Canada has one of the highest rates of children in care in the world
A version of this commentary appeared in iPolitics.ca
We know that child maltreatment, which includes both abuse and neglect, poses a significant threat to healthy child development. So it is not surprising that over the past few decades, tolerance for child maltreatment has decreased dramatically, and governments have developed numerous policy initiatives to improve recognition, intervention and prevention of child abuse and neglect.
Unfortunately, a new study on the impact of these measures, published recently in the Lancet by my colleagues and myself, is not encouraging: examining information from six different countries, including Canada, we found that despite concerted government intervention, there has been no real reduction in child maltreatment.
Alarming rates of foster care in Canada
One of the indicators of child maltreatment examined in the study was involvement with child protection agencies.
The six countries examined — Sweden, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada (represented by information from Manitoba) and the US — vary in their approaches to child protection, with Sweden taking a child and family wellbeing approach, providing intensive home support.
At the other end of the child protection spectrum lie the US and Canada, taking the child safety approach, where agencies are required to assess and often remove a child from at-risk situations.
Our recent Lancet study looked at rates of out-of-home (foster) care. According to information from the Centres of Excellence for Children’s Well-Being (CECW), there were 67,000 children in out-of-home care in Canada on one day in 2007, which translates into one of the highest rates in the world.
Our Lancet study confirms this: Manitoba’s rate of out-of-home care for children under 11 years of age was ten times higher than that of Western Australia’s, which, like Sweden, favours a child and family welfare approach.
Disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal children in care
Varying definitions of out-of-home care (for example, whether kinship care is included), make it difficult to accurately compare rates across provinces. However, Manitoba is on the upper end of the Canadian range.
Manitoba Family Services reported that on March 31, 2010, there were 9120 children in care in the province, which works out to over 3% of children 17 and under. By the age of 7 years, 7.5% of all Manitoba children have been placed in out-of-home care.
But not all Manitoba children are equally likely to be placed in care.
Of those 9120 children, fully 87% were aboriginal (this despite the fact that only about a quarter of all children in Manitoba are aboriginal).
So are we treating aboriginal families facing child-rearing challenges differently than other Manitoba families facing similar challenges? And more importantly, is out-of-home care the most effective way of protecting the child and ensuring healthy child development?
In the current climate of evidence-based policy, it may be surprising to learn that there are no controlled trials comparing out-of-home care with intensive home support. So thousands of Canadian children (in Manitoba’s case, mostly aboriginal children) are part of a policy which may or may not be effective. Sound familiar?
In June 2008, Prime Minister Harper apologized on behalf of the government of Canada to former residents of native residential schools, acknowledging that the policy of sending aboriginal children away from their families was wrong and had “a lasting and damaging impact.”
Will Canadians be apologizing to aboriginal people for our current child protection policies years, or decades, from now?
So what is the answer? If children are exposed to abuse, neglect or family violence — what is the best course of action? Does removing infants and children from homes where their safety and security is in question improve their prospects for the future?
Or does that separation from parents and family lead to subsequent problems for the child? We really don’t know the answers to these questions.
We do know that established risk factors for child maltreatment — poverty, lone parenthood, parental addictions, domestic violence and parental mental health problems — are higher in some aboriginal communities, a legacy of the residential school system and the historical context of colonization and cultural devaluation.
We also know that countries, such as Sweden, that have made concerted efforts through programs and policies to reduce child poverty and family violence have made remarkable progress.
Rather than continuing to remove children from families facing challenges — with little evidence that this results in better outcomes for the children, isn’t it time we started doing things differently?
Can’t we find ways to protect and nurture children in these families, while at the same time supporting and empowering their families and communities, in order to establish a cycle of healthy child development?
Marni Brownell is 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. She is also an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca.