The History of Child Welfare in Canada

Posted on February 26, 2014


What is the history of the Children’s Aid Society?

The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) was established in February of 1853 by group of social reformers—among them was Charles Loring Brace.[1] Brace was selected by the group to become the Secretary of the organization.[2] The founders were motivated by the desire to inform policy and provide social services to poor, disabled and homeless children, working women, and impoverished families.[3] At the time of the organization’s inception the founders were concerned with the “burden upon [New York] city[‘s] resources [which was] caused by unprecedented numbers of immigrants.”[4] In addition, they were concerned that “impoverished immigrant children were turning to crime or barely surviving as homeless vagabonds selling matches or sweeping streets.”[5] In order to eradicate this problem CAS believed that social services and reforms that focused on “gainful work, education, and a wholesome family atmosphere” would change the city of New York.[6]

Mr. John Joseph Kelso brought the Children’s Aid Society to Toronto in 1891.[7] Due to the number of homeless and impoverished children in the city, Kelso was determined to create a social safety net that would protect abandoned children. His actions led to the enactment of the Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to and Better Protection of Children in 1893.[8] The Act permitted the creation of semi-public organizations, namely the Children’s Aid Societies, to legally care for neglected children. The CAS was allowed to manage and supervise children and collect monies from municipalities.[9] In addition, the Act authorized the transfer of guardianship from parents to a CAS. Prior to Mr. Kelso’s reforms there were no official child welfare program in Canada.[10] His efforts created the infrastructure we use today to support children in care. The CAS’s work has changed how we think about children’s rights and has helped us understand the responsibility we have as community members for disenfranchised children and youth.

How many children are affected by adoption?

Today there are 7 million Canadians that are affected by adoption; however, it remains a misunderstood and stigmatized social issue.[11] There is currently an “adoption crisis”[12] in Canada—more than 300,000 children benefit from child welfare. Of the 300,000 roughly 76,000 are children living in institutional care.[13] However, there are 30,000 children and youth available for adoption.[14] Regrettably of the 30,000 an estimated 2,000 children and youth are adopted each year from the public system.[15] Sadly, children often wait 5 years or more to be adopted. In addition, they move an average of 3 or more times in foster care and may be separated from their siblings. The average child waiting to be adopted is 8 years old. However, in Ontario 71% of the children adopted in 2013 were ages 0 to 5.[16]

Who looks after children in care?

Each province assumes responsibility for children and youth in the welfare system.[17] There is currently no centralized agency in Canada to coordinate adoptions. For example there are 53 separate child-welfare agencies in Ontario alone.[18] In fact, Canada has no national plan with priority for disadvantaged children.[19] In order to address this issue, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities has recommended the “federal government examine the possibility of working with the provinces and territories to create a national database to enhance knowledge about children and youth in the care of the child welfare agencies and the need for adoptive families across the country, and that the database be available online on a user-friendly website that would allow interested Canadians to search for information on adoption in Canada.”[20] As it currently stands child welfare agencies are responsible for responding to protection issues, however, they lack the resources to effectively address issues in a timely and well-coordinated manner.[21]

What is the main factor that leads children into the Canadian welfare system?

The Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates purport that “poverty is an underlying factor diminishing the realization of children’s rights and increasing their vulnerability in their everyday worlds.”[22] For example in Ontario poverty costs each household between $2,299 and $2,895 per year.[23] Further, if child poverty were eradicated in Ontario, there would be additional income tax revenue between $1.3 billion and 1.6 billion each year.[24] Within the Canadian context persistent disadvantages remain ignored. Child poverty has created a gap in life chances; for example, only 30% of youth in the system are expected to graduate high school compared to the 88% national average.[25] Further, only 2% go on to post-secondary education, while the general average for the population is 24%.[26] The fact is if children grow up in poverty they are more likely to live in poverty as adults.[27] Currently Canada has a 13.3% child poverty rate—we are behind the United Kingdom (12.1%) and Australia (10.9%).[28]

Among 25 OECD countries, Canada successfully completed one benchmark out of ten on the UNICEF report card. The report card evaluates childcare in OECD countries based on “a set of minimum standards for protecting the rights of children in their most vulnerable and formative years.”[29] Most notably Sweden, United Kingdom, the US and Mexico achieved a higher standing than Canada. The results indicate that Canada does not have “a national plan with priority for disadvantaged children;” and does not have a “child poverty rate less than 10%.”[30] Canada has failed to comply with internationally recognized benchmarks that are established to prioritize the development of our children.

David Morley, the president and CEO of UNICEF Canada believes that, “It is clear Canada can do better. Protecting and promoting the well-being of our children must become a national priority.” In an UNICEF child wellbeing study Canada ranks 17th out of 29. Canada ranked 14th in educational wellbeing, 15th in material well-being, 16th in behaviour and risks and 27th in health and safety.[31] Canada is behind in its efforts to increase the wellbeing of our children.

Why do foster children face so many adversities?

Many foster care children were abused or neglected, which makes them susceptible to developmental issues and mental illness.[32] For instance, more than two-thirds of children in care in B.C. will reach the age of 19 without a high school diploma. Further, 65% of youth in care were diagnosed with a mental illness at least once in their childhood.[33] Without a stable community, emotional support and financial resources foster children are likely to fall behind in school, which can decrease their chances of securing stable employment or making an adequate living wage. Did you know that “as a group, kids in permanent care are almost seven times more likely to be in special education programs than all other students”? Over 40% of children in care have physical disabilities or a chronic health problem. In addition, roughly 30% have behavioural issues or serious mental health problems.[34] Furthermore, being frequently moved from house to house causes many to fall behind in school, which can make it difficult to complete one’s diploma.[35] And even after successfully completing high school it is difficult to gain access to the financial support needed to pursue a post-secondary degree.[36]

What happens to youth that “age out” of the system?

Many of the children in care “age out” of the system by the age of 16 or 17, which Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in Canada and the United States, has suggested will increase their chances of being socially, politically and economically disadvantaged.[37] One in five youth in Canada turns 18, leaving the system without ever being adopted.[38] Research indicates that former Crown wards are “less likely to finish high school, more likely to become parents themselves at a young age, more likely to be users of the mental health system, more likely to require social assistance, more likely to rely on homeless shelters, to experience poverty as adults and more likely to be in conflict with the law.”[39] Aging out of foster care is a huge burden for many; crown wards are no longer guaranteed shelter, food, clothing and guidance.[40] In British Columbia alone every year about 700 teens lose the support granted to them by the ministry for Children and Families.[41] For many this means that they no longer have the help of social workers or transition workers who provide counseling, free food vouchers and bus tickets.[42]

Focusing on the development of an effective adoption system in Canada will ensure the sustainability of public resources. Soronen explains, “Criminal activity, homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse, teen pregnancy—all become more likely. Ironically, this is likely to lead to another generation of children living out their lives in foster care or institutional care, as their parent won’t be able to provide for them.”[43] These are urgent issues that the Canadian public has a right to know, because if the 0.04% of the Canadians that have considered adoption went through with the process every child would have a permanent home already.[44]

What are the social costs of having youth in care “age out”?

The social cost of having youth leave the welfare system prematurely is high. Gary Stangler—the executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative in the United States—suggests “on average, for every young person who age out of foster care, taxpayers and communities pay $300,000 in social cost like public assistance, incarceration, and lost wages to a community over that person’s lifetime.”[45] Further he purports that “this problem incurs almost $8 billion in social costs to the United States every year.”[46] Already nineteen American states have extended their support to the age of 21.[47] Further, the U.S. government has made it easier for individual states to support foster children until the age of 21 years if they are in school and working.[48] If we do not prevent these issues through options like adoption, it can also be a great burden to taxpayers in Canada.[49]

In Ontario alone it costs an estimated $32,000 to keep a Crown ward in public care. The province pays $1.3 billion per year on child welfare services.[50] In the 2007/08 fiscal year it cost $42,200 to care for a child.[51] However, the social cost is more—if children leave the system prematurely there is a higher chance that they will end up on “welfare and live in precarious housing, abuse alcohol and drugs, get arrested and jailed, drop out of high school, and have fragile social support networks.”[52] And as a result of our failing system, it was reported in the 2013 Vancouver homeless count there were 139 youth (19-24) and 36 children (under the age of 19) that did not have homes.[53]

Further, 11% of youth in care were charged through the Youth Criminal Justice Act of 2007.[54] It costs roughly $312 a day to accommodate an inmate—that is $113,880 a year.[55] However, one must note that the average cost of housing youth in a detention center varies. In 2011, it cost anywhere from $331 to $3,012 per day to care for a youth in an agency-operated open-custody facility.[56] The cost to accommodate an inmate in an agency-operated secure-custody facility ranged from $475 to $1,642, whilst it cost from $1,001 to $1,483 to house an inmate in a ministry-operated facility per day.[57] In Calgary it costs as much as $42,000 to stay in a shelter for one year. In addition, it costs about $120,000 to be accommodated in a psychiatric hospital.[58] The financial impact is immense. In fact, poverty costs taxpayers more than $24-billion a year.[59] In Canada 43% of respondents that had experiences with youth homelessness were previously involved with the child welfare system.[60]

Too many children in care are faced with social and financial barriers immediately upon leaving the system.[61] The report 25 is the New 21 suggests “due to instability in the parental home and multiple placements throughout their time in care, youth often take longer to reach milestones of independence compared to their peers.”[62] Permanent and stable familial connections are needed in order to be effective members of society.

