user where they’re at. So you understanding their identity equips you to better respond to their needs, and to be engaged in cultural safe practices. And if you don’t know, their identity, it reduces your ability to engage in culturally safe practices. But there needs to be an inherent understanding of that, and belief and buy in, in order to to do that work well. The other piece I feel is important is acknowledging our social location, acknowledging our areas of privilege and power. So if I’m engaging, and asking questions around disabilities or differently abled, I need to acknowledge that I’m an able bodied person asking this question. And it’s going to bring about discomfort for me, but I have this privilege. And that is the reality. In the same way, whether it’s the privilege of being white, or male, or whatever it is, it’s acknowledging your own social location, and all of the potential guilt that comes up in that moment, I think there needs to be some personal kind of reconciling some of that internal self work that needs to happen for folks, and it’s ongoing. So that’s an important part as well, right? So those are just some of the ways that I think can help to mitigate for what we often see, like instead of just taking the route of avoidance, it’s an important part of our, of our, of our job is now embedded in legislation. Let’s actually just figure out the tools and what we need, in order to courageously do what’s right. For the people that we serve.
As I listened to you, you make a very persuasive case about why identity-based data can reveal systemic inequalities, make those visible, and through that data and through that basis of evidence can bring about real positive change. But I wonder if there are downsides as well, specifically, the risks of over collection of over surveillance particularly of marginalized communities that may feel over-watched or targeted by gender observations, can you talk a little bit about what you see are the potential harms of data collection, to groups and to broader communities?
We certainly have not always used personal information, stored them right, used them, right. And when we look at all the different hypothesis and racist constructs that have come through evidence, and we backed it up as a society saying, “Well, we have evidence that this is a superior group, this is an inferior group,” this, you know, all the ways we’ve used it in oppressive, racist ways. It’s valid that communities have a healthy mistrust of systems, and they have a healthy mistrust of data collection. And so I definitely want to validate that, because we’re sitting on it, a real history. And we’re not just talking about well, way back in the 1500s, right? Like, this is like within our lifetimes, we have seen how data has been misused and weaponized against vulnerable communities.
So I don’t blame communities for feeling that way and having that critical response towards aggregate data collection and not believing us when we say “No, no, you can trust us.” And when I think about communities, they’re literally putting the power of creating harmful narratives in the hands of people they don’t know, right? It’s real, I think the only thing that’s going to help to bridge that mistrust is evidence that we are actually doing something. The more that they actually start to experience something different, and see practices change. And know that data has been a critical part in US transforming. Until then, we are going to have to sit in that scrutiny. And we need to be held accountable that when you have people’s data that we are treating this as precious information, as if it was our own and respectfully engaging. And so I think the potential of harm is always there. And I would never say it’s not. And the hope is, is that we will hold ourselves to a higher standard than we have in the past. And communities will also hold us accountable for us to do the right thing with their information.
You know, that’s a great segue, because you’re right children’s aid societies have to be held accountable for the data that they hold for protecting it safeguarding. And, in fact, as I mentioned earlier, since January 1, 2020, there’s a whole regime under Part X of the Children Youth and Family Services Act, that sets of obligations for children’s aid societies to protect that personal information and make it accessible to individuals who want to seek access to their own personal information. And that regime is overseen, as you know, by my office, and we receive complaints by individuals or family members who are concerned about their privacy in the hands of children’s aid societies. And then we will proceed to first of all, try to understand, really resolve, hopefully mediate the situation. And eventually we have to go to a fuller investigation. And through that process of dispute resolution, I was wondering if you had some advice for us on how we as an office can better serve people from this community exercising their rights under Part X? And how do we do better in tailoring our dispute resolution services to this particular community?
Having your office in this role is an important one. And I want to start there and so much appreciation to you and your staff for not just the oversight, but also the engagement with the sector and working in partnership to support communities and families and children and youth because it’s so very important. And when you have communities that have been on the margins, that feel vulnerable, when you’re talking about kind of that social capital that they don’t wield the same type of power, that others who want access to their information and will get immediate responses from systems, that people that we serve don’t often get back and aren’t seen as priority. My hope is that a different kind of message is being sent where you are important. And you deserve the right to have access to your information or express concern around any breach to your information.
