January 15, 2016
By Jennifer Francis
A review of 2015 does not paint a pretty picture of the state of child welfare systems in Canada. From the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s report into the dark history of residential schools, to the horrifying deaths of children in government care in Manitoba and British Columbia, the faulty evidence of the Motherisk hair testing lab in custody cases in Ontario, and finally the most recent Auditor General’s Report for Ontario, all of these news headlines highlighted the failure of the public child welfare system to properly care for children and provide fair process for their families.
The 2014/15 Auditor General’s Report for Ontario which came out last month criticised the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and its 47 Children’s Aid Societies (CAS) for its incompetence in meeting many standards of care, issues which have been highlighted in previous reports yet repeatedly go unaddressed.
Children’s Aid Societies are mandated to intervene when children under the age of 16 have been abused or neglected, sometimes monitoring children in their own home, and other times placing them in alternate care. In 2014/15, there were 15,625 children in the care of a CAS (with kin, a foster family, or a group home), 6,373 of which were Crown Wards. Each Society is publicly funded ($1.47 billion is dispersed by the government), but privately run, meaning that service delivery varies from region to region.
A few of the systemic problems the Report found include: failure to complete child investigations and case reviews on time, with cases remaining open and children in limbo for many months longer than mandated; failure to always conduct child protection history checks on individuals involved with the children, resulting in children being placed with people who have abuse records; failure to ensure foster and group homes are meeting standards of care; failure to properly overesee children’s welfare in care; failure to adequately prepare youth for transition out of care; and failure to place crown wards in adoptive families in a timely manner.
Record-keeping and communication within the bureaucracy has been dismal and the new Child Protection Information Network designed to solve this problem had an unsuccessful roll-out. By the time it is in place, more than 5 years late, it will be a minimum $50 million over budget.
Each of these insufficiencies affects the care and service that children receive and can grossly impact their reunification with parents or a move to permanency under someone else’s care. The emotional trauma that parents and children suffer as a result is difficult to quantify, as is the lack of justice for many of the families who have their children unfairly apprehended by the Societies.
Further to that, the Report noted that outcomes for children in Societies’ care are not good: just 46% of these youth obtained an Ontario Secondary School Diploma and they are over-represented in youth justice, mental health, and shelter systems.
These numerous deficiencies are underreported in the mainstream news. What occasionally receives media attention is the death of a child in care. But the real impact of the daily action and inaction of our child welfare system in the lives of families under its purview is largely under-recognized by the general public.
As Christians, we could sit back and offer recommendations about how to fix these problems: change the policies and penalties, add enforceable oversight, increase funding, hire more social workers, and so forth. But the problems plaguing the system are complex and there isn’t one simple solution available. Of greater importance is the need to step back and grapple with the reasons why so many families and children are coming into the system to begin with.
The question we should be asking: is there something that we could do to prevent these families from warranting the services of the child welfare system?
The answer is yes.
Though they face a myriad of issues, many families are socially isolated and do not have a support network in place to mentor them and help them with their children as they navigate the storms of life and make decisions. Where many of us have a spouse, extended family, friends, a faith community, and neighbours to lean on, for others this informal safety net does not exist. If they were provided similar support, many families could be deflected from even coming into contact with child services.
Already, a faith-based, grassroots movement has sprung up to offer this exact support to families-in-crisis. It is a compassionate movement of biblical hospitality overseen and organized by Safe Families Canada (SFC). Christian families which have been vetted and trained, open their homes to care for children from these families, so that the parents resolve their crisis and get back on their feet. Parents maintain custody of their children throughout the placement with a host family and continue to take part in decisions regarding their care.
SFC reaches families before their circumstances get to a critical point, warranting intervention. These circumstances are usually related to a medical crisis, homelessness, migration, addiction, or domestic abuse. The program is non-coercive and aims to keep families together.
Safe Families volunteers are not compensated for the care they provide, and the costs of running the program come entirely from charitable donations, not government funding.
Getting our own hands dirty, so-to-speak, is costly. It is much easier to offer suggestions for policy or financial fixes, than to personally open your home and care for people in need. But that personal family-to-family care out of a Christ-centred spirit of generosity and compassion is vital to seeing real change and impact occur. The movement of Safe Families is not simply a response to the problems in our modern child welfare system, but a response to a loving Father who bestowed mercy on us and commanded us to love and show mercy to others.
The call on God’s people arising out of scripture to compassionately care for the orphan, the widow, the foreigner and the poor in our homes is a timeless one: it stands regardless of what era we live in or what the particular state of our society currently is.
Many families are already taking up that call. Let’s hope many more will join so that fewer children in our own communities will end up in foster care.