Alberta's new child protection plan puts focus on partnership

The Alberta government is introducing a program from Western Australia that will change the way it works with children at risk.

Signs of Safety was developed in Western Australia and highlights collaboration with child's family

Minister of Human Services Manmeet Bhullar says the Signs of Safety program has revolutionized child intervention and will now be rolled out across the province. (CBC)

The Alberta government is introducing a program from Western Australia that will change the way it deals with children at risk.

Earlier this year, the province acknowledged the deaths of more than 750 children who had some involvement with the province's child welfare system between 1999 and 2003. Now, officials say they hope the new model — called Signs of Safety — will reduce the risk to children in government care.

"I feel [it] has revolutionized child intervention practice," said Manmeet Bhullar, Alberta's minister of human services. "It works with the family and other supports the family has in place to say, 'How are we going to build safety plans? How are we going to ensure this child is safe?'"

I feel [it] has revolutionized child intervention practice.- Manmeet Bhullar, Minister of Human Services

The method — developed in the 1990s and now in use in North America, Europe and Australasia — focuses on safety planning and uses a risk assessment framework designed to be used together with families and support workers.

It also incorporates several tools designed to get children talking about their experiences, all in an effort to establish partnership and collaboration between all of the parties involved in protecting the child.

According to the site's website, the inspiration for the method came from the founder's 16 years of experience working as a front-line child protection practitioner.

Steve Edwards spent about half that time working with Australia's aboriginal communities and became dissatisfied with the way workers dealt with the children, and so decided to seek out a better way to do child protection along with his program co-founder, Andrew Turnell, who was working as a therapist doing brief therapy for families with problem teenagers.

Brief therapy is one approach to psychotherapy that focuses on finding a solution to a specific problem and quickly implementing a solution.

Strengthening families is main focus

Shifting the thinking around how child protection work is done also plays a big part in the Signs of Safety program.

Bhullar says parents who have been exposed to the model tend to feel empowered to play a bigger part in the decision-making process throughout the child's time in care or care assessment.

That shift in focus was a draw for the province, he says.

"We focus on keeping families together. We focus on strengthening families and we focus on our workers being really family empowering workers."

The province began rolling out the program in May but announced the full, province-wide implementation on Monday.

The announcement marks the largest international system-wide implementation of the model.


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