A new report from the New Brunswick Child and Youth Advocate suggests that the child welfare system is not designed to protect children from potentially dangerous situations, despite years of reports and recommendations calling for changes.
The lawyer’s report calls for a new Children’s Act to replace parts of the current law governing the child welfare system, with the aim of moving cases through the system faster and putting more focus on protecting children’s rights.
The call for legal reform is the first of two reports on New Brunswick’s child welfare system by new child and youth advocate Kelly Lamrock.
The second report, which will be released in the “next two to three weeks”, will highlight the stories of frontline child protection staff and more than 200 children and young people who have come through the system.
“The clear message here is that there needs to be a sense of urgency,” Lamrock told reporters on Friday. “There has to be a sense of collaboration, and that has to start with government leadership on this very important file.”
Multiple reviews and reports of the child welfare system over the years have revealed an underfunded system made up of social workers juggling a large number of complex and often traumatic cases.
These same reports also question whether the system is set up to adequately protect children from harm by promoting family reunification rather than removing children from potentially risky situations.
In the latest report, the lawyer worries about the number of frontline social workers who say the ‘number one rule’ in child protection is to keep families together, when it should be d bear in mind the best interests of the children.
“We see many cases where children are left in dangerous situations and where we have not been able to convince the department that they should do more to protect a child, or an entire group of siblings” , says the report.
“Most often the response we get is that the department is adamant that the courts would not approve a removal order in cases that we believe are clear cases of put to danger.”
Sometimes the standard for going to court to remove a child from a situation is so high that officials at the Department of Social Development cannot even be persuaded to try to go to court, the report said.
“In our view, these are examples of systemic failure in the child welfare system in our province.”
While family reunification is a good first option and staff often want to help children, Lamrock said there is sometimes an “overinvestment in the parent journey” without considering the impact on children, describing the decision to remove children from a home as a “heartbreaking call to make.”
Difficulty finding locations
Shawna Morton, a child care frontline worker who is also president of CUPE Local 1418, said children often want to be reunited with their families and staff need to take this into account when assessing best interests. of a child.
Other times, she says, the lack of resources creates problems when it comes to finding a placement for a child.
“I do believe, however, that the courts are very rigid in what we present to them when we talk about removing a child from a family,” Morton said in an interview.
“I think sometimes there’s a pendulum swing in that it’s more about the rights of the parent than the best interests of the child.”
The Department of Social Development declined a CBC interview request.
In an emailed statement, spokeswoman Rebecca Howland said the department would review the attorney’s report.
“New Brunswick has a very strong child welfare system that is governed by laws and regulations,” Howland wrote. “The department follows evidence-based best practices, which are reflected in its standards and policies.”
She said the ministry was working to enact new child protection legislation.
The idea of stand-alone legislation gives Morton some hope.
“I think we’re all hoping that by putting more of a focus on the best interests and removing some of these archaic timelines that we used to work with…hopefully that will speed up the whole legal process as well.”
“The need to do better”
Lamrock’s report includes the story of two siblings who fled their home in “a religious community in New Brunswick,” seeking RCMP protection “from their parents’ strict religious upbringing.”
The children were placed in foster care, where they were able to experience life as “average teenagers, with many freedoms they had never known”.
But the children were sent back to live with their parents after they promised to change their parenting practices, with the department agreeing it was in the children’s best interests.
The teenagers didn’t want to go home, but neither they nor their relatives could afford a lawyer. The attorney’s office attempted to halt the process until a lawyer for the children could be appointed, but their efforts were unsuccessful, the report said.
It also calls on the province to give the advocate’s office more power to enforce the recommendations it makes, including the ability to go to court to seek enforcement of the recommendations “when a child’s rights have been violated and response to recommendations has been delayed or denied”. “
“Too often we are aware of a situation requiring urgent intervention to compel the Minister to take protective action or suspend a potentially damaging decision, but we have no means of initiating a judicial review so that the voice and the best interests of the child are taken into account and judicially determined,” the report states.
Workers receive phones, but still lack resources
In 2019, former child and youth advocate Norm Bossé found that the province’s child welfare system had failed to protect five Saint John siblings from “chronic harmful neglect.” There were more than two dozen complaints about the safety of the children, Bossé found, but the children continued to live in misery until a sheriff came to evict their family and came across the children.
Just days before the release of Bossé’s report, a consultant hired by the provincial government warned that New Brunswick children are at risk due to an underfunded child welfare system that was not a priority in a large provincial ministry. He called for it to be made an essential service.
Since then, frontline workers have been provided with mobile phones, a basic tool the consultant said they lacked.
But resource challenges persist, according to Friday’s report, with some regions being asked to limit the hours of intervention by support workers aimed at helping parents develop parenting skills, among other cuts.
“Frontline workers prefer to continue to pay for their phones and have the tools they need to support families,” Lamrock’s report said.
“They don’t understand why child protection supports what one gives, the other takes away.”
Morton said staffing was at a “critical” level. In the Saint John area alone, she said, there are 17 vacancies, with difficulties recruiting social workers and child protection staff.
“It’s hard because being a new child protection worker is so overwhelming,” she said.
On top of that, Morton said, many private companies hired to provide services in group homes or work with children and families are also struggling to recruit and retain staff. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problems.
“The need is huge,” she said.
Many of the issues raised in Lamrock’s report are not new.
In the late 1990s, the death of baby Jackie Brewer, alone in her crib in Saint John, prompted calls for more social workers and a greater emphasis on removing children from dangerous situations, after many complaints about the girl’s neglect went unheeded.
But history didn’t repeat itself until a few years later, when Juli-Anna St. Peter died, despite many warnings the young girl could be in danger. She was two years old.
In November 2020, even after Bossé and Savory called for sweeping changes, the death of an unnamed six-month-old boy prompted New Brunswick’s Child Death Review Board to warn that social workers again juggled too many cases. The report did not specify what role, if any, the high number of cases may have played in the boy’s death.