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OPINION: Local CAS breaking new ground

Tara Jeffrey When a news release from the Sarnia-Lambton Children’s Aid Society was issued recently, it came as a surprise.

Tara Jeffrey

When a news release from the Sarnia-Lambton Children’s Aid Society was issued recently, it came as a surprise.

The agency is notoriously private, and in my ten years as a reporter, CAS has generally been considered ‘off limits’ when it comes to news stories.

Of course, the personal and private information of children, youth and their families must be respected, but CAS agencies across Ontario -- some 46 private, non-profit corporations, regulated by the government -- have long been criticized for a lack of transparency and accountability.

But there’s a major shift underway in the way CAS communicates not only with the public and media, but with the families and youth it serves, and Dawn Flegel says it’s about time.

“We’ve been closed, I think, and secretive for a long time,” said the woman at the helm of Sarnia-Lambton CAS. “Obviously, there’s things we can’t share, like peoples’ private information, but there’s lots that we can share. And I think we need to be doing that.”

The document included the recently released child welfare performance indicators -- a first for CAS agencies across Ontario to publicly report performance results on the safety, permanency and well-being of children.

Not only did Flegel speak with me at length about Sarnia-Lambton’s latest numbers -- which are showing significant improvements -- she also helped arrange an interview with a young man willing to speak about his experiences within the system, both the good and the ugly.

“It’s part of our commitment; we need to get better at sharing the work that we do,” said Flegel.

A revamped website includes details of an annual communication plan, a “Public Sector Accountability and Transparency” section, where they’ll post all required information, from Ministry reviews to a summary of the executive directors’ business expenses.

The local agency also launched a Facebook page and released its first-ever newsletter this month -- which includes videos, powerful stories from families, and details of an ambitious goal known as “Chasing Zero,” -- to have zero children growing up in care by 2020.

“We are taking the position that we [as an agency] actually shouldn’t be raising kids; that we need to make sure they have permanent families,” said Flegel.

“When you’re 21 and an agency has been your legal guardian, who do you call at 1 a.m. with news that you just got engaged? When you get in trouble? If you’re cooking a turkey for the first time and you don’t know what to do?

“I’d call my mom,” she said with emotion. “Some of these kids don’t always have someone.”

She points to another shift underway that’s allowing birth and foster families to collaborate for the first time.

“Can you imagine being a birth mom and your child for whatever reason isn’t able to live with you, goes to live with someone else, and you don’t even know who they are?” she said. “This model brings all the adults together for the sake of the child... to say it out loud, you’d think it’s crazy that we weren’t doing that all along.”

Flegel’s ripe honesty is refreshing, and the passion with which she speaks about her agency’s troubled past but hopeful future has an optimistic tone.

“Kids and families deserve to have that level of accountability and transparency from their local CAS,” she said.

“We’re happy to be a part of that, and we’ll keep getting better at it.”

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