03/20/2019 17:31 EDT | Updated 03/21/2019 15:44 EDT

These Black Youth Will Fill Void Left By Ontario Child Advocate's Office

The goal is to continue to pressure government officials to address systemic racism and discrimination.

Samantha Beattie/HuffPost Canada
Richard Marcano (left), Smyrna Wright and Kishaun Lalor wrote or contributed to the HairStory report, an Ontario Child Advocate initiative to ensure the voices of Black youth in systems of care are heard.

TORONTO — The child advocate's office is shutting down, but that won't stop a group of passionate black youth from advocating for kids in Ontario's care systems.

An Ontario Child Advocate initiative called HairStory: Rooted, which gives voice to the province's black youth living in foster care, group homes, or provincial boarding schools, or in the youth justice, welfare, mental health, special needs or Indigenous assistance systems, will become an independent not-for-profit organization.

Its mission will be to see through 16 recommendations in a report released Wednesday, including that the province ensure all black youth who enter care know their rights and entitlements, to provide them with more opportunities to develop life skills, and to improve oversight of youth care workers.

The goal is to continue to pressure government officials to address systemic racism and discrimination in a system where black and Indigenous children are overrepresented. The proportion of black children admitted into care was 2.2 times higher than their proportion to the child population across Canada, the Ontario Human Rights Commission reported last year.

"That feeling of isolation in those systems of care, isolation you carry with you as you navigate this world, well now there's 20 of us, and we're all saying the same thing," said Smyrna Wright, 22, one of the report's authors.

"Nobody is going to stop us from saying it. That's the really impactful thing and that's why we're here and why we're going to keep going. This whole political environment can't stop us."

Jim Rankin/Getty Images
Irwin Elman, Ontario's advocate for children and youth, is stepping down April 1 before the office is officially closed May 1.

The entire HairStory report was guided, written and designed by black youth, said Wright. Dialogue sessions across Ontario, and a panel and forum ensured the experiences of more than 120 black youth informed the recommendations.

"Growing up in care, as a black youth, I didn't feel like I had a voice," said Richard Marcano, 24, also a HairStory report author. He got involved with the child advocate's office four years ago after taking part in one of the sessions.

"They stepped up in bravery and said, 'Hey, let's talk about the systemic racism in these systems of care that's stopping us from succeeding and keeping us in this cycle," he said.

Seeing these young leaders who look like him, and have similar experiences as him advocate for change made Marcano realize he could also make a difference for the next generation.

The HairStory report describes a complicated system that's falling short of meeting the needs of black young people. "Rather than feeling supported by this web of systems, at times they felt entrapped, and at other times like they were allowed to fall through the cracks," it said.

HairStory will also mirror the work of the child advocate's office in creating a "safe haven" for vulnerable young people, a place they where their voices will be heard, Marcano said, who will be the organization's president.

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The Ontario Ombudsman will assume the duties of the child advocate's office on May 1.

The child advocate's office provides an independent voice for children and youth, and responds to concerns about children in the child care system through investigations and advocacy work.

"It's a sad experience to know it's closing because there were a lot of youth who had supports at the office," said Kishaun Lalor, 24, a Youth Amplifier at HairStory. "We hope the ombudsman's office will take up the role. We're also going to be advocates."