Sunday, 26 May 2013

Ontario youth take a seat at the policy planning table

As the father of teenaged children, I am frequently being told that I am too old and just don’t “get it.” To a certain extent, I think my kids are absolutely right. There is a very pronounced generational gap between us, which leads to differences in the way we communicate, reason, prioritize and grow. We have a completely different frame of reference and worldview.

It is critical that we, as adults, recognize that the experiences of youth are different from our own, but they have just as much impact and validity. This understanding is not only important in my role as a father, but also in my capacity as deputy minister of Ontario’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS).

It is our responsibility at MCYS to serve the unique needs and give a voice to children and youth in Ontario, especially those who are vulnerable. But for us in government, listening is not enough. We must actively engage youth and ensure that they have a seat at the public policy planning table.

The concept of increased collaboration and civic participation in public policymaking is not new – we have been talking about this for the past two decades. It has just taken us a little while to apply this approach to youth.

Over the past year, MCYS has embarked on a consultative process unlike any we have held before. The catalyst for action on this particular project was not the senior bureaucrats or politicians. Instead, it was youth themselves.

In November 2011, a group of youth currently or formerly in the care of Ontario children’s aid societies worked with the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth to organize two days of public hearings at the Ontario Legislature. These youth wanted to share the challenges they faced when aging out of the system. Many felt isolated or silenced, and this was their opportunity to speak out.

Following these hearings, the youth prepared a remarkable report in May 2012, called My Real Life Book. This report put forward a series of recommendations to the province, with the objective of improving the child welfare system in Ontario.

Our ministry immediately acted on the report’s top recommendation by establishing the Youth Leaving Care Working Group, made up of nine youth with experience living in care and seven community partners from across Ontario. This group met 11 times between July 30, 2012 and January 4, 2013, with the task of building a plan for fundamental change to the child welfare system.

Meetings were often raw, as youth spoke with profound honesty, experience and insight. They brought a sense of urgency and focus to the policymaking process, which was truly educational for ministry staff involved.

It is important to note that the ministry’s role was only that of engaged listener. It was crucial that the process truly belonged to and was guided by youth. This in itself is a unique approach for us in government. I must credit the ministry’s Child Welfare Secretariat, whose expertise and flexibility behind the scenes made this entire process possible.

We did not try to make youth fit within the typical consultation process, instead, we tailored the process to fit youth. For example, all working group youth members were paid an honorarium to show that we valued their time and insights. We had support workers available at every meeting, where emotions could run high. Youth were given time on their own to caucus before each meeting, so they could focus their thoughts and brainstorm together.

In the end, our working group produced the Blueprint for Fundamental Change to Ontario’s Child Welfare System in January 2013. Mere days after its release, the Minister of Children and Youth Services announced $24 million in new resources and supports to help youth in and leaving care transition to adulthood. This came as direct result of the Blueprint – talk about policy in action!

The success of our Youth Leaving Care Working Group is very much an indication of what is possible when we collaborate with and are accountable to our most important stakeholder – Ontario’s youth.

Our organization is undergoing a culture change that is being championed by senior leaders. There is an increased recognition that it is our responsibility to ensure that meaningful consultation with youth and their families is part of the way we do business.

Whether we are developing policy or designing programs, we must go directly to the source. In doing so, we can ensure that our programs and services truly reflect the reality and needs of children and youth in Ontario.

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