There were 29,590 foster children aged 14 and under living in private Canadian households in 2011, the latest census shows — a long-awaited new benchmark that child-welfare advocates hope is the first step on a long road towards improving the plight of marginalized kids.
The number is as significant for its mere existence — children in foster care have never before been counted in the national census — as for what it may be able to tell social workers about the foster-child landscape in Canada, experts say.
Of those households that reported having foster children, 45.1 per cent were home to a single foster child, 28.8 per cent had two foster children and 26.2 per cent reported having three or more, Statistics Canada said.
Until now, data on the number of foster children in Canada was limited to provincial and territorial estimates, each based on different levels of funding and record keeping. Indeed, the census data likely only represents a fraction of the true number of foster kids in the country, experts warn.
"We really don't know, without going from province to province and getting an estimate from each province at any given time, how many children are in the foster care system," said Fred Phelps, executive director of the Canadian Association of Social Workers.
"There have been organizations that have advocated for some kind of national indication of children across Canada that are in foster care and I think this is a step in the right direction — but I think it's just a step."
Frustration for advocates
The lack of data has long been a source of frustration for child-welfare advocates, said Dr. Nicolas Trocme, the director of the Centre for Research on Children and Families and professor of social work at McGill University.
"The fact that there essentially is no data in Canada on the number of children in foster care and their characteristics in and of itself is surprising," Trocme said.
"If you were to phone anyone in the federal government and ask them how many children are in foster care today, the fact that no one can answer that question is pretty shocking, because we're taking responsibility for these children."
Canadian social workers have long looked jealously to the model in the United States, where funding for federal programs is conditional on states providing data and ensuring services are provided within specific child care guidelines.
"Americans have had, for 30 years now, very detailed information about children in foster care, how long they spend in foster care, characteristics of children coming in, why they come in, why they leave and where they end up going once they leave," Trocme said.
"It strikes me as being problematic when the state takes on the role of parent and then is unable to answer taxpayers, the public and the media with respect to how well these children are doing and how good of a job we're doing as parents when we remove these children."
In Canada, the federal government has no direct policy making or spending powers with regards to foster children in out-of-home care, other than for First Nations children on reserves.
Aboriginal kids, Trocme said, represent one area "where the federal government does have responsibility and should be able to say what's happening."
When a child protection agency is called and an investigation is triggered, First Nations children are nearly five times more likely to be investigated and 12 times more likely to be placed in foster care than non-First Nations kids, Trocme said. In some provinces, they represent more than 80 per cent of children in foster care.
"The fact that there is over-representation is well documented. The factors underlying it seem to be associated with a series of problems ranging from housing, poverty and substance abuse."
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, says the problem with the high number of children in foster care is that the funding isn't equal across the board.
"First Nations kids are dramatically over-represented in every level of intervention in the child welfare system in Canada," Blackstock said.
"First Nations kids on reserves get their child welfare funding from the federal government, whereas other kids get it from the provinces and there's been long-standing documentation of inequality."
Blackstock and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2007 based on allegations of funding inequities for First Nations children. Preliminary motions in the case going before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal are set to begin later this month.
Using provincial and territorial data, Blackstock currently places the national number of children in foster care at anywhere between 67,000 and 80,000, of which about 27,500 are First Nations kids, both on and off reserves.
Statistics Canada said the new data will be useful to policy makers, planners, academics, and others involved in decision-making for services, programs, policies or research.
"This lack of information has been a problem for all children placed in out of home care," Trocme said.
"You can't develop good policy if you don't know who you're serving, what their characteristics are, how long they're there for and what their needs are — it's just not possible."