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Time to treat kids in care differently

Manitoba has one of the highest rates of children in care in the world

A version of this commentary appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press

Time to treat kids in care differentlyThe University of Winnipeg and the Government of Manitoba recently announced that they would be “removing hurdles to help children and youth in care achieve their full potential.” As part of a pilot project, the University will waive tuition fees for children who have been in care and the province will pay for additional living expenses, including room, board and textbooks while they are attending university, up to 21 years of age.

This is a huge hurdle removed for these youths and the University of Winnipeg should be commended for spearheading this important initiative.

Currently, fewer than 5% of children in care go on to pursue post-secondary education. This statistic should shock, but not surprise us.

For some time research has indicated that there is a critical time period after a youth in care turns 18 years of age — “transition out” of the care system that is anything but smooth.  With few, if any, supports to help them, many end up on welfare or homeless.  This pilot project will help the youths selected transition to university life and bring them one step closer to fulfilling their potential.

The problem is, the hurdle to attend university comes near the end of the race.  In order to take advantage of this new pilot project, these kids will have to pass other major hurdles, not least of which is making it through high school.

Research from the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy shows that over 70% of kids who spend time in care do not make it through high school within six years of entering.  In fact, the majority of these kids are struggling at the start of high school.  If you go back to the start of school, twice as many kids in care are considered “not ready” or vulnerable in one or more areas of child development at kindergarten compared to kids not in care.

So the new pilot project, while admirable, raises many important questions.  Are we doing enough for children in care to support them in high school, so that they can take advantage of the generous offer of a university education?  And are we doing enough to support them earlier in school — even prior to school entry — to ensure that they will make it through the education system?

But, perhaps the most important question of all is: Why are there so many Manitoba kids in care in the first place?

A study published last month in the Lancet by my colleagues and myself, highlights that the rate of children in care in Manitoba is among the highest in the world. On March 31, 2010, there were 9120 children in care in the province. Our study found that almost 3% of children in Manitoba spend some time in care in their first year of life.  Compare that to less than 1% in England, New Zealand and the US, and less than half a percent in Sweden and Western Australia.

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).

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?

We need to 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.

We need to begin removing hurdles right from the start.

Marni Brownell an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, and 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.

March 2012

See the three posters, 12 and 3 based on this commentary

Watch interviews with Marni Brownell

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