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Hot dogs. A pack of cigarettes. A Macbook Pro. Foster kids. They all share one commonality: they are commodities. Such is the revelation brought forward by a recent Global News/APTN joint investigation into the state of Ontario’s child welfare system. This might come as a surprise to some. But that feeling of surprise will quickly evaporate when one considers that we are living under capitalism, a society where, as Marx & Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto, there is “no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.”

The idyllic picture of foster homes run by well-meaning couples, like the ones portrayed in Mark Wahlberg and Rose Bryne’s movie Instant Family, is disappearing and rapidly being replaced by faceless, profit-driven companies who see children as a revenue stream. “We’re talking about the private sector, we’re talking about generating profits, we’re talking about companies doing business through kids as commodities,” said Kiaras Gharabaghi, the dean of community services at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Child services are a lucrative multibillion-dollar business in Ontario. In 2020 alone, it cost the province $1.8 billion. Like a moth to a flame, the private for-profit sector is flooding the foster care sector. In Ontario, there are roughly 300 licensed group homes and nearly half of them are run by private for-profit companies. Each bed brings in $315 a day on average, but for children with more complex needs, that number can jump to more than $1,200 a day.

There is no data in Ontario of how much these private operators make, but one recent study in the UK shed some light on how profitable the sector is. It revealed that the 10 largest providers of children’s social care placements made more than £300 million in profit in 2021 alone. The total income of the largest 20 providers was found to be more than £1.6 billion, in a market worth £6.5 billion total. Another report concluded that, “local authorities [were] forced to pay excessive fees for privately run services that often fail to meet the needs of vulnerable children.” It pointed out how profit margins in the sector were “materially higher than expected”, with private operators securing average profit margins of 20 per cent per year. Truly, there is an eye-watering amount of money to be made in the foster care industry.

The privatization of social care programs—from elderly care, to children’s social care, to correctional services—has created gigantic industrial complexes where quality care with dignity is being sacrificed on the altar of profit. The marketisation of child welfare is a worldwide phenomenon fueled by profit. It is part of the wider effort to dismantle public programs and privatize them.

In the US, Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, pointed out how the government financially incentivizes foster agencies to keep children in the foster care system as long as possible, as opposed to reuniting them with their families. “[Private] agencies will probably be paid for each day that child remains in foster care … So the private agency has an incentive to convince itself that the child really, really can’t go home and has to stay with them for a long, long time,” said Wexler. This means referrals for the parents to access support services such as parenting classes and addiction treatment are hard to come by, and private agencies are eager to deem parents unfit for reunification. Wexler’s organization also released a report that shows that in 2020, the federal government spent twelve times more on foster care and adoption than on services to keep children out of foster care and speed up reunification. It is more profitable to take children away from struggling families and keep them in foster homes than spend the resources to support families so they can reunite. The comparison to the prison-industrial complex is therefore warranted, where the system is designed to keep people in prison rather than out.

The need to squeeze as much profit from these children as possible has naturally resulted in atrocious conditions for them. Foster children are brought under government care supposedly to protect them from abuse and neglect, but find themselves in a system where abuse and neglect are systematic and deep-rooted. They are being bounced from one placement to another like a commodity, with their belongings jammed into garbage bags.

The Global News/APTN investigation tells a story of Delana Land, an Indigenous woman who suffered abuse when she was 15 at Mary Homes, a for-profit fostering company in Ottawa. She was pinned down to the floor simply for refusing to turn out the light in the evening. Windows in her room were nailed shut, shoes and jackets were locked up to prevent children from running away, and food was locked away. This might as well have been a prison. When her close friend in the same group home, Amy Owen, took her own life, Land was so traumatized she ran away. She then lived in a stairwell at the Rideau Centre Mall in Ottawa, which in her view was better than living at Mary Homes. “At least I was able to be me. I was able to be okay,” said Land. That tells us everything we need to know about these group homes. They are like prisons, designed to keep the inmates in for a revenue stream. Land’s was a typical story.

The use of physical restraints is particularly high in for-profit homes. While making up only 25 per cent of beds across Ontario, they filed 55 per cent of all serious occurrence reports (SOR), including 83 per cent of all cases involving physical restraints and 66 per cent of reports of missing youth. The staff in these companies are neither qualified nor properly trained to care for these children, so they often resort to physical restraints. In their effort to be profitable, fostering companies keep the cost of running their homes to a minimum at the expense of the children’s wellbeing and dignity.

Perusing the job board Indeed for reviews by former staff, one will find a disturbing picture of these facilities. For example, some former staff of Enterphase, one of the private operators that frequently uses restraints, have a lot to say. 

One said that, “This agency does not care for the youth or employees. It saddens me that youth can be treated so poorly and the staff can get away with it.”

Another explained that, “The company will keep a client that causes serious harm to staff, if they have a high per diem. Staff safety is not taken into consideration … Their only priority is money, not staff safety or retention … They have improperly trained management … Untrained management is training staff and creating a cycle.” 

Another said that, “Protocol was never followed … and the front line staff did not get paid enough to deal with the stress level of the environment.”

The Global News/APTN investigation also shared a story of a former Enterphase staff member about how she was restraining children multiple times a day. With remorse, she admitted that she did not have the proper training to care for kids with mental health conditions. The picture is crystal clear. The staff is underpaid and underqualified. It is therefore not surprising that abuse and neglect are rampant in these privately-run homes. 

Another hard-to-miss aspect of the Canadian child welfare system is its legacy of anti-Indigenous racism. While the residential school policy has formally ended, its cultural-genocidal practice was simply passed onto child welfare authorities and continues to this day (Read our articles The Sixties Scoop: Another crime against Indigenous people and Foster care: The new residential schools). Indigenous children were “scooped” away from their homes and families by child services agents, all in the name of the “best interests” of the children. As a result, there is a gross overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care. While only seven per cent of children under the age of 14 are Indigenous, they make up 52 per cent of children in foster care. 

Black children are also overrepresented in the child welfare system. In Toronto, while black people represent eight per cent of the population, they make up 41 per cent of children in foster care. They are 36 per cent more likely than white children to be placed into foster care. The capitalist profit motive and racism both keep the wheel of the foster care system churning to grind the children down.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford received the investigation with concern, but as expected, he stopped short of saying he will end for-profit care. “We need to do better,” he said, which translates into, “We are not going to do anything about it.” Now-former Liberal leader Steven Del Duca echoed the same sentiment, refraining from calling for an end to for-profit care and instead calling for a “review”, which in the vocabulary of the Liberals also means, “We are not going to do anything about it.” It is not surprising that the two capitalist parties are defending the privatization of child welfare services. 

Child welfare services need to be taken out of the hands of private, for-profit companies. They need to be nationalized under workers’ and community control. Affected communities⁠—Indigenous and black communities in particular⁠—should have democratic oversight and control over the child welfare system in order to break the racist legacy of this system. Child welfare workers should be required to have proper training and qualifications in child and youth care. The main emphasis of the child welfare system should be proper care for vulnerable children and family reunification, which means providing community-based support for struggling parents to enable them to reunite with their children. This requires a serious public investment, which can never be afforded by capitalism. In the era of austerity that we are entering, coupled with ever-intensifying privatization, all social services are in deep crisis.

There is no future for foster children under capitalism. For-profit child services are directly harming children and families. The state of our foster care system is a faithful reflection of the deep crisis developing in capitalist society. We need to fight to end this capitalist system that treats children as commodities and a source of profit.