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Child Welfare in Canada: Developments and Issues

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 3912 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 Child welfare in Canada has evolved immensely over the past century. It began with charity organizations, the first one being the prevention of cruelty to both children and animals. John Joseph Kelso succeeded in creating Canadas first humane society and later Children’s Aid Society. This was the catalyst for changes in Canadas child welfare, as it led to the creation of Ontario’s Child Protection Act. Charlotte Whitton then launched Canadas child welfare into a professional practice with the creation of the Canadian Association of Social Workers and Canadian Counsel on Child Welfare. Now, Canadian legislation on child welfare is specific, with special provisions for aboriginal children. Despite the advances, there are still challenges such as overrepresentation of indigenous children in out of home care, ethical concerns, and conflicts of interest. Overall, while Canadas child welfare system has come a long way, there are advances that need to take place to offer every child in Canada an equal and secure start in life.

Early History

 John Joseph Kelso became interested in helping children at the age of twenty-two. He began his social work in 1886 after being moved by impoverish street children (Kelso, 1911, p. 8). His desire to help the children led to the creation of the Toronto humane society, which aimed to help children and animals (Kelso, 1911, p. 15). Later, he developed the first Children’s Aid Society in Toronto (Kelso, 1911, p. 75). Kelso reports seeing children living in the streets, hundred of whom were “born and bred” (Kelso, 1911, p. 10) into crime. Furthermore, he stated this was a “sad and expensive waste of child life” (Kelso, 1911, p. 11). Seeing the children begging led to the idea of a children’s shelter. Kelso recalls one case of a child whose parents were taken to court and tried for neglect. However, the child was sent home with the parents and eventually went onto a life of crime for the next twenty years. Kelso states the orphanages would rarely take children, so they often ended up in and out of jail  (Kelso, 1911, p. 12). Disturbingly, 13-year-old boys were often sent to prison with adults (Kelso, 1911, p. 41). It was also suggested that these street children were the main causes of crime in the city. In 1890 the Ontario government appointed a commission which established that the main cause of crime is “the want of proper parental control; the lack of good home training and the baneful influence of bad homes, largely due to the culpable neglect and indifference of parents, and the evil effects of drunkenness” (Kelso, 1911, p. 66-67). This shows the beginning of people realizing the children needed protection.

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 In 1886, John K. Macdonald wrote a letter to the “Toronto World” paper. He had seen a horse in distress and was concerned that there was no society for prevention of cruelty to animals. His comment was added to the local newspaper and eventually donations began flowing in. Eventually $74 dollars had accumulated  (Kelso, 1911, p. 14). John Joseph Kelso had been a journalist at the time  (Kelso, 1911, p. 8) and became interested. The Canadian Institute stated on February 19th, 1887, Kelso read a statement on the “necessity for the prevention of cruelty in Toronto” (Kelso, 1911, p. 15), suggesting that a “general humane association” (Kelso, 1911, p. 15) be created to:

 Stop cruelty to children; to rescue them from vicious influences and remedy their  condition; the               beating of animals, overloading street cars, working old horses, driving               galled and disabled animals; to introduce drinking fountains, better laws, better               methods of horseshoeing, humane literature into schools and homes; to induce children               to be humane; everybody to practice and the kindness to animals and others. (Kelso,               1911, p. 15)

 It was agreed that a society against cruelty would benefit the city (Kelso, 1911, p. 15), a city-wide meeting was called and the “Humane Society” (Kelso, 1911, p. 16) of Toronto was created. The society was very popular and due to overwhelming complaints, a police officer was appointed as a “humane officer” (Kelso, 1911, p. 18).

 In March 1888, Ontario passed legislation that began the juvenile court of law in Canada (Kelso, 1911, p. 20). It stated that children under the age of 14 could be “neglected children under 14 could be committed to any society or institution willing to receive them” (Kelso, 1911, p. 20-21). Furthermore, it stated that a special commissioner would be appointed to try youth separately from adults (Kelso, 1911, p. 21).

 In 1888, John Kelso created the children’s “fresh air fund” which would help less fortunate children spend more time outdoors with men and women who could be considered good influences (Kelso, 1911, p. 23). Over the next five years, thirty thousand Toronto children would go on outings through this organization (Kelso, 1911, p. 26).

 John Kelso created the Toronto Children’s Aid Society to give children education, companions (DIFF WORD) in court, and provide shelter for “neglected and abandoned children” (Kelso, 1911, p. 46).

