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A look into Alberta’s child welfare system

In Canada, children at risk are often taken into government care to prevent any further harm. But recently, provinces across the country have been focusing on implementing a more preventative approach, much like Sweden’s child welfare system, which intervenes much earlier in the cases of at-risk children and keeping children with their families.

Canada’s child welfare system has been mainly crisis-driven which refers to only intervening in a child-at-risks case when the situation is dire. With a crisis-driven system, this relies more on child protection measures which in effect removes a child at-risk from their homes. The limited resources and funding of the child welfare system is concentrated towards these protective measures and this leaves little resources to be used towards preventative interventions for families at risk.

According to Gordon Phaneuf, chief executive officer of the Child Welfare League of of Canada, a grave concern within Canada’s child welfare system is within the several cases of children being taken away from their families. In some instances, children are placed within homes that are not best suited for them for a variety of reasons. As a result, the child is moved from one home to another.

“Then you get into this really dysfunctional trajectory, home after, home after home. That’s mostly devastating to anyone, but particularly to a vulnerable child who already has a fragile sense of their self,” Phaneuf says. “We have get to move away from that. We need to build stronger systems that is more sensitive to identifying when a placement is the right one, when a placement is problematic and what do we need to do to support it.”

Similarly to Sweden’s child welfare model, Alberta’s child policy intervention practice framework includes the family and child in the conversation. Professor of social work from the Stockholm University Sven Hessle, highlights the importance of this in his 2014 Shanghai Conference speech on the future of the family.

“Problems relating to children at risk are dealt with through dialogue and partnership with the family concerning their psychosocial needs, rather than through an investigatory approach in conflict with the authorities,” as explained by Hessle.

The family is given a more leadership role in decision-making and a more holistic approach is taken when assessing the needs of the family.  Moreover, Hessle also mentions the right of a child themselves to have their own voice.

The child welfare system is taking a step towards a new direction as provinces and territories across Canada are focusing on taking preventative measures. Through preventative action, the child is able to be kept within their own homes and with their own family.

Alberta, for instance, has adopted child policy intervention practice framework. Irfan Sabir, Minister of Human Services for Alberta, describes the policy as a strength-based model as it assesses not only the risks and the needs of the child in an at-risk environment, but also assess the strengths and resources of the family.

“That practice framework also talks about simple connection and how you maintain relationship, how you identify which relationships are important to the child and basically include them in all decision making processes,” Sabir says. The practice strives to preserve the family, maintaining the relationships of the child through early intervention.

Phaneuf has also emphasized the importance of children’s rights.

“Children’s rights as a whole —- that canopy of rights and entitlements that children and youth enjoy as human beings. This isn’t something we give to people or we bestow on children or that they earn or they graduate into, they are rights holders.”

A local Calgarian helping in more ways than one

sheartwell

Shelley Heartwell, Chief Executive Officer of The Alex

As the head of a major Calgary-based aid organization, Shelley Heartwell dedicates her time to helping vulnerable people. But in her spare time, Heartwell — who became involved with social work through her interest in recreation — is also making a difference in the lives of many other people.

Growing up, Heartwell played a lot of sports and coached for kids softball teams. Initially, she was working in recreation with the Boys and Girls Club and with people with disabilities.
“I think recreation really sees a value of how you can engage a community and it just lead me into social work and now into the health component. It’s really about — I guess I really have always enjoyed supporting people,” Heartwell said.
She then moved on to working with young offenders at the Strath Green Development Centre and then with Mcman Youth and Family Community Centre where she started various foster care and child welfare programs.
As she continued to work in child and welfare programs, she noticed that something was missing within the support programs.

“I had worked in various programs, delivering support to kids in care and I really realized that a piece that is often missing is the health piece,” Heartwell said.

This is what prompted Heartwell to establish the Youth and Health Centre at the Alex. It is a program that tailors to both the health and social needs of vulnerable youth.

“It’s really providing a multi-disciplinary team to be able to keep these children in their homes or even being able to get the parent healthier so they can take care of their kids.”

At the same time, though, Heartwell has also opened her own home to those in need, becoming a foster parent to children in care.