Which communities are most vulnerable?

First Nation children are disproportionally represented in the child welfare system in Canada.[63] Aboriginal children comprise less than 6% of the child population, however, they represent an estimated 26% of the children placed in care.[64] For instance, the Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates reports that “in British Columbia, Aboriginal children are six times more likely to be taken in care than non-Aboriginal children and in 2010 represented 54% of the provinces alternative care child population.”[65] In other provinces and territories within Canada there is also “alarming levels” of “over-representation” in the child welfare system.[66] Aboriginal children constitute from 60% to 78% of the population in care in some territories and provinces.[67] Thus, “First Nations children are among the most disadvantaged of all children in Canada.”[68] Research indicates that roughly one in four Aboriginal children live in poverty compared to one in ten children in Canada more generally.[69] Child welfare issues are the result of “poverty, community isolation, lack of social services infrastructure and higher living costs.”[70] For instance, Aboriginal peoples are “four times more likely to live in a home in need of major repair (28% vs. 7%) than non-First Nations people living in Canada.[71]” As a result, many children and youth are forced to live in unhealthy environments. Further, “education is under-funded by the government”—roughly 50% of Aboriginal students drop out of high school. The outcome is that 40% of First Nations people in Canada aged 20 to 24 do not have a high school diploma, while only 13% of non-Aboriginal Canadians do not.[72] The legacy of colonialism and residential school, among many other contemporary and historical barriers have left Aboriginal children and youth trapped in the foster system.

How do Canadians feel about adoption?

Sadly Canada has a lower rate of adoption than many other countries.[73] Why is that? Well, roughly two in five Canadians report that they are not familiar with adoption.[74] Foster care is an issue that many Canadians feel is not talked about enough.[75] Given the lack of accessible information on adoption and foster care it is not surprising that many children and youth are trapped in the system. When asked to describe foster care in Canada many Canadians replied “unfamiliar”, “don’t know” or “not sure”.[76] Fortunately, six in ten Canadians believe that foster care is an issue that needs more media attention.[77]

The Dave Thomas Foundation’s “Canadian Foster Care Adoption Attitudes Survey” reports, “21% of Canadians are considering or have considered adopting a child.”[78] However among those who have indicated a willingness to adopt a child, 82% suggest that the paperwork and bureaucracy involved are their biggest concern. Further, 76% of these individuals are concerned about the costs involved in raising a child to adulthood.[79] However, public adoption is not very costly[80]—public adoption can average from $0 to $3,000. However, through a licensed private agency it cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000. International adoption is the most expensive; it can range from $20,000 to $30,000.[81] In order to offset some of these cost the federal government grants tax credits to eligible parents.[82]

Related Articles

Sixties Scoop Reflect on Lives ‘Never to Be The Same’ (CBC News, May 2018)

Alberta Premier to Make Historic Apology to Sixties Scoop Survivors (The Star, May 2018)

Kawartha Children’s Aid Society Acknowledging Role in Residential School Horrors (My Kawartha, May 2018)

Reconciliation Requires More Than Just ‘Lip-service’ (CBC News, May 2018)

[1] “About Our Founder,” Children’s Aid Society, accessed March 1, 2014,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “History Of Child Welfare,” Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, accessed February 27, 2014,

[8] “History,” Children’s Aid Society of Simcoe County, accessed February 1, 2014,

[9] “History Of Child Welfare.”

[10] “History.”

[11] “Myths and Realities,” Adoption Council of Canada, accessed February 7, 2014,

[11] Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, Federal Support Measures To Adoptive Parents, chair Ed Komarnicki, 41st Parliament, 1st Session, 9.

[13] Michael Hill, “A Single Spark,” Dolce Vita Magazine (Winter 2013, 2014): 34.

[14] “Myths and Realities.”

[15] Federal Support Measures To Adoptive Parents, 6.

[16] “Adoption Council of Canada Applauds Increase in Adoption Tax Credit,” Digital Journal, accessed February 12, 2014,

[17] 2011/2012 Report To The Legislature, Provincial Advocate for Children Youth, 11.

[18] The Globe and Mail, “Crown Wards: A Group Of Kids That Are Not All Right,” The Globe and Mail, November 1, 2010, accessed January 3, 2014,

[19] Globe and Mail What Canada can Learn from the World Oct 24 2013

[20] Federal Support Measures To Adoptive Parents, chair Ed Komarnicki, 10.

[21] Realizing A Sustainable Child Welfare System In Ontario, Commission to Promote Sustainable Child Welfare, September 2012, 82.

