Thirty years ago, the kids who grew up in the care of the Children’s Aid Society rarely went to college or university. If they somehow did make their way to school, they were saddled with huge OSAP loans and worked two part-time jobs to pay for it. The agency just didn’t have the resources to help them.
“There were huge obstacles,” said Peter Ringrose, executive director of Family and Children’s Services of Waterloo Region. “We didn’t expect many of our kids would go on to higher education. We didn’t encourage them the way we do now.”
All that has changed. Now the agency actively encourages young people to go on to higher education, and helps them pay their expenses through its charitable foundation. Between 20 and 25 students head off to college, university, beauty school or trade school every year.
“They will have a whole range of opportunities that their parents didn’t have,” Ringrose said.
Of all the changes he’s seen over three decades, seeing the kids have a chance at an education has left him the most satisfied, Ringrose noted as he prepared to retire this week after 25 years at the organization’s helm.
Ringrose started his career in England. He stumbled into social work purely by chance, after volunteering at a children’s residence. The work appealed to him and he enrolled in a master’s degree program.
He and his family immigrated to Canada in 1976. They lived first in Port Hope, where he was a front-line social worker, then moved to Waterloo Region in 1979 when he became the first supervisor of the Cambridge office of Family and Children’s Services. He now calls Heidelberg home.
While the legal framework for child welfare is very similar between Canada and England, the way services are delivered is quite different. In England, social services are delivered by municipalities and the mandate is much broader, including seniors, the mentally ill and other groups.
There’s a significant advantage to delivering child welfare through not-for-profit community agencies, Ringrose said, because people are far more likely to volunteer or donate money to local agencies.
“People don’t generally give time and money to government,” he said.
In his three decades with the agency, Ringrose has seen a huge growth in the number of families served and the size of the agency. When he started in 1979, FCS had about 85 staff; it now has 450. And in 1985, when he became executive director, the agency received 3,150 referrals; last year they had 7,106.
There has also been an increase in the range of programs offered, with new courses on parenting skills, social skills for children, family violence and families with addiction problems. One way FCS has been able to expand its services is by delivering programs in partnership with community agencies like the John Howard Society and the Women’s Crisis Centre.
A major turning point in the agency’s history was a series of inquests in the late 1990s into the deaths of 10 children whose families had contact with children’s aid at the time of their deaths. Those inquests led to an overhaul of children’s welfare services, including the introduction of new standards, better risk assessment and standardized funding.
New funding formulas were a huge benefit, Ringrose said, because the agency had traditionally been very frugal and its ongoing funding levels reflected that.
The funding increases introduced after the inquest are now in jeopardy, because the provincial government has cut funding to Children’s Aid Societies. FCS faces a deficit of $900,000 this year, putting at risk the new programs introduced over the past decade.
The agency has faced funding shortfalls in the past, but none as bad as this, Ringrose said.
“It’s just unacceptable to everybody,” he said. “We’ve got to stop the posturing and get back around the table and work this out.”