Children’s Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville seeks advocacy amid financial crisis

Smiths Falls town council’s committee of the whole supported the Children’s Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville with their advocacy needs, as heard during the Monday, May 13 meeting. – Screengrab

Children and youth who often don’t have a voice were heard at a recent committee of the whole meeting for the Town of Smiths Falls on May 13.

Erin Lee Marcotte, executive director at the Children’s Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville, (CSLLG), along with board president Mike Andrews, spoke to council seeking their support – not funding – in advocating for their most vulnerable.

Marcotte said that child welfare services are delivered through 50 local children’s aid societies. They are not-for-profits, governed by volunteer boards and funded by the Ministry of Community Children and Social Services with a mandate under the Child Youth and Family Services Act.

“We’re not here to ask for money from the municipalities,” she said. “We understand that the funding obligations land squarely with the provincial government.”

And there is not enough of it.

Andrews said their budget allocations keep getting cut each year, and they’re facing challenges with their priorities and adoption subsidies and support for youth transitioning out of care.

Over the past eight years, the agency has had a reduction in their budget of $2.9 million, which is about 18 per cent, Andrews said. Their operating budget is “about $18 million.”

They’ve cut 50 staff members over the past seven years, as the budget gets slashed. There are just 110 full time workers across the agency. Kemptville and Prescott locations have subsequently closed, with the Perth property being sold this year.

Consequences of this, Andrews said, are increased workloads, and they’re concerned with the “possibility that a child falls through the cracks with devastating consequences.”

Their main ask is overall funding for child welfare in Ontario, and letters of support from local municipalities.

“More than half of the 50 local children’s aid societies are operating in deficit,” Andrews said. “Ours is one of them and it’s indicative of the fact that there are widespread funding constraints.”

CSLLG is responsible for service delivery and balancing their budgets. “Unfortunately, our allocations have been decreasing every year … that is a huge challenge that we’re facing,” Marcotte said.

They are also seeing a large number of Indigenous children and youth in the child welfare system.

The agency is tasked with addressing the over-representation of Indigenous and Black children and youth in the child welfare system through Truth and Reconciliation calls to action and 11 race equity practices, and providing a quality service that improves outcomes for all children and youth we serve, she said.

“We have an over-representation of Indigenous children in our care in the counties as well as Black children, or racialized children,” Marcotte said.

She said their focus in recent years has been on admission prevention.

“That takes a lot of work,” she said. “It takes sitting at the table with families, working with families and their extended supports and their network.”

They ask families how they can create safety for the kids so they can stay at home or in their communities.

“We know that when we bring them into care their trajectory isn’t necessarily going to be positive,” she said.

And they’re trying to do all this while in deficit (as are about half the agencies).

Lanark, Leeds and Grenville counties have a population of 179,830 according to the 2021 sensus, with 1,382 investigations opened/closed in 2023/24. Of this number, 14 per cent, or 193 cases, were in Smiths Falls.

“What we see is a higher demand for child welfare services than our ministries identify,” Marcotte said. “So, we get less funding than some of our more urban, larger organizations get.”

Marcotte said the pandemic brought some complexities to the agency.

Families are in precarious situations, often in crisis – or “at the end of their rope.”

Often, they see families come in as a last resort because, Marcotte said, “the buck stops here. We can’t say no.”

There is a challenge in recruiting foster families, and oftentimes children are sent back as the foster parents can’t support them. Then the children are sent out of the area, many times to a for-profit group home care with “exorbitant per diem rates.”

What the agency is seeing now is more mental health challenges. “We’re footing the bill and not necessarily providing the care and the treatment these children deserve.”

Attracting volunteers (directors and drivers), and board members are other challenges, along with continuing budget cuts.

Coun. Jennifer Miller supported the agency, noting that not-for-profits are in a crisis situation with so many layers of cuts. She said she’d continue to spread awareness as a councillor and as the executive director of Lanark County Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Mayor Shawn Pankow said it’s “heart-wrenching.

“My heart goes out to you because you’re dealing with this every single day and probably feel so powerless to actually meet the demand, the needs of the families and children you’re trying to serve,” he said.

Council unanimously approved of the ask from the agency representatives, and will follow up with letters of support.

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