That role began when she was at the Boys and Girls Club and received a call, two weeks before Christmas from the staff who ran the group’s foster care program.

“They said: ‘Shelley, we have this little girl who needs a home and there’s not really any beds left in the city,’ and they asked if I would take her,” Heartwell said. “So she came into my home that night and I was told not to have any contact with the family, which I thought was very sad as this family was disconnected from this little baby who was about a month old and it was over Christmas.”

Over the Christmas season, Heartwell put together a photo album of the child. The album was to be given to the family of the little girl once they met.

Upon meeting the family, Heartwell found that they had immigrated from Nicaragua and they had been afflicted by poverty.

“This family cared and loved this girl to bits. They’re biggest issue was that they were in poverty. They didn’t have some of the resources,” Heartwell said.

With the support of Heartwell as well as her family members, within six months the little girl was back in her family’s care. Since then, Heartwell has maintained a strong relationship with the family, is a god parent to the family’s second child, and is now helping a young mother and her six year old child.

At two years old, the daughter had been taken into child welfare. Heartwell and her organization had spent eight months getting the child out of welfare and back to her mother. Even after successfully reuniting the mother and daughter, Heartwell continues to provide support to the family.

“We were going to keep her in our lives and her mom so we’re not just a support system to this little girl who is 6 years old now, but we’re also a support system to the mom,” Heartwell says.

According to Heartwell the mother has graduated hairdressing school and is excited to move forward with her daughter.

“At the end of the day this little girl wants her mom and that’s what is so important is how we make sure that we keep the connection to the family.”

But Heartwell also values looking at the whole picture, to see the whole person and provide them with the proper resources and support they need.

“That’s what we really try to do in our centres is to make sure that it’s not just about giving a person a home, but it’s about wrapping a team of supports around them to make their life even better. And I think we should never say: ‘No we don’t do that here’, I think if we don’t do it than we better find out how we can get it to them.”

WEEKLY NEWS UPDATE – NOVEMBER 01, 2015

  • ON MANITOBAN CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM – The North American child welfare systems still prefer child-protection strategies, even though aboriginal youths are still suffering from the repercussions of the residential school systems which separated children from their families and subjected them to maltreatment. Rather than taking an at risk child away from their homes and family, the system should be providing support to the families. This lack of support towards families in the Child Welfare System has prompted six advocates for the First Nations children to go on a hunger strike to raise awareness of the broken system (Huffington Post).
  • ON YOUTH HOMELESSNESS – In Ottawa Canada, organizations are joining forces to end youth homelessness. They have taken initiatives not only to manage it, but also to reach deeper at the root of the problem to even try to prevent youth homelessness (Ottawa Citizen).
  • ON ABORIGINAL YOUTH – A study conducted by the At-Risk Youth Study between September 2005 to May 2013, has found that aboriginal youth have a higher incarceration rate than non-aboriginal youth. They are 1.4 times more likely to go to go to jail than non-aboriginal youth (The Manitoban).
  • ON FOSTER CARE –  According to British Columbia’s provincial government, there are 350 children over the age of 12 awaiting to be permanently adopted. For older children, the adoption process can take 5 to 10 years and in the event where a child is not adopted by the age of 19, they age out of governmental care (Vancouver Sun).
  • ON YOUTH CENTRES – The youth organization, Cyrus Centre in Abbotsford B.C which provide help to at-risk and homeless youth, has an average visit count of about 875 youths per month. Yet the organization’s resources are becoming more limited as they do not have the financial means to respond to the growing demand of services.(Abbotsford News).

WEEKLY NEWS UPDATE – OCTOBER 25, 2015

  • ON PAIGE – Following the drug overdose of Paige, a 19-year-old aboriginal youth in Vancouver BC, Children’s Minister Stephanie Cadieux stated in her news release that the Ministry has implemented a policy to help their front-line workers to understand their responsibilities to help children in the ministry’s care. Even though this has not been the first aboriginal youth death in the past month, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, BC’s Children and Youth representative had to draw attention to the “persistent professional indifference” of government authorities such as police, educators and social workers towards aboriginal youth. (Vancouver Sun).
  • Although the aboriginal youth, only identified as Paige, died in April of 2013, her story has only recently sparked media attention (Vancouver Sun).
  • ON BC’S CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM – The British Columbia’s Children and Family Development Ministry is currently aiding and supporting 10 “super-high risk” children and another 40 to 50 high at risk children, yet Turpel-Fond have said that the province’s child welfare system is stretched thin. Also according to Cadieux, the system needs to be reevaluated (The Globe and Mail).

