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Things Changed for Kids in Care Under the NDP. But Has It Been Enough?

The failing child welfare system was a major issue in the last election campaign. So far, it’s largely been ignored this time.

Katie Hyslop 13 Oct 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

In 2017 the problems with child welfare in the province were so well-known that even the governing BC Liberals joined the Green party and NDP to promise improvements in child protection.

But so far in this campaign there has been little unprompted talk about child welfare from party leaders, despite the recent discovery of the body of a 17-year-old Indigenous youth in his Abbotsford group home four days after he went missing.

The NDP platform, the only full platform to be released so far, only addresses child welfare in a pledge to expand free post-secondary tuition for youth from care to people over 26.

No one can deny the Ministry of Children and Family Development has made changes over the past three-and-a-half years under the NDP government made possible by an agreement with the Greens.

They include:

• working with the federal and Indigenous governments on a tripartite child welfare agreement;

• decreasing the number of children and youth in care;

• cancelling birth alerts which lead to apprehension of newborns by the ministry, a discriminatory practice targeting Indigenous families;

• increasing financial support for foster parents and extended family and adoptive caregivers;

• expanding tuition waivers for youth in and from care;

• increasing financial supports for some youth from care; and

• increasing the overall ministry budget.

But should the government have done more for kids, youth and families since 2017? That depends on who you ask.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the former representative for children and youth, is impressed with the progress she has seen.

“In terms of change in child-serving systems, my experience, education and oversight time demonstrated to me that it takes about five to seven years to do deeper, impactful change,” said Turpel-Lafond, who was representative from 2006 to 2016.

“It may not be possible to fully see the impact of changes yet. But I would say that there are some directions set which are extremely promising.”

Susan Strega disagrees. The University of Victoria social work professor and former child protection worker, who spent time in the child welfare system herself, calls the reforms to the ministry “lipstick on a pig.”

“Nothing has changed, and of course the reasons why nothing has changed is they either have not introduced the sorts of policies that would actually affect change, or, in many cases, they’re not following policies that they actually have,” she said.

When the NDP formed a minority government in 2017, just over 7,000 children and youth were in government care, 64 per cent of whom were Indigenous.

The most recent data, collected in December, found just over 5,800 youth in care. About 66 per cent identified as Indigenous, but Turpel-Lafond, who is Cree and Scottish, said the number of Indigenous children in care is the lowest it has ever been. (Another 644 youth live on their own with ministry supports, under what’s known as a youth agreement. The agreements are supposed to be limited to youth 16 to 18, but Strega says some 15-year-olds are on youth agreements.)

Despite the reduction in overall numbers, Indigenous children in B.C. are still 20 times more likely to end up in government care than non-Indigenous kids.

And, as in 2017, neglect is still the overwhelming reason children and youth go into care in British Columbia.

The ministry divides neglect into five different categories. The largest, the reason almost 50 per cent of kids and youth are in care, is “parent unable/unwilling to care” for their kids.

Child welfare experts, including Strega, agree “neglect” is another word for poverty. Being “unable” to provide care includes being too poor to provide housing or other basic needs.

All youth exit the child welfare system on their 19th birthday, when they are cut off from financial and social worker support unless they enrol in an approved lifeskills, treatment or education program.

Youth who turned 19 during the pandemic have had their child welfare support extended until the end of March.

Studies show that people who have spent time in the child welfare system are more likely to be involved with the justice system, face homelessness, sex trafficking, mental health issues and early death.

Strega said that makes it unconscionable for the ministry to cut off supports to most kids in care at 19, far earlier than most of their peers leave the family home or lose parental supports.

“When the sorts of people who run and work in the ministry are keeping their kids at home until they’re 20, 21, 22, sometimes 25, it’s really striking to me that it seems to be OK to emancipate this other group of kids five or 10 years before that,” she said.

“I think about where the NDP would locate itself ideologically, and it’s just striking to me that they seem to feel it's OK to more or less discard certain people who disproportionately share these characteristics: they’re not white, they’re not middle class.”

Turpel-Lafond knows there are still gaps in the child welfare system and has concerns about situations like the Indigenous teen who committed suicide in an Abbotsford group home just days before the election campaign began.

Turpel-Lafond agrees with Strega that mental health and addiction support and treatment for everyone, but especially youth and mothers with dependent children, are not at the level they should be — especially during an overdose crisis.

“I’m still seeing challenges there,” Turpel-Lafond said. “It could be as they roll out more mental health services and supports, that will come down in time.”

But overall, Turpel-Lafond sees the ministry’s glass as half full. Which may be surprising considering she spent much of her 10 years as representative criticizing the BC Liberal government for their child welfare failures.

“I think it’s headed in the right direction, from what I’ve seen,” she said.

What Turpel-Lafond has seen is improvements in four areas: a reduction in the number of children in care, including Indigenous children; tripling the number of youth in and from care accessing the post-secondary tuition waiver; ending birth alerts; and increased ministry funding and engagement with the community.

“When I was representative for children and youth, it was really challenging because there was consistent cuts and relationships had really broken down, mostly because things were closing,” Turpel-Lafond said.

But since that time, expanded community services through the ministry and the province’s poverty reduction initiatives, increased mental health and urgent care treatment, and new partnerships with Indigenous communities have improved overall services, she said.

“Again, it’s only three years,” Turpel-Lafond said, noting again that true progress requires a five-to-seven-year timeline.

“I wouldn’t say there’s been a complete rebuild, but I think there’s been a lot of additional investment in community-based programming.”

Turpel-Lafond pushes back on the idea the NDP aren’t talking about child welfare reform this time around.

“I haven’t read all of the platforms, I’m not an expert and they’re not all out yet,” she said. “But I have seen it touched on in the NDP platform, and really I would say the NDP platform is about building out systems of care.”

That includes pledges to support vulnerable youth and expanding free tuition for youth who have been in care.

“Whoever forms government, I’d like to see them continue in the direction that we’ve been in the last few years, which is a direction of making positive gains,” Turpel-Lafond said. “I don’t think it’s unrealistic to move towards not having children in care and having them supported in other arrangements, especially supporting families.”

What helped reduce the number of children in care to today’s levels was financially supporting extended family — grandparents or aunts or uncles — to care for kids, she said. That should be expanded to financially supporting families so they can keep their kids at home, she added.

Strega says whoever forms government next should base their policies on the decades of research on child welfare reform, says Strega. That includes honouring traditional Indigenous knowledge, she added.

“The Indigenous philosophy around this is that you keep children in their families, you keep them in your communities, you do what you can to make it work. You don’t extract people from their connections, you honour them,” she said.

Much of what needs to change, Strega said, is outside the Children and Family Development Ministry itself.

The next government should focus on society-wide supports like free or low-cost child care for all families, affordable family housing and social assistance and disability rates above the poverty line.

It should also empower Indigenous jurisdiction over child welfare, support single-mom led families, including providing addictions treatment where women can bring their children, and expand violence prevention programs for fathers.

“We know what to do,” Strega said. “Let’s be led by the science.”  [Tyee]

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