We need a radical new approach for kids in care

By Marni Brownell and Neeta Das McMurtry

Families seeking support services should not have to worry their children will be taken away from them 

A version of this commentary appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, Policy Options and the Huffington Post

We need a radical new approach for kids in care

Six advocates for First Nations children have gone on a symbolic hunger strike at the Manitoba Legislature to try to raise awareness across the country about Manitoba’s broken child welfare system.  Why? Well, here’s one fact that should make most Canadians sit up and take notice: Over one in five First Nations children in Manitoba spends some time in care before their 15th birthday. And kids in care are in crisis.

The Manitoba Centre for Health Policy recently released a report on the educational outcomes of children in the care of Manitoba Child and Family Services.  Spoiler alert: kids in care do not do as well in school as kids who are not in care.  But the reality of how far kids in care are falling behind the rest of the population is a shock.

The report compares kids from kindergarten all the way to high school graduation. Even when things like socioeconomic status are considered, the kids in care, as a group, are struggling. For example, over half of the kids in care entering school are not ready to learn compared to less than a quarter of their counterparts, because many of their basic emotional and physical needs are not being met.

Only a third of kids who have been in care graduate from high school versus a 90 per cent graduation rate for kids who have never been in care.

So what’s the solution?  You might be surprised to learn that the report findings have less to do with fixing the education system than paying attention to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).  That’s because Manitoba has a very high number of children in care — over 10,000 on a single day in 2014 – but almost 90 per cent of these kids are Indigenous.

This over-representation of Indigenous kids in the care system has at its roots the inter-generational trauma of the residential school system, which forcibly separated children from their families and subjected many children to maltreatment. The long-term impact of these experiences is at the root of many of the difficulties experienced by Indigenous families today.  This includes alarmingly high rates of suicide, family violence, substance abuse, mental health issues and parenting challenges. These are the very challenges that often contribute to children going into care and also doing poorly in school.

North American child welfare agencies generally favour child-protection strategies – removing kids at risk from the home – and there are historical reasons why.  High profile tragedies such as the Phoenix Sinclair case in Manitoba, for example — where 5-year-old Phoenix suffered unspeakable abuse and died at the hands of her mother and step-father after falling through the cracks of the child welfare system — influence well-intentioned social workers to err on the side of caution. As a result, they may opt to remove a child from a family where his or her safety may be in jeopardy, particularly if community support resources are inadequate.

But it is time to start questioning the wisdom of apprehending kids from their families.  Other countries, such as Sweden, which has a substantially lower rate of children in care, have implemented family welfare policies instead, providing intensive in-home resources to help address the family’s challenges while they stay together.

Canada’s resources could be better invested trying to tackle the root causes of child abuse and neglect.

The root causes are not a mystery.  We know that child maltreatment is prevented when families have adequate housing, adequate income, employment opportunities, access to addictions treatment, and access to mental health services, parenting skills training and parenting support.  Resolving these issues would reduce the need for foster care placements and improve outcomes for entire families.

One of the TRC recommendations calls on the federal and provincial governments to report annually on total spending on prevention and care services by child welfare agencies.

In a report released a year ago, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs called for the dismantling of the current child welfare system and the development of a completely new system.  While this idea may seem radical, child welfare as it exists now in Manitoba is failing our children and our families, particularly our Indigenous children and families.

And here’s how we could re-construct the system: What if we separated prevention and care services so that they are not delivered by the same agencies?  This would encourage families in need to seek support services without worrying that admitting their challenges will result in their children being taken away from them.

Perhaps what is needed is nothing short of a revolution in the way we think about addressing the high numbers of kids in care.

Marni Brownell an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, a Senior Research Scientist with the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy (MCHP) and Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba.

Neeta das McMurtry is a freelance writer.  She specializes in making academic and scientific writing accessible to broader audiences.

September 2015

Listen to the interview with Dr. Marni Brownell

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