New CCAS CEO Priscilla Manful. Michael Swan

Children’s aid faces up to race issues

  • April 10, 2023

Less than 10 per cent of the children in Toronto are Black, yet more than half the kids in the care of the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto are Black. Priscilla Manful is determined to do something about it.

Manful is the first Black woman in the CEO’s chair in the 129-year history of Toronto’s Catholic Children’s Aid Society. She recognizes that her agency has a problem.

“When it comes to our Black kids, it is true that the majority of our kids in our care in fact are Black,” Manful told The Catholic Register. “The outcomes for some of these kids are really, really poor.”

The problem of race isn’t something that only affects Catholic Children’s Aid in Toronto. In Canada, 53.8 per cent of children in foster care are Indigenous, even though they are only 7.7 per cent of the child population, according to the 2021 Census. 

Across Ontario, Black families are 2.2 times as likely to be investigated by the child welfare system, according to a 2022 report by the One Vision One Voice program of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, working with the University of Toronto’s faculty of social work. Black children who are investigated are 2.5 times as likely as white children to be taken out of their homes and away from their families while an investigation happens, and they are 1.7 times as likely to be transferred into some form of ongoing care away from their families.

When it comes to what was a large number of Indigenous kids in the care of Catholic Children’s Aid, the Catholic agency has come to an agreement with Native Child and Family Services to transfer Indigenous kids over to the Indigenous-run agency and its programs. That process is almost complete, though a few older kids will remain with CCAS in deference to established relationships.

That frees Manful to talk to police and the Toronto Catholic District School Board — the two major sources of referrals to CCAS — about the overabundance of Black kids. The school board recognizes there is a problem and they say they’re working on it.

“After a thorough review with CCAS, additional staff training and amended policies, the rate of referrals for Black students was reduced by more than 65 per cent,” the TCDSB told The Catholic Register in an email. 

The board said more needs to be done and it’s leaning on the CCAS to learn how to do better.

Manful has a very direct question for teachers, police and others who might phone in to CCAS.

“If this kid was white-Italian or white-Portuguese, would you still call CCAS?”

With the province’s purse-strings ever tighter, Manful wants her agency to have the capacity to serve marginalized and at-risk families. CCAS can’t do that while it expends resources investigating situations which may be difficult, but don’t require the services of a children’s aid society.

“When a kid presents at school and is hungry, can a school perhaps figure out how to support this kid with food, instead of calling children’s aid?” she asked. “Is there an opportunity to speak to the parents?”

As of April 1 a province-wide moratorium on children aging-out of the child welfare system ends. The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services claims that “No youth in care will immediately age out with the lifting of the moratorium (April 1) without supports.”

It’s all part of a redesign of the child welfare system, which the province hopes will result in fewer children in foster care or group homes and more with extended family and other alternative arrangements.

“We are committed to addressing the overrepresentation of Indigenous, Black and racialized children and youth,” said the ministry email. 

In her 20 years with Catholic Children’s Aid, that’s what Manful has been doing. She designed and implemented the Africentric Wraparound model to help Black families and keep them together. In the CEO role she hopes to build partnerships with other agencies, Catholic schools and parishes to ensure families are supported and kids don’t end up in care.

Backstopping marginalized, immigrant, Catholic families was the Catholic Children’s Aid Society’s purpose back in 1894 and Manful is anxious to claim that same purpose today.

“We have families who identify as Catholic in the community and deserve services that actually incorporate their faith — that give them the support that they need to thrive,” she said.

Manful knew poverty growing up in Ghana. She worked her way through an English and Law degrees from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology before coming to Canada in 2000. A Bachelor and then Masters of Social Work from York University launched Manful into her career with Catholic Children’s Aid in 2007. 

“For me, the vision is strengthening our relationships, our partnership with the Church itself in terms of establishing our Catholic faith,” she said. “When we look at our mandate regarding providing services to Catholic families, we have a huge population in the community who are Catholic. It is important that we bring that connection to their faith and their needs.”

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