When in opposition, the BC NDP regularly attacked BC Liberal government failures to protect and support vulnerable children and families.
“BC Liberals have starved our child protection system of resources and failed to provide the basics of care,” the NDP’s 2017 platform said. The party vowed it would do better.
Today, Katrine Conroy, minister for children and family development since the NDP formed government in July 2017, says a lot of progress has been made.
But others aren’t so sure.
Rainbow Dykeman, 25, spent a decade in and out of care and is a member of Fostering Change, a youth-driven child welfare advocacy organization.
When she speaks with youth in care, she said, they don’t see big changes. “If anything, it’s just as crappy, and sometimes it’s even worse,” said Dykeman.
Conroy points to ministry funding as a clear indication of the NDP’s commitment.
“The biggest change, the difference between our government and the old government, is there have been no cuts to this ministry,” she said.
Indeed, Budget 2020 includes an additional $160 million for the ministry — a 7.3-per-cent increase. That brings the total budget to $2.2 billion.
A third of the ministry’s budget — $731 million — is earmarked for child safety, family support and children and youth in care. That’s up 7.2 per cent from the current fiscal year, and 21 per cent from the NDP’s first budget in September 2017.
Other notable changes in the last three years, the ministry says, include:
- Achieving the fewest number of kids in care in decades;
- Working with federal and Indigenous governments on tripartite agreements and legislation to return child welfare jurisdiction to First Nations and Métis communities;
- Expanding the provincial tuition waiver for youth from care to all public B.C. post-secondaries;
- Increased funding available for youth who have aged out of care;
- Increased funding for access to culture for Indigenous children; and
- More money for foster, adopted and extended family caregivers.
“We’ve got some pretty incredible people who do some really tough work, and they do it every day just wanting to make sure that they’re providing the best supports for children and family in this province,” said Conroy.
What do the changes mean for kids in care?
But when The Tyee spoke with former youth in care, the Representative for Children and Youth, and a lawyer advocating for child welfare reform, it became apparent ministry changes haven’t necessarily been noticed by everyone.
Dykeman of Fostering Change said supports for kids in care are still inadequate.
“It’s like the social workers see you less, they tell you less, and they have all these demands of you, when you’re dealing with all this trauma, and they still expect you to do school and everything,” she said.
Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth isn’t surprised by the disconnect.
“The ministry has been trying to take a step back, and developing their strategies, framework, and clarifying expectations,” she said. “So I would imagine for many people on the ground, they haven’t felt the change yet.
“If you’re dealing with a very difficult situation and you’re trying to get support for your child, you don’t really care whether the ministry has a service framework or not. What you want is some action, some response,” Charlesworth said.
“The most important thing is: what do people experience on the ground?”
Speaking with The Tyee a week after Budget 2020 was released, Charlesworth says the ministry has implemented many positive child protection changes since 2017.
As of December 2019, there were 5,805 children and youths in government care, 560 fewer than a year earlier. It’s the fewest number of kids in care in at least 24 years. The number of children in care has been declining since 2002, the first full year of the then-BC Liberal government.
But while the number of non-Indigenous children in care has fallen sharply, the number of Indigenous children in care is almost unchanged. In 2002, 42.5 per cent of children in care were Indigenous. The percentage rose to 65.8 per cent in 2019.
Both Charlesworth and Conroy note an increasing number of children — Indigenous and not — are returning to their birth families or being placed in alternative forms of care like living with an extended family member, rather than being placed in foster care or a group home.
Charlesworth also gives the ministry credit for ending birth alerts last year. Medical professionals had been told to contact social workers as soon as a woman the ministry deems “high risk” gives birth.
The practice was criticized for overwhelmingly targeting Indigenous women, often resulting in the apprehension of their newborn babies. Instead, the ministry has instructed social workers to work with the parents, family and community to make a support plan before the baby is born.
The ministry has also put severe restrictions around moving children and youth in care into hotels. The controversial practice came under heavy scrutiny in 2015 when Alex Gervais, then 18 and in government care, died by suicide at the hotel his social worker had placed him 49 days earlier.
“It’s very, very, very rare, and the few times that we’ve heard about it, it actually makes sense,” said Charlesworth. “Like a father and child have been housed there together because there is no housing in their community.”
Finally, in 2019 the province implemented changes to its Agreements with Young Adults program, which helps support youth as they age out of care on their 19th birthday.
The program — open to youth from care aged 19 to 26 who are enrolled in an education, life skills or rehabilitation program — now provides up to $1,250 per month, up from $1,000, for a maximum of 48 months, including summer break.
But Soraya Bellou, another former youth in care working with Fostering Change, told The Tyee she is still waiting for the ministry to live up to its mandate letter instructions to “increase funding for Agreements with Young Adults in order to offer supports to all youth aging out of care who need it, not just a few.”
According to the ministry’s own data from 2016/17 — the most recent available on its website — just 27 per cent of youth received an AYA payment within one year of aging out of care on their 19th birthday.
Nor was the funding they received sufficient, Bellou said.
“The amount of money is not scaled for the cost of living in the area at all,” she said. Rent costs in urban areas swallow up most — if not all — of the $1,250 monthly payments, she said.
