By Karen Kelly
Child Protection Consultant
Master of Social Work (’72)
As the coordinator of the child protection program at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) in Ottawa, Ron Ensom would hear the ORNGE helicopter fly over his house and then the phone would often ring.
“It would be someone at the hospital, needing to talk about a newly-arrived possible child protection case,” recalls Mr. Ensom, in describing the 24/7 nature of the work. “Sometimes, I’d get an urgent call to respond to an incident in the hallway of the hospital itself. Worries about a child’s safety can happen anywhere.”
Mr. Ensom’s lifelong concern for children began when he was a teenager, working at Christie Lake Kids camp, a summer camp for economically disadvantaged kids. For 48 years, the camp was led by the internationally respected child psychiatrist Dr. Dan Offord.
“I grew up at camp with Dan, and embraced his view of what life did to kids born into poverty and the injustice of it,” Mr. Ensom explains. “He made us feel like we could make a difference in these kids’ lives by being role models and teaching them skills.”
He particularly remembers a boy named Louis, who had attitude. “It was early morning of the first day of my first summer at Christie Lake. I heard a noise on the waterfront, leapt out of bed, and saw a tough-looking little guy all by himself. I asked him his name. When he told me, I realized I was standing before a camp legend—a boy from a family of 16 kids. I said, ‘I’ve heard about you!’, and he pointedly asked who I was. I said, ‘Ron Ensom’ and he retorted, ‘I never heard of you!’” laughs Mr. Ensom. “We became friends and spent a lot of time together over the years. He died recently, but I think I made a difference in his life. He definitely made a difference in mine.”
The camp experience convinced Mr. Ensom to pursue a career working with disadvantaged children. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology and then a Master’s of Social Work. He says the coursework—as well as his camp experience—helped prepare him for the rigors of his first job at the Children’s Aid Society.
“My years at Christie Lake exposed me to all kinds of child behaviours and problematic family situations, so I had no illusions about working with challenging kids,” he recalls. “I also had really good luck in that I had bright, progressive mentors who challenged and supported me.”
In 1983 Mr. Ensom was invited by CHEO to coordinate their child protection program. In 2004, he co-authored the Canadian Joint Statement on Physical Punishment of Children and Youth with child psychologist and researcher Dr. Joan Durrant. The statement, endorsed to date by nearly 600 organizations, reviewed the published peer-reviewed research on the impact of physical punishment on children, which concluded “Physical punishment of children and youth plays no useful role in their upbringing and poses only risks to their development. Parents should be strongly encouraged to develop alternative and positive approaches to discipline.”
The statement shone the light of research on the hot and unproductive debate about hitting children for disciplinary purposes. The research findings informed and cooled the debate, which came as no surprise to Mr. Ensom.
“The debate about physical punishment of children has raged in Canada and around the world for years,” says Mr. Ensom, who won a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal along with his co-author. “The research evidence summarized in the Joint Statement informed the debate and has been a powerful agent of attitudinal change among Canadian adults.”
Mr. Ensom continues to share his knowledge with students at both of Ottawa’s universities and Algonquin College. He helped design and launch Algonquin’s victimology program—the first in Canada. As someone aware of the high burnout rate among those in this field, he has some simple advice.
“I tell them that if they don’t like kids, they shouldn’t work with them. Kids know within three or four minutes if an adult actually likes them,” he advises. “The other thing is to make sure to keep some kind of balance in your life and have personal support. This work is emotionally demanding stuff.”