Calgary foster parent wants a union to protect against false allegations, government abuse
Québec is the only province to have unionized foster families
A Calgary foster parent said he's fed up with fighting false accusations, living in fear of retaliation from case workers, and having no voice at the table when it comes to the decisions made around the foster children he welcomes into his home and comes to love as his own.
He argues foster families need stronger backing and support, and better legal representation, in the form of a union or a strong federation, similar to the one that exists in Québec.
CBC News has agreed to speak with the foster parent under the condition of anonymity to protect him and his family from any repercussions from Children's Services, the ministry which oversees and licenses foster families in Alberta.
"Foster families don't have anyone to protect and defend them, they don't have legal right to appear before the judge and share their point of view, and they don't have any legal protection for their contract with the ministry … basically they can be fired at will."
Silenced and powerless
This foster dad recalls a number of incidents where he felt powerless and without a voice in the foster care system — and wished he'd had labour standards or a collective agreement to turn to, to defend his rights.
Once, he said, when a foster child's biological parents were pushing hard to have their child returned to their care the biological parents accused him and his wife of abusing their child.
He said the child had a "bruise" which turned out to be a washable tattoo — put on by the biological parent.
"Of course, you know, Child and Family Services needs to investigate and look if it's true, but we thought that this parent was really abusing the system, and then we suffered from that, because every time we feel awkward, it puts stress on the family."
The foster dad also remembers complaining about a case worker who wasn't checking on a foster child as often as required.
He said afterwards the caseworker launched an investigation alleging he and his wife were not providing proper care because they didn't take the child to emergency to treat a scrape.
He said it turned out out the incident happened while the couple were out of town, and the injury was not serious.
"If we would have been in Calgary during the incident, chances are that we would have lost our licence.
"That's the way they get back at people."
If we go back and look at situations where things went really wrong for a child you can always identify a lack of consultation…- Calgary foster parent, speaking under condition of anonymity
He also believes a foster parent should be more formally involved when deciding the fate of a child in their care.
In Alberta, foster families do not have legal representation during court proceedings whereas each of the other parties involved — the biological parent, the child and Children's Services — do, even though foster parents are often the ones to have spent the most time with the child when these decisions are being made.
Instead, he said, foster families are told to share their observations with the assigned case worker who then can pass them on to the judge. But this foster dad said sometimes their concerns are dismissed.
"If we go back and look at situations where things went really wrong for a child you can always identify a lack of consultation and often a lack of consultation about foster families who might have repeatedly raised red flags."
The Fédération des familles d'accueil et ressources intermédiaires du Québec (FFARIQ) is the union that represents about 2,500 English and French foster families in Québec.
The federation was around for many years before it signed its first collective agreement in 2012, which it renewed in 2015.
According to a spokesperson with FFARIQ, the union ensures compliance with the collective agreement, offers some recourse against abuse of power and has successfully negotiated for more government funding for training,
"We are not employees, we are partners," said Geneviève Rioux, FFARIQ president, in an email, translated to English from French.
Under Québec legislation, Rioux said foster families also have a voice in court.
"Once the child is placed in a foster family, foster families have to go back to court for any change in visit, for example," she said.
We are not employees, we are partners.- Genevieve Rioux, FFARIQ president
The president of the Alberta Foster and Kinship Association said many associations across the country have been interested in Québec's union ever since it formed.
She said her team has reached out to the Québec federation to learn more about how it works and some of the advantages and disadvantages but she said so far she hasn't been able to glean much information.
"Anything that we could to that will support foster families and kinship families better, you certainly want to look into," said Sylvia Thompson, president of the Alberta Foster and Kinship Association.
Thompson said the association is member-driven, so if members wanted the association to go down this road, it would.
Yet she said the association already offers a lot of support. It can act as a mediator between foster families and Children's Services staff, or, if need be, it can bring the families' concerns directly to the ministry to be addressed.
But the foster dad who is speaking out said foster parents' rights need to be legislated.
"Some sort of legal representation, or at least a collective agreement between foster parents and the government would be necessary to enshrine the rights and obligations of everyone and to really put in writing and legal language the role and the obligations and the rights of foster parents," he said.
And, he disagrees, as he's heard some critics say, that a union would turn this into a job rather than a calling.
"At the end of the day, families will always foster according to their values — you will always have families who will foster like a hotel and other families who foster like a family."
The head of the Canadian Foster Families Association said a common complaint from families is that their voices are not heard.
"But it's more like I haven't been heard because I didn't get what I want. So, does that mean I haven't been heard? Not necessarily," said Kevin Harris, Canadian Foster Families Association president.
He said when it comes to deciding where a child should live, a foster parent has just one perspective without knowing the others.
"When you are dealing with kids and you are dealing with families and you are dealing with high emotions and safety and kids, there are so many things that have to be considered, it's not an easy task," said Harris.
When you are dealing with kids … there are so many things that have to be considered, it's not an easy task.- Kevin Harris, Canadian Foster Families Association president
But the foster dad who spoke to CBC News said that's exactly why foster parents should be included in the formal part of the decision making process — because he said the more voices heard by the judge, the better the outcome for the child.
"They [caseworkers] can also have positive or negative bias versus the bio family, or the child, or the opposite, it can be against the foster family, so when there's a lack of dialogue and exchange of ideas … there's a big chance that the child will suffer from that."
A spokesperson for Children's Services said if a family has concerns, they are welcome to reach out and Children's Services will review their file.
In an email, the spokesperson said there is a multi-step dispute resolution process which includes an appeal function by a panel of private citizens who are not government employees.
It also said there are support networks for caregivers such as the Alberta Foster and Kinship Association.
Children's Services said it would take no position should private citizens wish to organize a union.