What is Bill 89?
Ontario’s Bill 89, Supporting Children, Youth and Families Act, is an overhaul of Ontario’s child welfare system. The bill, which replaces the Child and Family Services Act, was introduced on December 8, 2016, and passed on June 1, 2017. The law focuses on regulation of foster care, adoption, Children’s Aid Societies, and child protection.
Children’s Aid Societies in Ontario have historically had extensive authority. The child welfare authorities have the ability to approve foster parents and the applications of parents who wish to adopt children who are in the protection of the state. They also have the ability to remove children that they identify as experiencing or being at risk of mental or emotional harm due to parental action or inaction. Bill 89 does not expand their authority in these areas, it is unchanged from the previous legislation.
What is new is that when the child welfare agencies consider the best interests of the child, Bill 89 now considers, among other things, a list of protected grounds of discrimination from the Ontario Human Rights Code, in place of the former Act’s consideration of “the religious faith, if any, in which the child is being raised.” This list includes the child’s race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, family diversity, disability, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
What are the concerns with Bill 89?
Though the Ontario Human Rights Code is intended to apply to the practices of government, employers and service providers, this list of characteristics from Ontario Human Rights Code is now being applied to family life through Bill 89. Further, the statutory context of the Human Rights Code, which includes protection for freedom of religion and conscience, was not included in Bill 89.
Child welfare agencies now have a specific list to consider when they are evaluating the best interests of the child. This may mean that child welfare agencies will give closer consideration to the fit between prospective foster parents or adoptive parents and the characteristics of the child. Bill 89 could mean that more emphasis will be put on beliefs about gender identity and sexual orientation in these evaluations.
In terms of child protection, the child welfare agencies will consider the best interests of the child using the same list of characteristics, and may act when they perceive a child is experiencing or at risk of experiencing harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm. As Andrea Mrozek notes, Bill 89 does not hold significant new threats for parents and their biological children, “…there is now and always has been the possibility that children can be removed from the home. This state power has existed ever since child welfare laws were adopted in the late 1800s.” Mrozek goes on to note that although it is unlikely, it is possible that a troubled family or child combined with an ideological educator could result in heightened conflict and a report to and investigation by the CAS.
Out of a concern for families and for religious freedom, the EFC asked for Bill 89 to be amended to include specific protection for parents to hold religious beliefs and to raise their children in light of their religious beliefs. The EFC had asked the Minister of Child and Youth Services and the legislative committee reviewing the bill to clarify that it “does not interfere with the freedom of religion, conscience and expression, and in particular, the right of parents to hold and to teach their children according to their conscientious or religious beliefs.” This was not included in the bill before it passed.
The EFC will be vigilant in monitoring the implementation of Ontario’s Bill 89.
Pray for children in the foster care system and children at risk, and the families and workers that care for them. Pray that they would be placed in safe, loving homes. Pray for strengthened families. Pray for freedom of religion and conscience to be upheld.
If you are concerned, engage respectfully and graciously with your elected representatives. Ontario residents can ask the provincial government to pass legislation to specifically affirm and uphold the freedom of religion and conscience of parents with respect to the instruction and care of their children, and of Ontarians in all provincially-regulated spheres, including health care professionals and others.
See also: Related April 2017 letter to Ontario Minister of Children and Youth Services