In February 2005, OFTP had the opportunity to send its concerns to the Ministry of Child and Youth Services when the ministry asked for public input before reviewing the Child and Family Services Act, which regulates Chidren's Aid Societies. Two letters were sent: one to the Minister and one to the Executive Director. The full text is below.
February 23, 2005
As a non-profit, volunteer-managed group of home educators serving as a liaison between the homeschooling community and government agencies, the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents (OFTP) would like to respond to your invitation for the public to share their thoughts on the Child and Family Services Act.
In particular, we would like to voice our concerns about how cases involving homeschooling families are handled by the Children's Aid Society (CAS) caseworkers and system. These concerns have arisen out of a growing number of situations experienced by home educators across the province. We believe the issues to be partially systemic and therefore amenable to policy changes, and we hope to facilitate such changes by providing information, feedback and concrete recommendations.
We would like, first of all, to acknowledge the concerns and responsibilities of CAS workers. We recognize that there are children in need of protection in all segments of the population, including among homeschoolers, and we understand and support the fact that CAS must investigate every complaint that is made, if only to ascertain that all is well.
What concerns us, however, is that misunderstandings about what is legal, what homeschooling looks like, and whose responsibility it is to investigate educational matters, have led to situations where the homeschooling family's educational choice becomes a focus of contention and the rationale for intervention and sometimes drastic decisions. Also, there is evidence to suggest that the very fact that a family has chosen to homeschool arouses suspicion in the minds of many CAS workers, which can have detrimental consequences for parents and children alike.
We would like to help remedy the situation by suggesting ways to untangle the educational issues from legitimate concerns about abuse and neglect and ensure safeguards against unwarranted interventions. To this end, we have listed a number of concerns and our recommendations for addressing them.
1) Interventions in the educational affairs of homeschooling families
We are concerned about the number of interventions by CAS in the educational affairs of homeschooling families. We believe that many CAS workers, supervisors and family court judges are uninformed or misinformed about the laws and policies relating to home-based education in Ontario and which Ministry has jurisdiction over investigations that concern it.
For instance, we are aware of a number of cases in which CAS workers have suggested that they can and will determine the satisfactory nature of a family's homeschooling program. In some cases they have made decisions to have children return to school. Beyond the fact that it exceeds the boundaries of CAS responsibilities and authority, we have serious concerns about such decisions being made by workers who may have limited or inaccurate knowledge about educational issues in general and homeschooling in particular.
Provisions are made in the Education Act for investigations into the educational practices of homeschooling families. These investigations do not involve the courts nor children's aid societies. Instead, Section 24.2 assigns all necessary powers to the Provincial School Attendance Counselor (PSAC) to appoint inquiry officers from among education professionals and, if necessary, order a previously homeschooled child to attend school. Policy/Program Memorandum No.131 (PPM131) provides additional direction as to how an investigation into a family's homeschooling should be conducted. This includes the questions of what constitutes "reasonable grounds" for an investigation and what understanding of home education should be brought to bear on the situation.
We would like to see CAS workers, supervisors and family court judges become more familiar with these laws and policies so that concerns about educational matters can be addressed in accordance with them. As well, we would like to see better communication between the Ministry of Child and Family Services and the Ministry of Education so that any relevant future changes will be shared knowledge.
2) Institutional bias
We would also like to see CAS workers, supervisors and family court judges gain a better understanding of how homeschooling practices and perspectives may differ from institutional education. Through PPM131, the Ministry of Education has already taken steps to remove what has been called the "institutional bias" towards homeschooling--the notion that home education should resemble school education. We are concerned that any such bias remaining among CAS workers can negatively affect the way they interpret the activities and home environment of families practicing a less structured approach to education.
As explained to school board officials in PPM131, a homeschooling program does not need to replicate school at home in order to be considered satisfactory instruction: "The parent may not be following the Ontario curriculum, using standard classroom practices, teaching within the standard school day or school year." In other words, a less structured approach does not constitute educational neglect.
While educational neglect would be a matter for investigation by the PSAC rather than CAS in any case, we believe a greater understanding by CAS workers would avoid altogether the issue of whether or not what they are observing is, in fact, neglect. This, we feel, would help untangle educational issues from legitimate issues of physical and emotional neglect that do come under CAS jurisdiction.
3) Prejudicial suspicions about neglect or abuse
As mentioned before, there is evidence to suggest that the very fact that a family has chosen to homeschool arouses suspicion in the minds of many CAS workers. We understand that CAS workers need to be attentive to signs of neglect or abuse in the homes they are called to investigate, but we are concerned that some workers take the educational choice to homeschool to be such a sign in itself.
While it certainly happens that abusive or neglectful parents can be found among those who have chosen to educate their children at home, there is no indication that they are statistically more prevalent among homeschoolers than among the general population. To approach a homeschooling family as if such were the case would therefore be prejudicial discrimination. We believe that such a bias influences the perceptions, communications and interventions of CAS workers in ways that have a direct negative impact on innocent parents and their children and, in families that do have problems, are detrimental to a fair evaluation of any other circumstances that may be present.
While it is true that any family's isolation can help them evade detection of neglect or abuse, it would be prejudicial to assume that isolated families must have something to hide. It is also not safe to assume that isolation implies inadequate social development nor that homeschooling implies isolation. In actual fact, most homeschooled children are involved with as many if not more activities than their schooled counterparts and spend more time with their parents out in the community having contact with many people in different walks of life. Homeschooling families who live in isolated rural areas are often all the more active in seeking out activities and community involvement as well as social situations with other homeschoolers.
