Mark Kartusch, executive director of the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, in the society’s new offices in Scarborough. Michael Swan

The changing world of child welfare

By 
  • January 30, 2020

Mark Kartusch is a 53-year-old suburban dad, overseer of a real estate windfall and the guy entrusted to make sure a Catholic agency serving more than 6,000 vulnerable families has a future despite declining government funding.

Kartusch took charge of the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto last year as the agency was preparing to trade it’s architecturally beautiful downtown offices for a drab, blue-green glass box in the middle of a Scarborough parking lot. The agency sold its much renovated, brick modernist building on Isabella Street for $26 million, then spent less than $10 million renovating, customizing and moving into their new, leased and low-cost headquarters. That left the CCAS with a nearly $17-million nest egg.

The nest egg is more than necessary. Between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 reporting years, the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto saw its revenues drop by over $18 million or 23 per cent. As the provincial government begins another wide-ranging review and modernization of the child-welfare system, CCAS is arming itself for an uncertain future.

The majority of the money from the real estate deal is going into its Hope For Children Foundation, which spends over $250,000 a year on scholarships to ensure kids who begin to age out of care at 18 can attend universities, colleges and trade schools (some funding is available up to age 21). 

The foundation has become a stand-alone entity with more fund-raising capacity. It hopes to grow scholarships and other programs, going beyond  government mandated and funded activities.

The extras aren’t really extra from a parent’s point of view, Kartusch said. As the father of two — one in university and the other starting this fall — he can’t imagine telling an 18-year-old who is leaving CCAS care, particularly someone who has survived trauma or overcome mental health issues, “You’re on your own. Good luck.”

“It’s a value I want handed on — to make sure that when kids leave us they’ve got someone who cares about them and they’ve got an education,” Kartusch said. “My son is off to university now and there’s challenges. We’re privileged enough that financial challenges aren’t one of the challenges for him. … We (at the CCAS) are trying to create the same kinds of conditions for success for our youth.”

Kartusch is determined that whatever challenges or changes his institution faces they will not add to the uncertainty and difficulty of families the CCAS serves.

“We made a commitment at the time of our move, that as a result of our move to Scarborough, children and families won’t experience a difference in the service level,” he said.

But that’s not just a matter of keeping everything the same.

“What’s child welfare? That’s a big thing, and it’s changing,” he said. “We need to do our work differently — more in collaboration with community partners, for sure, but also with families.”

In 2019 the provincial government tried to scoop $28 million out of the $1.5 billion annual budget directed to 49 children’s aid societies, despite 18 of those agencies already operating with deficits totalling more than $12 million. But by the end of the year all $28 million was restored. Kartusch gives Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government credit for thoughtfully and carefully launching a system review without a lot of political fanfare.

“Government is changing their thinking of it now — actually, finally. They’ve never been in prevention. It’s always been about the back-end and investigation and all those sorts of things,” he said.

In fact, child protection has changed dramatically over the last decade. Since the 2014-15 reporting year, the number of children the CCAS has taken into care has fallen by more than 29 per cent, to about 580 youth in care in the fall of 2019.

“Actually, 97 per cent of the time we’re working with families in their homes,” Kartusch said.

From an agency whose job was once to investigate families and extract children from abusive and dysfunctional homes, the CCAS has transformed itself into a service agency working to strengthen at-risk, precarious and mostly poor families. The goal is to have kids raised in families that can weather the storms.

Kartusch didn’t invent this. He looks at the Native child and family service organizations that have multiplied in the last 20 years and finds a lot to admire.

“We refer to ourselves as child and family well-being organizations, and we’re all very multi-service,” said Native Child and Family Services of Toronto executive director Jeffrey Schiffer. “So we (Indigenous children’s aid societies) really focus on prevention and early intervention. It’s about making relationships with families early, wrapping them with services and then trying to ensure that we never get to a place of having to remove a child.”

Every year since opening in 2004, Schiffer’s agency has reduced the number of children in care while constantly increasing the number of families it serves. Their measure of success isn’t just preventing a kid from growing up in a group home, it’s keeping that child connected to family, grandparents, traditions, spirituality and culture.

“To know who you are as an Indigenous person is to be tapped-in and connected to that spirituality, that world-view,” Schiffer said. “That is quintessential to being able to get kids and families to a place of wellness.”

A cynical view of Catholic Children’s Aid would be that 125 years ago Archbishop John Walsh started it out of a fear that Catholic children would end up Protestant in the hands of a city run by the Orange Lodge. But it is possible that the archbishop had a more positive instinct — that children had a God-given right to their own cultural and spiritual heritage. Perhaps an increase in Indigenous demands for reconciliation and recognition helped to remind Catholics their lives and identity also have a spiritual heritage.

The advantage the CCAS has over Native Child is that over the last 125 years Toronto-area Catholics have been able to build an entire ecosystem of agencies serving families and the poor. Kartusch has spent a lot of his first year meeting with the executive directors of other Catholic Charities organizations, discussing how they can work together.

“In the Catholic community, we’re stronger and more effective the more we can work together and collaborate,” said Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Toronto executive director Michael Fullan. “So that’s the bottom line.”

Kartusch asks himself, “How do we connect and help make sure we’re connecting the children, youth and families within the Catholic community?”

Poverty is a critical link between what the CCAS does and the issues facing every other Catholic Charities agency, Kartusch said.

“Just because someone is poor or in poverty doesn’t mean they are bad parents,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Poverty can help trigger and interact with and escalate or add to other issues. So yes, poverty reduction plans are very important to CCAS.”

Kartusch’s career has taken him from social worker on the front lines to management roles running meetings and making budgets. But he still thinks in terms of families — mothers and daughters, fathers and sons.

“Parents are better at parenting than institutions like government and children’s aid,” Kartusch said.

So he runs an institution, but he’s against institutions.

“Being a parent, I do think it helps keep me grounded in an anti-institutional stance, in making sure that the children and youth we are acting as parents for experience their childhood as normal.” 

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