“There wasn’t a lack of services necessarily and there wasn’t a lack of desire to assist,” she said.

“What there was, was a system that definitely did not talk to itself together the way it should. We need to knit that system together better to ensure that nobody falls through the cracks.”

— Stephanie Cadieux, as quoted in the Globe and Mail

  • ON YOUTH HOMELESSNESS – Even though a 2013 research project led by United Way York Region in Toronto, Ont. with 60 youth participants found that 92 per cent of them experienced homelessness due to family issues, the stigma still remains that homeless young adults are juvenile delinquents. Inexpensive housing and the availability of low-cost rental in York, Ont. is in short supply, while York Region alone has 12.9 per cent of young people living below poverty line. This shows that downtown Toronto isn’t the only area with an increasing rate of youth homelessness; the York Region’s homeless youth population is also growing (The Star).

WEEKLY NEWS UPDATE – OCTOBER 18, 2015

  • ON YOUTH HOMELESSNESS – The youth homeless shelter, Covenant House in Toronto, Ontario, is one of the largest in Canada yet Amanda, a 19-year-old young woman who has been homeless for five years, chose to live on the streets rather than seek shelter there (Toronto Observer).
  • ON YOUTH – According to Maatalii Okalik, head of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s National Inuit Youth Council, youth crime in Inuit Nunangat, Nunavut is a result of societal neglect towards these adolescents. yet despite these indisputable facts, the issues of the youth community in Nunavut are being neglected on a national level as these issues are not being addressed or even paid any attention to (Nunatsiaq Online).
  • ON CHILD CARE SYSTEM – In North America, children at risk are often apprehended from their homes to protect them, leading to a higher rate of children in care. But Sweden, a country with a lower rate of children in care, has implemented family welfare policies which give families access to in-home services and resources to keep them together rather than separate them (Winnipeg Free Press).
  • ON GROUP HOMES – A group home near 116th Avenue and 91st, in Edmonton, Alta, has been visited 62 times by local police. One sergeant expressed grave concerns over the home’s ability to control the juvenile youth staying there, even though the real problem may come from the lack of support for it by government (Edmonton Journal).
  • AND MORE ON CHILD CARE SYSTEM – Even though Manitoban law states that foster parents, group home workers and anyone involved with children within the Child and Family Services, must report any injuries to a child in care, as seen in the case of Phoenix Sinclair who was murdered in 2005, the CFS were unable to protect the five-year-old and was not even made aware of the case until nine months after (Winnipeg Free Press).

WEEKLY NEWS UPDATE – OCTOBER 11, 2015

  • ON YOUTH – Before Alex Gervais’ death, he was placed in an Abbotsford hotel while in the care of British Columbia’s Ministry of Children and Family Development, even though its policy states that they should not place youths in hotels unsupervised (Global News).
  • ON FOSTER CARE SYSTEM – After the age of 19, foster care support is no longer provided for young adults in British Columbia, even though this can lead to high statistics of homelessness, unemployment, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse and incarceration among those who have gone through the system (Vancouver Sun).
  • ON CHILD WELFARE  – Alberta’s child welfare authorities were aware of the abusive and violent history of a man who lived in a remote community 750 kilometers north of Edmonton. But no action was taken to prevent further harm to his son and wife, which eventually led to the son shooting the father (Edmonton Journal).
  • AND MORE ON CHILDCARE SYSTEM – In response to the high rates of injuries and deaths of youth in government care, British Columbia has made some changes, such as hiring more social workers and adding more hospital beds. But, as seen in the cases of Alex Gervais and Alex Malamalatabua, there is still an absence of complex health and mental care within the childcare system (Globe and Mail).