We believe a better understanding of homeschooling practices and perspectives would help alleviate concerns not only about educational neglect but also about whether homeschooled children are as a rule being adequately cared for physically and emotionally. The overwhelming majority of parents choosing homeschooling do so after much soul searching and with the best interests of their children in mind. If anything, the choice to take responsibility for the education of one's own children could be taken as an indicator of a greater, rather than lesser, sense of responsibility and protection.
4) True protection of children
So far we have voiced concerns only about misconceptions, misunderstandings and misinformation--all of which may negatively influence a worker's actions but do not put into doubt the worker's good faith and integrity. Even the prejudicial suspicion we spoke of is more likely an unconscious bias rather than a deliberate discrimination.
We need now to speak of actions that do call for us to challenge the good faith and integrity of some CAS workers. It is a delicate matter to address and we hope we can do so in a manner that makes clear our understanding that the practices we will be describing are not necessarily the norm among CAS workers nor endorsed by the Ministry. We also realize that there are as many versions of a story as there are parties involved. Nevertheless, there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing by a number of CAS workers to warrant some concern.
In every case reported to us homeschoolers have told us that CAS workers have exaggerated, used false information, lied in their affidavits and to get information from family doctors, health workers and board employees. Many of these lies have been corrected in court but were responsible for bringing the family into court in the first place. Once CAS has contacted families there is nowhere to register a complaint regarding the actions of a CAS worker except through the CAS worker him- or herself. In cases where CAS workers have interviewed children without anyone else being present, the children have later stated that they never said what they are purported to have said. In this situation, it is a matter of a child's word, against the word of an adult in a position of professional authority, and the courts overwhelmingly support the latter even though the child may be telling the truth.
We would like to see changes in the individuals who engage in these practices and also in any policies or pressures that might lead them into believing that it is acceptable or necessary to do so (that the ends justify the means). We would like to see a proactive effort to instill, instead, a greater sense of respect for the families with which workers become involved, and to develop skills of communication and conflict resolution so that a family's encounter with CAS will always be truly helpful, engender the least amount of anxiety in parents and children alike and involve the least amount of disruption in their lives.
Ironically, those who suffer the most from misguided interventions and misrepresentations of their words, are the children whom it is the professional mandate of CAS workers to protect. Parents, whose mandate to protect is not professional but instinctive and rooted in deep love, need to have a way to prevent the trauma brought upon their children. We would like to see a procedure put in place to ensure that parents have some kind of immediate recourse for objecting to the way their case is being handled and their children affected. An appeal of an action already taken is insufficient to avoid trauma to children, whose developing psyches and state of dependency make them particularly vulnerable to fear and permanent emotional damage. Parents need to have access, instead, to an independent and impartial mediator with the authority to suspend potentially traumatic action before it happens.
We gather that funding of CAS agencies is determined in part by the number of cases each office handles. If this is indeed the case, it would seem to invite a policy of opening and keeping open as many cases as possible to ensure the continuation of adequate funding. We are concerned that such a situation could contribute to unwarranted CAS involvement with families.
The reason this seems undesirable is that in spite of the mandate to protect children with the least amount of disruption to their lives, involvement by CAS workers invariably generates at the very least some anxieties within the family and at worst can traumatize the very children CAS is mandated to protect. For this reason we believe any involvement that is unnecessary should be avoided and we would therefore like to see a different funding formula put in place.
We have mentioned in the above paragraphs the ways in which we would like to see some changes. Translating these suggestions into concrete terms, we recommend the following:
- a) that information about homeschooling be included in the curriculum of courses leading to the diploma required to become a CAS worker.
- b) that every CAS office have a copy of the Education Act and its related homeschooling policy, PPM131.
- c) that every CAS office have a copy of additional materials created by OFTP in the form of an information package (we are in the process of updating the package we prepared for the OACAS convention held in Toronto in the year 2000).
- d) that every CAS worker be directed to refer to the above documents before handling a case involving a homeschooling family, whether or not the case also involves allegations of abuse or neglect.
- e) that judges hearing cases involving homeschoolers be given accurate legal information based on the Education Act and supplemented by PPM131.
- f) that CAS refer educational investigations to the authorities assigned by the Education Act to conduct them. If CAS workers receive a complaint regarding satisfactory instruction or upon entering a home have concerns themselves, we recommend they inform the school board. By the same token, we have already made recommendations, during the MOE consultation that led to PPM131, that school officials refer cases of suspected abuse or non-educational neglect to CAS rather than try to address it through homeschooling policy.
- g) that better communication be developed between the Ministry of Child and Family Services and the Ministry of Education so that any relevant future changes will be shared knowledge.
- h) that CAS workers be reminded of the importance of maintaining truthfulness, good faith and integrity.
- i) that any policies or pressures that might lead workers to distort the truth be replaced by an active promotion of respect for families whose cases, workers handle.
- j) that CAS workers receive training and ongoing professional development in the areas of communication and conflict resolution skills.
- k) that parents be given a means by which they can prevent CAS-induced trauma to their children. This could manifest as direct and immediate access to an independent and impartial mediator with the authority to halt potentially damaging CAS action before it happens.
- l) that a new funding formula be put in place to replace the existing one that links funding to numbers of cases that are open.
OFTP is willing to assist in fostering a better relationship between CAS and homeschooling families. We are willing to meet with the Ministry to discuss any of these issues and to help educate CAS employees as to the legalities of homeschooling, how homeschooling works, and what it might look like. We would be glad to attend conferences, run workshops and supply information to CAS workers.
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this process. We hope our feedback, information and suggestions will help inform any changes being made, dispel system-wide misconceptions about home-based learning and strengthen the original purpose of the Children's Aid Societies--the protection and welfare of all children, including homeschoolers.
[OFTP contact information]