Improved services for Nova Scotians applying for employment support and income services, and new accommodations to help disabled parents and guardians get their children to school bus stops were among the reforms triggered by the Office of the Ombudsman during the fiscal year 2017-18.
The cases are cited in the annual report released today Sept. 27, by Ombudsman William Smith.
“It was a busy and challenging year,” said Mr. Smith.
He reports that complaints and inquiries increased by close to seven per cent, to a total of 2,517. The total includes all complaints, inquiries and contacts with youths in the care or custody of the province.
“The year also marked an exciting new initiative involving young people, the Ombudsman’s Youth Summit in October of 2017, and by the launch of a stepped-up program to support Nova Scotia’s seniors.”
The employment support and income services matter involved a practise in the Department of Community Services of contacting applicants for income assistance only once regardless of whether the caseworker could leave a telephone message.
Discussion between an Ombudsman representative and Community Services officials resulted in a reform that allows caseworkers to make subsequent calls, and follow up with a letter if no phone contact is made.
In the school bus case, disabled parents of a young child reported difficulty accompanying their child to certain school bus stop locations. In the past, the Halifax Regional School Board permitted exceptions to Department of Transportation and Infrastucture bus stop rules only for children with disabilities. The complaint to the Ombudsman resulted in a change to the board’s student transportation policy that now permits route accommodations based on the disabilities of parents and guardians.
Overall the year’s activities followed the traditional pattern, with most inquiries involving three major government departments:
— Community Services, 412
— Justice, 34
— Health and Wellness, 134
In Nova Scotia, the Ombudsman traditionally has served as an unofficial representative of children who receive government services. Over time this responsibility has become a core component of the office. This year there were 646 face-to-face meetings with children in care or custody, up from 472 the previous year.
A youth-related highlight of the year was the Ombudsman’s Youth Summit. There were more than 40 participants, including youth in care and custody and from schools and organizations across the province.
“The Youth Summit was an outstanding success,” said Mr. Smith. “We all learned a lot. Importantly, we learned how much we need to learn.”
Inspired by the summit, an Ombudsman Youth Council will be established, supported by the Ombudsman but designed to be for youth, by youth. The first meeting of the council will take place later this fall.
The annual report notes that following a recommendation of the Ombudsman’s Child Death Review Report of 2014, the departments of Justice, Health and Wellness, and Community Services have continued to work together to implement an automatic child death review. Common in other jurisdictions, the review would involve a required investigation into all deaths, and eventually critical injuries, of children in the care or custody of the province or receiving government services.
Mr. Smith said it has been a long process, but he remains optimistic the child death review will become a reality.
The Ombudsman said the growing role of the office in supporting seniors includes an initiative already well underway. He said all Ombudsman representatives are now involved in an outreach project visiting continuing care residences all over the province, meeting seniors, their families, and residence staff to explain and promote Ombudsman services for residents of those facilities.
Mr. Smith said that in the coming year he is looking forward to the resolution of an application to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal to settle a question of jurisdiction.
The matter stems from an investigation launched by the Ombudsman into the handling of complaints made to the Adult Protection Services Division of the Department of Health and Wellness about the safety and well-being of a vulnerable person.
“Regrettably the department refuses to fully co-operate with the investigation, citing broad privacy legislation and contending a lack of jurisdiction for the Ombudsman to investigate.
“While such an application is rare, I believe it is necessary based on the circumstances, and is in the public interest.”
The Office of the Ombudsman has a staff of 17 and budget of just under $1.8 Million.
The Ombudsman’s Annual Report is now available online at https://novascotia.ca/ombu/publications/OmbudsAR-2017-2018.pdf .