Often, these experiences come with long histories and experiences of trauma, right? So by the time sometimes a complaint is made, you’re also getting anxiety, you’re getting people being overwhelmed with emotion, people being triggered, because it reminds them of an experience in the past. And being able to be compassionate, even in those moments where someone is expressing deep concern, and is maybe distressed in that concern that we’re walking alongside them in a supportive, compassionate process. But how do we then get the feedback as a system to make improvements?
What’s been also great is that we are hearing from you, like here are some of the ways and some of the things we see play out. And how do we start to close the gaps. And so with your team’s analysis, it also helps us to close those gaps sooner and provide us insight into where we may still have challenges in how we support families. And so I would say that as long as we continue to build the kind of relationship that we have been building, and really work towards, you know, the common good of wanting to see clients supported in the best way possible, that these are the ways that we’re going to continue to make the kind of improvement sets that we that we both want for sure.
That’s great advice, both to our tribunal staff who will appreciate your urgency for compassion and understanding, and also for our policy and communications teams, reminding us how important it is to generalize some of the trends and some of the lessons learned and use those to feed back to the sector, and try overall to improve personal information management processes. So I think that’s great advice. Thank you.
And for those of you who don’t know, Nicole is on our strategic advisory council at the IPC, a very valued member and Nicole, as you know, one of our strategic priorities is Children and Youth in a Digital World. So if I can just pick your brain a little bit longer and ask you what’s your advice for our office in how we can advance the strategic priority, but in particular, how can we do it in a way that takes into consideration fairness and equity concerns.
When we talk about children and youth, and all the intersections that they also carry of not just experiencing marginalization through being young, and often being unheard within society, but then you put on top of it other marginalized identities – so whether they be indigenous or racialized, or have disabilities, or belong to the LGBTQS2 class community – like these are real navigations for them. And we are also I believe, in an era where the young people’s awareness and consciousness of their rights is definitely growing. I’m seeing a different type of empowerment with youth, and understanding issues of social justice, and how they see themselves and how they experience society.
Hearing from them directly and having them have a hand in designing and letting them know that they’re valued. I think that it definitely is possible to be able to reach diverse youth, but building those relationships with them and hearing, how would you want this information? How does this land? How do we frame it differently, and having them give us real honest feedback, in order to support them as best as we can? And these are just some of the ways when we think about OACAS. And some of the provincial campaigns we have that are youth centered, we have to have youth at the table and forming it because if we don’t, we would be irrelevant faster than we can roll out a campaign. In order to stay connected and relevant and responsive, we need them.
Well thank you and it’s very timely because we are establishing a Youth Advisory Council for our office. And so I will be reaching out to you and other members of the strategic advisory council So in many, many other organizations to make sure that we have the best representation possible, and the broadest diversity of voices and perspectives among the youth, providing us with that insight and with their perspective in the years to come.
So thank you so much, Nicole, I have learned so much from you in this, in this conversation, we’ve covered so much ground. I’m sure our listeners too, have appreciated enormously everything you’ve had to share with us. So thank you so much, Nicole, it’s been a real honour. For those of you who want to follow Nicole’s work and want to learn more about the research studies that she mentioned. You can see those in the show notes to this episode.
For listeners who want to learn more about the work of my office in championing the access and privacy rights of children and youth, you can visit our website at ipc.on.ca. You could also call or email us for assistance and general information about access and privacy under Ontario as well. Thank you all for listening. And until next time.
I’m Patricia Kosseim Ontario’s information and Privacy Commissioner, and this has been Info Matters. If you enjoy the podcast, leave us a rating or review. If there’s an access or privacy topic you’d like us to explore on a future episode we’d love to hear from you. Send us a tweet @IPCinfoprivacy, or email us at [email protected]. Thanks for listening. And please join us again for more conversations about people privacy and access to information. If it matters to you, it matters to me.
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