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Under suspicion: Concerns about child welfare

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Racial profiling is an insidious and particularly damaging type of racial discrimination that relates to notions of safety and security. Racial profiling violates people’s rights under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code). People from many different communities experience racial profiling. However, it is often directed at First Nations, Métis, Inuit and other Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Arabs, West Asians and Black people, and is often influenced by the negative stereotypes that people in these communities face.

In 2015, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) began a year-long consultation to learn more about the nature of racial profiling in Ontario. Our aim was to gather information to help us guide organizations, individuals and communities on how to identify, address and prevent racial profiling. We connected with people and organizations representing diverse perspectives. We conducted an online survey, analyzed cases (called applications) at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that alleged racial profiling, held a policy dialogue consultation, and reviewed academic research. We conducted focus groups with Indigenous peoples and received written submissions. Overall, almost 1,650 individuals and organizations told us about their experiences or understanding of racial profiling in Ontario.

We heard concerns about racial profiling in the child welfare sector, particularly affecting Black and Indigenous families. We heard that systemic racism was perceived to be embedded in this system, and that racial profiling that may take place in this sector targets mothers for over-scrutiny most often.

We heard concerns that racialized and Indigenous parents are disproportionately subjected to surveillance and scrutiny, which contributes to families being reported to children’s aid societies (CASs). We also heard that once a referral to child welfare authorities takes place, families are more likely to have prolonged child welfare involvement, and be more at risk of having their children apprehended. Consultation participants suggested these experiences arise in part from referrers’ and child welfare authorities’ incorrect assumptions about risk based on race and related grounds, and intersections between these grounds and poverty.

Black, Indigenous and racialized children are overrepresented in the child welfare system

There is evidence that Indigenous, Black and other racialized children are overrepresented in the child welfare system when compared to their proportion in the general population. For example, in 2015, the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto reported that African Canadians represented 40.8% of children in care, yet they made up only 8.5% of Toronto’s population. Statistics Canada data from 2011 shows that even though Aboriginal children make up only 3.4% of children in Ontario, they represent 25.5% of children in foster care. Research from 2003 indicates that Latino children are overrepresented in cases selected for investigation by Canadian child protection services, as are Asian children when allegations of physical abuse are involved.

Consultation participants described the historical and structural inequalities that give rise to racialized and Indigenous parents having greater involvement with child welfare authorities. Some survey respondents highlighted the “Sixties Scoop” – the mass apprehension and removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities by Canadian child welfare authorities dating back to the 1960s.

There are likely many factors leading to these disproportionate representations and, on their own, they do not conclusively point to discrimination. However, overrepresentation of certain racial groups in the child welfare system may be one indicator of systemic discrimination, including systemic racial profiling.

Systemic racial profiling refers to patterns of behaviour, policies or practices that are part of an organization’s or sector’s structure, which create a position of relative disadvantage for racialized and Indigenous peoples. These policies, practices or behaviors may appear neutral, but may result in situations where racialized or Indigenous peoples tend to be singled out for greater scrutiny or negative treatment.

Although many different issues could lead to involvement by child welfare authorities, biased referrals and biased decision-making among these services may play a role.

Concerns about risk assessment standards and tools

Consultation participants raised concerns about bias in the tools and standards used to assess risk to children. Although they seem neutral, we heard that risk assessment standards and tools may lean towards more positive outcomes for White people.

Social work researchers argue that risk assessment tools in Ontario are biased and perpetuate racism because they do not account for structural inequalities, such as racial discrimination, that may affect a child’s well-being. Parents may be blamed for these external factors, even though they are largely out of their control. We heard that relying on these tools, coupled with worker bias – which may be conscious or unconscious – may contribute to assumptions about racialized children and families being “inherently wrong or deficient.” This can lead to incorrect assumptions about the level of risk children are exposed to.

We also heard concerns about risk assessment standards that relate to poverty – for example, the number of children allowed per bedroom. Poverty in racialized and Indigenous families may be seen as a sign of neglect, providing a basis for a child welfare agency to become involved. We heard that these standards can affect what is seen as acceptable in a home and contribute to CAS decisions to intervene.

It is unclear to what extent child welfare risk assessment standards and tools reflect real risk to children in all cases, or arise from White, Western, Christian middle-class norms. When standards and tools are not based on objective factors, but on the cultural norms of the dominant group, they may contribute to racial profiling.

Concerns about biased decision-making

Concerns were also raised both about the perceived bias of authorities or individuals that refer to CASs, and perceived bias in decision-making practices when child welfare workers and authorities become involved with families. Participants said that child welfare workers, many of whom are White, may be more likely to construe family situations or the actions of Indigenous or racialized people as “risky.”

The Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC) identified that Indigenous families experience “intense scrutiny of [their] ways of life” (for more information, see the full OHRC report, Under suspicion: Research and consultation report on racial profiling in Ontario). We repeatedly heard that non-Indigenous child

welfare workers often do not understand the nature or structure of Indigenous families and cultural differences in how families live. For example, they only see that children are not being raised by their parents or are living in what they think are over-crowded conditions. In another example, Indigenous youth told us that they are sometimes put into care because they miss a lot of school due to practicing their traditions and taking part in ceremonies.

Social work researchers talked about some of the factors that may contribute to the over-scrutiny of Black parents, and the tendency to view Black parents as risks to their children and in need of intervention by CASs. For example, researchers note that child welfare authorities commonly view Black parents as “aggressive” and “crazy” when they are externalizing resistance, grief, fear or shame. They also note that Black children are perceived as needing “rescuing” from their parents. As well, we heard how Black families may be reported to CAS because their children eat non-Western foods that are specific to their culture. 

Ways to address concerns about racial profiling in child welfare

Preventing and addressing racial profiling is a shared responsibility. Government, child welfare organizations and other responsible organizations must take concrete action and decisive steps to prevent, identify and respond to racial profiling.

The OHRC has made many recommendations over several years to address racial profiling. These recommendations are included in our report, Under suspicion. Where applicable, they should be used to identify how racial profiling may be taking place in the child welfare system. They also identify specific approaches organizations should use to prevent and address racial profiling. 

Overall, consultation participants agreed with the following broad strategies to prevent and address racial profiling:

  • Anti-bias training
  • Developing policies, procedures and guidelines
  • Effective accountability monitoring and accountability
    mechanisms, including:
    • complaint procedures
    • disciplinary measures
    • collecting, analyzing and reporting on data
  • Holistic organizational change strategy
  • Leadership
  • Communication (external and internal)
  • Engagement with affected stakeholders.

The OHRC is also very concerned that the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous children in the child welfare system is a possible indicator of systemic racism. We conducted a public interest inquiry to examine this issue. We requested that CASs across the province provide us with data on race and other information. In the preliminary analysis of the data, we found that for many CASs across the province, African Canadian and Indigenous children are overrepresented in care, compared to their census populations.

Next steps

The OHRC will:

  • Release the results of our public interest inquiry
  • Develop specific policy guidance to help individuals, community groups and organizations understand how racial profiling can be identified, prevented and addressed in the child welfare sector
  • Continue to call for the collection of race-based data and data on other Code grounds to better understand if racial disparities exist in this sector
  • Continue to work with community stakeholders to enhance public education on racial profiling.

For more information

To find out more about racial profiling in the child welfare and other sectors, the full Under suspicion report is available online at

To file a human rights claim (called an application), contact the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario at:

Toll Free: 1-866-598-0322
TTY Toll Free: 1-866-607-1240

If you need legal help, contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre at:
Toll Free: 1-866-625-5179
TTY Toll Free: 1-866-612-8627

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