 In the 1890’s, the “Children’s Shelter of Toronto” was established as a “temporary refuge for destitute and neglected children” (Kelso, 1911, p. 56).  It was to stand in lieu of placing children in jails and act as a temporary haven for children confiscated from a “cruel, drunken or dissolute parent or guardian” (Kelso, 1911, p. 57).

 Kelso organized to combine the children’s fresh air fund with a new society. He proposed the “Children’s Aid Society” to ensure poor children attended school, keep juvenile offenders separated from adults, and provide refuge for children. Furthermore, he proposed establishing “industrial homes so that every homeless or abandoned child may be trained for honest and useful citizenship” (Kelso, 1911, p. 69).

 The society was established with Kelso as its president, in Toronto, October 1891 “to care for and protect neglected children; to secure the enactment and enforcement of laws related to neglected children or juvenile offenders” (Kelso, 1911, p. 75).

 In June 1892, Kelso recommended that a Canadian humane association be established in order to encourage associations across the country  (Kelso, 1911, p. 83).

Kelso’s advocacy in the creation of the Children’s Aid Society is important as it eventually led to the Ontario government passing the Children’s Protection Act (Bullen, 1985, p.137). The children’s protection act is not the Child, Youth, and Family Services Act and child protection services are currently provided by children’s aid societies in Ontario (Child Protection – Ministry of the Attorney General, 2018). Furthermore, the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto is one of the founding partners of the Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada. The Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada works with 72 agencies across Canada to “fill the gaps between what the government is able to provide” (Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada, 2018). This marked the beginning of “the professionalization of child welfare” (Bullen, 1985, p.137)

 Charlotte Whitton is another influential name in the history of child welfare. As child welfare in Canada shifted from charity to professional practice, Whitton advocated for qualified professionals in the field. She worked her way up within the Canadian Counsel on Child Welfare, eventually becoming director (Rooke & Schnell, 1981, p.490). The Canadian Counsel on Child Welfare formed as an agency seeking to “[examine] aspects child hygiene, employment, education, and recreation; [take] special care of dependent, delinquent, neglected, and defective children; and aspects of ethical development” (Rooke & Schnell, 1981, p.491). Whitton is known for her work with juvenile immigration in Canada which led to new perspectives on child welfare in Canada (Rooke & Schnell, 1981, p.494).  In her efforts to professionalize the field of child welfare, Whitton sought out professional social workers to work for child welfare in Canada (Rooke & Schnell, 1981, p.491). Eventually this led to the professionally based qualified board of Canadian Association of Social Workers we have today (Rooke & Schnell, 1981, p.500).

Recent History

 Important legislation to note includes the implementation of the Child and Family Services Act. The Child and Family Services Act was created in 1985 to protect children (Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, 2018). The amended act is now known as the Child, Family and Community Service Act. The act defines legislation including when child protection is needed, dispute resolution, custody, and adoption  (Child, Family and Community Service Act, 2018). Furthermore, the act states that factors such as the child’s safety, physical and emotional needs, quality of relationships, and heritage must be considered in the examination of a child’s best interest (Child, Family and Community Service Act, ss 4(1), 2018). A particularly important addition to the act includes special provisions for the care of aboriginal children. Section 3(b) states that “aboriginal people should be involved in the planning and delivery of services to aboriginal families and their children” (Child, Family and Community Service Act, ss 3(b), 2018). In addition, “If the child is an aboriginal child, the importance of preserving the child’s cultural identity must be considered in determining the child’s best interests” (Child, Family and Community Service Act, ss 4(2), 2018). This is important legislation considering the history of aboriginal child welfare in Canada.

Aboriginal Children

 In the 1920’s it was required for indigenous children to attend residential schooling. The schools were intended to assimilate indigenous children into European culture. It aimed to “eliminate all aspects of aboriginal culture” by removing the children from their family’s and communities (Residential Schools, UBC, 2009). Again, in the 60s, many indigenous children were removed from their homes and communities. They were placed in non-aboriginal foster care. This was cause by non-indigenous child welfare workers misjudging the child’s situation due to cultural differences. For example, the children were removed from homes because there were no fridges and the worker assumed there was no food to eat (Sixties Scoop, UBC, 2009). In the coming years there was many changes to views about aboriginal communities and aboriginal child legislation. Programs were developed specifically for aboriginal children (Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, 2010, p. 50) and the specific legislation was implemented. For example, British Columbia’s Child, Family and Services Act states that an indigenous child’s culture “should be preserved” (Child, Family and Community Service Act, ss 2(f), 2018). Additionally, the act recommends that if the child must be removed from their home, they should be placed with an indigenous family (Child, Family and Community Service Act, ss 71(3b), 2018).

