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Helping Children in Need Requires Broad Solutions

Helping Children in Need Requires Broad Solutions

Jamil Jivani tackles some of the biggest challenges in the world as a lawyer, community organizer, and teacher. A visiting professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, Jamil focuses on issues that impact youth, immigrants, and low-income families. He is also the founder of the Citizen Empowerment Project, a public education organization leading initiatives related to policing, racial profiling, democratic participation, voter turnout and economic development. In this piece from The Toronto Star, Jamil writes about the need to take a holistic approach to racial disparities in existing social systems, and how his experiences have impacted his perception of the help available for families in need:

 Two months ago, I left the board of directors of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (CAST), where I oversaw diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives as vice chair. After nearly four years of volunteer service, I concluded that I need to be outside of the child welfare system in order to support those fighting the inequalities inside of it.

I started volunteering at CAST after graduating from law school because of my concerns about racial disparities. In particular, I was concerned about the large overrepresentation of black families in the system. African-Canadian youth make up a staggering 41 per cent of youth in CAST’s care, which is five times the number of black residents in Toronto’s overall population.

I was part of a group of CAST board members and staff working to understand and change these kinds of statistics. We hired a director of diversity and anti-oppression to figure out how the organization can improve all aspects of its operations. We also commissioned relevant research reports from CAST’s Child Welfare Institute and created a black stakeholders advisory group to engage with concerned citizens. Our CEO and board chairs made racial disparities a top priority for the organization.

As we introduced these initiatives, I was hopeful, and remain so, that CAST could do its part to address racial disparities. In the back of my mind, though, I always felt our hands were tied; that too often we were reacting to conditions out of our control.

It wasn’t within our power to help families get out of poverty or support families at risk of breakdown. However, we knew the racial disparities we were trying to change started to take root before child welfare is ever involved.

For instance, research shows nearly one-third of black households are considered food insecure, 20 per cent are more likely than the average family to live in poverty and black youth are twice as likely as other youth to be unemployed.

Yes, children’s aid societies must be vigilant about racial bias and cultural differences that can influence the work of front line staff. But that’s only focusing on one side of the phone calls they receive about kids suspected to be in harmful situations.

CAST doesn’t have the mandate to work on the root causes of racial disparities that determine who’s on the other side of the phone call. That’s at least half of the equation. Yet we were still blamed for the problem and told we’re not doing enough.

I was always willing to accept those criticisms from concerned citizens because I saw our job as being accountable to the public. However, it bothered me when the Ontario government made or endorsed those criticisms by implicating CAST as an actor in “systemic racism.”

The Ontario government has the mandate to address the broader inequalities that children’s aid societies are responding to. To point the finger at child welfare organizations without assuming any responsibility at the same time seems unfair, especially since children’s aid societies are limited in what they can say or do to push back against these criticisms. Most of their funding comes from the Ontario government.

As I struggled with problems outside of our control, we had a breakthrough at CAST. Our director of diversity and anti-oppression and her team conducted a data analysis of a year’s worth of calls made to CAST to identify any patterns of referral of black children to the agency.

What we learned is local neighbourhoods matter in trying to understand racial disparities. A large number of the referrals of black children to CAST came from three areas: Guildwood/Morningside/West Hill in Scarborough, Downsview/Jane and Finch in North York and Malvern/Rouge in Scarborough.

Unsurprisingly, these are also parts of Toronto that deal with a host of other disparities aside from the child welfare system. They are prone to poverty, inadequate transit access, dependency on public housing, limited local economic development, insufficient newcomer services and other public policy failings.

It was clear to me that racial disparities in child welfare needed to be viewed as part of a number of other inequalities afflicting local neighbourhoods. These issues overlap, yet those trying to solve the problems are working in silos. And the monolith in Queen’s Park, which might be able to bring these silos together, isn’t doing so.

After four years of volunteer service, I recognized this was the right moment for me to leave. We need people on the outside of the system to spread the right message: any response to racial disparities that doesn’t include ground level change in disadvantaged local neighbourhoods isn’t enough.

We also need those with a mandate broad enough to pursue this change to be held accountable to breaking down the silos that so many of us are stuck working inside of.