[22] Aboriginal Children Canada Must Do Better: Today And Tomorrow, Canadian Council Of Child And Youth Advocates, 2011, 34.

[23] Breaking the cycle: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy 1

[24] Breaking the cycle: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy 1

[25] Hill, “A Single Spark,” 34.

[26] “Adoption Council of Canada Applauds Increase in Adoption Tax Credit.”

[27] Breaking the cycle: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy 7

[28] Measuring Child Poverty 3

[29] The Child Care Transition: A League Table Of Early Childhood Education And Care In Economically Advanced Countries, UNICEF, April 2008.

[30] Ibid.

[31] The Canadian Press, “UNICEF Child Well-Being Index: Canada Ranked 17th Out Of 29 Wealthy Nations,” Huffington Post, October 10, 2013, accessed January 3, 2014,

[32] Tracy Sherlock, “Part Four: From Care To Where? Early Brain Development Susceptible To Neglect, Abuse,” Vancouver Sun, March 4, 2014, accessed March 6, 2014,

[33] Vancouver Sun, “Some Facts About Foster Care In B.C.,” Vancouver Sun, February 24, 2014, accessed February 24, 2014,

[34] Tracy Sherlock, “Part Three: From Care To Where? A continuing Need For Support,” March 4, 2014, accessed March 5, 2014,

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Rita Soronen, “Rita Soronen: Solving Canada’s Adoption Crisis,” National Post, November 26, 2013, accessed January 3, 2014,

[38] “Adoption Council of Canada Applauds Increase in Adoption Tax Credit.”

[39] “Forever Families: Ontario’s Adoption System,” Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, accessed February 27, 2014,

[40] Tracy Sherlock and Lori Culbert, “Part One: From Care To Where? Aging Out Of The Foster System,” Vancouver Sun, March 4, 2014, accessed March 5, 2014,

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Soronen, “Rita Soronen: Solving Canada’s Adoption Crisis.”

[44] Ibid.

[45] Gary Stangler, “Aging Out Of The Foster Care: The Costs Of Doing Nothing Affect Is All,” Huffington Post, July 28, 2013, accessed February 3, 2014,

[46] Ibid.

[47] Sherlock and Culbert, “Part One: From Care To Where? Aging Out Of The Foster System.”

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] “Forever Families: Ontario’s Adoption System.”

[51] Pre-Budget Consultation: Submission To The Standing Committee On Finance And Economic Affairs, Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, December 2008.

[52] Sherlock and Culbert, “Part One: From Care To Where? Aging Out Of The Foster System.”

[53] Culbert, “Part Two: From Care To Where? Left To Pick Up His Own Pieces.”

[54] 25 Is The New 21: The Costs And Benefits Of Providing Extended Care And Maintenance To Ontario Youth In Care Unit Age 25, Provincial Advocate for Children And Youth, 2012, 19.

[55] Anna Mehler Paperny, “Corrections Canada To Make Budget Cuts As Prison Population Grows,” The Globe and Mail, August 19, 2012, accessed March 1, 2014

[56] Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Youth Justice Services Program, 294.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Postmedia News, “Canadians Cover $24-Billion A Year In Poverty Costs: Report,” National Post, September 28, 2011, accessed January 7, 2014,

[59] Ibid.

[60] 25 Is The New 21, Provincial Advocate for Children And Youth, 2012, 20.

[61] Stangler, “Aging Out Of The Foster Care: The Costs Of Doing Nothing Affect Is All.”

[62] 25 Is The New 21, Provincial Advocate for Children And Youth, 2012, 16.

[63] Aboriginal Children Canada Must Do Better, 26.

[64] “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs),” Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal, accessed February 5, 2014,

[65] Aboriginal Children Canada Must Do Better, 26.

[66] Ibid.

[67] “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).”

[68] Feather Of Hope: A First Nations Youth Action Plan, Provincial Advocate for Children And Youth, 2014, 37.

[69] Aboriginal Children Canada Must Do Better, 34.

[70] “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).”

[71] Feathers Of Hope, 37.

[72] Ibid, 74.

[73] “Did You Know That,” Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, accessed January 25, 2014,

[74] Canadian Foster Care Adoption Attitudes Survey, Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption Canada, July 2013, 10.

[75] Child Welfare League Of Canada, “Understanding Perceptions Of Foster Care In Canada: Every Child Matters II Project,” (presentation, June 19, 2012) 13.

[76] Ibid, 24.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Canadian Foster Care Adoption Attitudes Survey, 8.

[79] Ibid, 9.

[80] Aboriginal Children Canada Must Do Better.

[81] “Myths and Realities.”

[82] Ibid.