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 Indigenous children face specific barriers in the Canadian system. This issue was brought to attention in the case of Jordan Anderson. Jordan Anderson was born with a Neuromuscular disease in Manitoba. He was admitted to a hospital in Winnipeg. It is first important to note that while the Federal government pays for the health care of on-reserve indigenous children, the service can be regulated and provided by the provinces or territories. While Jordan was in the hospital, a dispute ensued between the provincial and federal governments on who would be required to pay for his at-home care. Unfortunately, Jordan was denied the right to live his life in a caring home, as he died in hospital at the age of 5, while the dispute was happening. In 2007, Jordan’s Principle was put in place. It led to the federal government developing ways to rectify “disputes over payment or provision of services” to indigenous children (Assembly of First Nations., 2015, p. 8-9). Jordan’s Principle states that the child’s best interest must be at the forefront of decisions. Issues regarding payment for services can be handled after the child is taken care of (Assembly of First Nations., 2015, p. 18). furthermore, first nations people have a right to be involved in the process and decision making of all Jordan principle cases (Assembly of First Nations., 2015, p. 19).

 Additionally, aboriginal children are overrepresented in the Canadian child welfare system. A study was done by Statistics Canada, that looked at the living situations of aboriginal children under the age of 14. The data collected showed that in 2011, indigenous children accounted for 7 percent of children under 14. However, they represented 49 percent of children under 14 in foster care. Moreover, only 39 percent of indigenous children in foster care lived with an adult of first nations background (Turner, 2016). Indigenous children’s current situation in Canada is miles beyond what was happening in the 1960s, it is apparent from these statistics that there are deeper systemic issues that need to be addressed.

Issues and Ethics

 There are several issues that can arise in the field of child welfare. For example, the social worker can have ethical concerns over the rights of the parents versus the rights of the child. There can also be conflict of interest if law enforcement is involved. In a survey analyzing challenges with child interviews, it was found that social workers feel there is difficulty when law enforcement is involved “due to differences in mandates” (Brubacher, Roberts, Cooper, Price, Barry, & Vanderloon, 2018). However, the Canadian Association of Social Workers provides a statement which encompasses child welfare practice issues:

 Social work in child welfare settings is frequently stressful. Caseloads are often large and               there are chronic shortages of needed resources, both within the child welfare system               itself and in community agencies that support it. Sometimes social workers experience               differences between the demands of the workplace and their own allegiance to the ethics               of the social work profession, largely because the systems that employ them are driven by               political and budgetary agendas.  (Canadian Association of Social Workers, 2018)

Additionally, the Canadian Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics (CASWCOE) states that ““Social workers [must] maintain the best interests of clients as a priority, with due regard to the respective interests of others” (Guidelines for Ethical Practice, 2005, p.3). This would prove difficult when dealing with complex cases in which the parents and law enforcement all have conflicting views. In putting the clients interests first, it may be difficult to have regard to the interests of others if they differ greatly. Furthermore, if law enforcement is involved, they would be pushing their own agenda aggressively. An additional conflict of interest is between the social workers duty and the rights of the child’s parents. For example, the CASWCOE stresses the importance of client confidentiality (Guidelines for Ethical Practice, 2005, p.6-7). However, it is a parental right to have information about their child. In a situation where the social worker has control, excluding the parents, there is going to be a dilemma on what information to disclose in what situation. Additionally, the CASWCOE says that information should only be disclosed with the consent of the client. This adds another complex factor, when the client is a child, and may not be able to make this as an informed decision.

 There are some ethical concerns that can come into play when working in child welfare. For example, depending on how young the child is, they may not fully comprehend questioning, and may confuse events or times. In fact, in the 1980’s children were considered “inherently untrustworthy” (Bala, 2018). However, children are considered fit to testify if they are able to comprehend the questions being asked. This competency is decided by a judge (Bala, 2018).  Child protection workers who participated in a survey stated that they would benefit on additional skills in “assessing truthfulness” and “dealing with inconsistencies” (Brubacher, Roberts, Cooper, Price, Barry, & Vanderloon, 2018). However, it is the social workers duty to trust the child. In fact, the code of ethics states that the worker should “promote the self-determination and autonomy of clients, actively encouraging them to make informed decisions on their own behalf” (Guidelines for Ethical Practice, 2005, p.4). I believe this to mean that the worker should allow the client to come to their own decisions. With so much on the line, the ability to decided if the child has the competency to decide is imperative. The code states that disclosing information to the parents should only be done when it is in the best interest of the child (Guidelines for Ethical Practice, 2005, p.7). However, the best interest of the child may not always be an obvious choice.