The need for more openness and accountability
Elba Bendo, director of law reform for West Coast LEAF (Legal Education and Action Fund), says it is difficult to assess the ministry’s successes and failures as it doesn’t have a public document that sets out goals, measurements to assess progress and the actual outcomes that result from any changes.
For example, although the number of children in care is decreasing, the ministry is not reporting what family supports are in place, and where, in order to ensure children are not apprehended again, Bendo said.
“We know that to support children and youth, you need to support their families,” she said. Federal legislation returning child welfare jurisdiction to Indigenous communities may put pressure on the province to support parents better, she said, as it says governments need to take the “unique circumstances” of Indigenous parents into account.
“Instead of parents getting the wrap-around supports that they need, they are given a task list of programs they need to go to, and they have to connect with the programs,” Bendo said. “Some of the programs are culturally unsafe, some have long waitlists, or some are not what the parents need at all, but they’re not being listened to.”
Nor does the children’s ministry track the individual nations Indigenous children in care belong to, she said, and whether the cultural content they have access to comes from their own nation or community.
“If we were to have very clear outcomes and very clear quality assurance reports, that would help us to assess: have these promises actually led to results? We’d be in a better position to answer that question,” said Bendo, whose work with West Coast LEAF has included a report on Indigenous solutions to the ongoing child welfare crisis.
While Bendo says it is the ministry’s job to gather data and be transparent about its goals and outcomes, the Representative for Children and Youth’s office is stepping up its own monitoring to track how the ministry is implementing the recommendations in its reports.
“We’re going through a process now where any report, the ministries have three months to come back to us with an action plan,” said Charlesworth, including whether the recommendations are accepted, how they will be implemented or how the ministries propose to follow the “spirit of intention of the recommendations” by improving their services.
The office will also return to the ministries on an annual basis seeking evidence of change and improved outcomes.
“We will be posting publicly on our website our assessments of the ministry’s progress on recommendations,” she said. “That transparency is critically important.”
For the more than 700 recommendations the representative’s office has issued since it was created in 2006 — many implemented already — the office is making plans to review outstanding recommendations to assess ministry progress.
One change that Bendo lauds is the increase to monthly payments for caregivers in 2019. Payments to foster parents, adoptive parents and extended family caregivers were increased for the first time in 10 years, with a basic monthly rate for foster parents and extended family caregivers of $995 for every child under 12, and $1,099 for children aged 12 to 18.
Adoptive parents receive $807 for kids under 12 and $927 for kids 12 to 18. Additional financial support each month is available for foster caregivers of children with special needs.
But Bendo notes many extended family caregivers end up taking in children through the Family Law Act, outside of the ministry’s purview. This means they do not receive monthly maintenance cheques.
“What we and a lot of other groups are advocating for is a universal kinship/caregiver child benefit that applies to anybody who is taking care of children and youth who are extended family members, but may not fit into the Extended Family Program,” she said.
The Child in the Home of a Relative Program, which the government wound down starting in 2010, offered those kinds of supports, but needed more funding, she said.
Parents still don’t receive funding to help keep their children. Neglect —which child welfare researchers say is another word for poverty — is the leading reason children are taken into care in B.C. Payments to allow parents to move from substandard housing, for example, could prevent child apprehensions.
Conroy says the province’s poverty reduction strategy is designed to help lift families out of poverty.
The ministry never wants to take kids into care simply because the family is poor, she said. “We have to make sure families have those supports in place.”
‘Super highway to homelessness’
Charlesworth is concerned poverty is just one of the fates awaiting youth aging out of care who don’t qualify for funding under the Agreement with Young Adults program.
“For all we know about young people who are aging into adulthood — and yes, the numbers are going down, but it’s still about 700 kids a year — the outcomes are not great,” Charlesworth said.
Time spent in government care is the “super highway” to youth homelessness, she said. About 40 per cent of homeless youth in Canada had experience with child welfare services.
But she notes it’s not just about the children’s ministry. Other ministries must take responsibility for supporting youth leaving care and entering adulthood.
Quoting Kamloops-based youth homelessness advocate Katherine McParland, Charlesworth said, “If the ministry takes responsibility as the parent, then the other ministries have to step in as the aunties and uncles.”
Too many youth are left to their own devices once they turn 19, she added. Which is not how Charlesworth treats her own adult children, now in their mid-20s.
“I think we have to do so much better. It just breaks my heart,” she said. “We see these kids who are helpless, hopeless, scared, angry, and bad things are happening to them because we haven’t prepared and figured out how we’re going to support them in their emerging adulthood.”
Conroy does not claim the ministry is perfect. But she is frustrated that good news stories from the ministry are harder to get into the media than critical articles like this one.
And that the changes in her ministry aren’t yet being felt by everyone on the ground.
“That is sad and frustrating, because we have been working with social workers, with youth outreach workers, to say, ‘How can we make sure that youth are getting the supports they need?’”
Conroy said she works with youth, including those involved with Fostering Change, on improving care.
“Some of the issues they brought to us directly resulted in the changes we have made.”