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Reflections from a Conference

Dec 13, 2022, 14:59 PM

OCCAS’ Teens, Tweens, and Everything in Between: A Legal Conference About the Issues that Impact Youth & the Child Welfare Services Provided to Them


In the spring, CWICE was invited to participate in a conference hosted by the Organization of Counsel for Children’s Aid Societies (OCCAS), their first in-person conference after pausing them during the pandemic. These conferences are run by and for child protection lawyers on topics of interest to this sector.  Bruce Grey Child and Family Services is a member of OCCAS, and organized this year’s conference at the beautiful Blue Mountain Resort in Ontario. Over two days in early October, this setting provided an incredible learning and networking environment for participants.


L-R: Liz Okai, Danielle Ungara, and Caitlyn Symsyk-Dekker at the OCCAS Conference

This year’s conference theme was Teens, Tweens and Everything in Between: A Legal Conference on Issues that Impact Youth & the Child Welfare Services Provided to Them.  The goal was to focus on youth who experience complex needs and may be misunderstood or overlooked at times. Conference organizer and Senior Counsel at Bruce-Grey Child & Families Services, Caitlyn Symsyk-Dekker, shared, “We wanted to design a conference that would help fill a gap that has started to grow wider and wider ever since the CYFSA expanded in 2017 to include 16- and 17-year-olds – all in the hopes that with enhanced knowledge and understanding, the lawyers could help play a meaningful role in ensuring these youth do not fall into the systemic gap that has been created around them.”


In CWICE, when we learned the focus would be on services to youth, we knew we had relevant information to share with colleagues across the child welfare sector. For example, we promote equitable outcomes for Unaccompanied and Separated Children and Youth, as well as consistent practices for youth who have intersecting immigration or settlement needs and are being assessed for or are receiving Voluntary Youth Services in Ontario. 


As CWICE Managers, we presented at the OCCAS conference, giving an overview of CWICE, including its history, and the evolution of our work over the past 4+ years. It was important that lawyers providing legal advice to child welfare professionals across Ontario hear about the issues and trends we encounter. Our work focuses on the intersection of child welfare, with unresolved immigration issues, unmet settlement needs, and border-related issues. We spoke about the importance of centering our clients’ identities, ensuring they have a sense of belonging, supporting individuals obtaining identity documentation, while resolving immigration status issues including seeking citizenship on behalf of children, youth, and young adults.


Alongside presenters from community legal clinics, counsel from the Office of the Children’s Lawyer, and staff at OACAS, we also provided a view of the future of child welfare. 


Liz and Danielle present at the conference

“This conference would have been incomplete without CWICE’s contributions.  So many CASs and youth face complex immigration issues and yet, we don’t know where to turn or how to navigate the overwhelming world of immigration and child welfare.  With the Regulation changes coming into force in 2023, immigration matters are something that every Society will need to be prepared to manage more effectively and efficiently.  It’s important that the lawyers, who are tasked with giving Societies legal advice, are prepared to help guide our respective agencies down the path to success.  The OCCAS is grateful to Danielle, Liz and everyone at CWICE for joining us at Blue Mountain and for their continued support.  Although this topic is challenging, Liz and Danielle’s presentation was clear, concise and extremely helpful to all of us.  We will be better lawyers as a result and are grateful that they were willing to join us to share their knowledge and expertise.”  -OCCAS Conference Co-Chair Caitlyn Symsyk-Dekker


In many ways, we are in a time of philosophical shift in child welfare – in terms of increasing equity practices, tailoring service approaches, respecting distinct identities, having data intelligence, and ensuring services are proactive. We can use our role to provide early help in the lives of children and youth and offer services before issues entrench people in problems that can take years to resolve. The path forward ensures we all serve youth in a way that meets their specific needs.


In conclusion, we shared the approach we take in CWICE and the outcomes we achieve. 


About the Authors

Danielle Ungara (RSW) and Liz Okai (RSW) co-manage the day-to-day operations of the Ontario-wide Child Welfare Immigration Centre of Excellence at Peel CAS. 

Danielle Ungara           Liz Okai


Danielle is an inclusive leader of integrity and believes in furthering social justice outcomes and equity in practice through service excellence and research.  

Liz is passionate about, and contributes to, the ever-growing body of knowledge regarding the intersectionality of child welfare, immigration, and settlement.  Liz practices, and leads with a strong equity lens, collaborating with partners across sectors and all levels of government in ensuring better outcomes for children, youth and families.