 Despite advancements in Canadian child welfare, children in Canada still face inequality. John Joseph Kelso’s concern for street children led to the creation of the Toronto Humane Society, and the Children’s Aid Society. The Children’s Aid society plays a significant role in Ontario child welfare today, with many locations across the province. In addition, Kelso’s work led to the creation of the first juvenile court system and the Child Protection Act in Canada. Equally important was Charlotte Whitton’s work with the Canadian Association of Social Workers and the Canadian Counsel on Child Welfare. This is because it led to the formal professionalization of the child welfare field in Canada. Now child welfare in Canada is broad, with indigenous communities taking charge of their own children. The legislation aims to rectify the harms done to indigenous children during residential schooling and the “sixties scoop”, however indigenous children are still severely overrepresented in foster care. Furthermore, there are several ethical concerns over conflicting interests, and added stress of making a significant impact on a young person’s future. Overall, I believe that Canada is on the right track. The harm done to aboriginal people needs to be continuously acknowledged, however, Canada should keep supporting indigenous communities to maintain culturally appropriate practice. I believe the inequality indigenous children face can be rectified over time, if Canada further enforces preservation of indigenous culture.

Works Cited

  • Assembly of First Nations. (2015). Without denial, delay or disruption: Ensuring First Nations children’s access to equivalent services through Jordan’s Principle. Retrieved from http://health.afn.ca/uploads/files/jordans_principle_english.pdf
  • Bala, N. (2018). Child witnesses in the Canadian criminal courts: Recognizing their capacities and needs. Psychology, Public Policy, And Law, 5(2), 323-354. http://doi.org/10.1037/1076-8971.5.2.323
  • Brubacher, SP, Roberts, K., Cooper, B., Price, H., Barry, L., & Vanderloon, M. (2018). A Nationwide Survey of Child Interviewing Practices in Canada. Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, 60 (1), pp. 34-68, https://doi.org/10.3138/cjccj.2017-0008 
  • Bullen, J. (1985). Orphans, idiots, lunatics, and historians: recent approaches to the history of child welfare in Canada. Social History, 18(35), ISSN: 0018-2257
  • Canadian Association of Social Workers. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.casw-acts.ca/en/social-work-practice-child-welfare
  • Child Protection – Ministry of the Attorney General. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/family/divorce/child_protection/
  • Child, Family and Community Service Act. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.bclaws.ca/civix/document/id/complete/statreg/96046_01
  • Children’s Aid Foundation. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.cafdn.org/about-us/what-is-childrens-aid-foundation
  • Guidelines for Ethical Practice. (2005). British Columbia Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from https://www.bcasw.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/CASW_Guidelines_for-Ethical_Practice_e.pdf
  • Kelso, J.J. (1911). Early History of the Humane and Children’s Aid Movement in Ontario: 1886-1893. Toronto, ON., L.K. Cameron. Printer to The Kings Most Excellent Majesty. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/earlyhistoryofhu00kelsuoft
  • Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies. (2010) Child Welfare Report. Retrieved from https://www.macpeds.com/documents/CASresourceOACASReport-OntarioChildWelfare.pdf
  • Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.oacas.org/2016/01/oacas-identifies-reconciliation-with-aboriginal-communities-as-its-key-priority-for-2016/
  • Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.oacas.org/who-we-are/our-history/
  • Residential Schools, UBC (2009). Retrieved from https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_residential_school_system/
  • Rooke, P. & Schnell, R. (1981). Child Welfare in English Canada, 1920-1948. Social Service Review, 55(3), pp. 484-506, Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/30011502
  • Sixties Scoop, UBC (2009). Retrieved from https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/sixties_scoop/
  • Turner, Annie. (2016). Insights on Canadian Society Living arrangements of Aboriginal children aged 14 and under. Retrieved from Statistics Canada https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/75-006-x/2016001/article/14547-eng.htm


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