NDP bill aims to prevent child apprehensions due to poverty

New legislation introduced by the Manitoba NDP aims to prevent Child and Family Services from taking children away from their families because of financial hardship.

New legislation would end what NDP says is a common practice among child welfare workers

Manitoba has Canada's highest rate of children in care. (Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)

New legislation introduced by the Manitoba NDP aims to prevent Child and Family Services from taking children away from their families because of financial hardship.

Point Douglas MLA Bernadette Smith, announcing the bill shortly before noon Wednesday, said child welfare workers commonly look at conditions of poverty within a family's home when making the decision to remove a child from the home. 

The new bill would explicitly child welfare workers from using that to justify an apprehension, Smith said. Instead, she would like to see the provincial government provide the same kind of support to at-risk families that foster parents receive.

The current Child and Family Services Act contains language stating one of its guiding principles should be that decisions to apprehend children "should be based on the best interests of the child and not on the basis of the family's financial status."

Despite this, Smith said she frequently hears from people in her constituency that children are being taken for reasons such as not having their own bedroom or bed, or inadequate food. 

"We feel that our government needs to make sure that our families are receiving the same supports in their homes that they would receive if they were going into care."

Smith says case workers should find other ways to help families without putting kids in another home.

"So if a family doesn't have enough food, then we figure out a way to get them the food that they need rather than apprehending the kids," Smith said.

A spokesperson for Families Minister Scott Fielding immediately rebutted Smith's claim that children are being apprehended due to poverty. 

"Children are only brought into care when they are in need of protection for a variety of reasons," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "Many options exist for emergency housing, and agencies try to provide accommodations if a family is homeless. The CFS reform and legislative review process will look at the apprehension threshold and whether criteria is too broad."

Speaking to reporters after Question Period, Fielding said the government is about halfway through a massive review of the CFS system and it is looking at economic conditions such as poverty. 

"There needs to be some clarifications on the triggers of why someone would be taken into care. Manitoba has some of the broadest reasons of why someone may be taken into care," said Fielding.

Despite placing additional responsibility on case workers to find solutions for families struggling to make ends meet, Smith said she did not think the new rules would require additional staff.

"I know that there's amazing foster parent families out there that provide a step up level from what government provides. What we're saying is that the government needs to provide that same amount of care in homes to families that need that support," Smith said.

There are about 11,000 children in care in the province, the highest rate in the country. Over the last 10 years, there's been an 85 per cent increase in the number of children in care and a 73 per cent increase in the number of days those kids are in care.

That carries a costly price tag, the province said. The child welfare budget for 2016-17 was $514 million — an increase of $20 million in the last four years. 

Smith said that money would be more effective if given to families before children are apprehended.

About the Author

Cameron MacLean

Web Writer

Cameron MacLean is a journalist living in Winnipeg, Man. where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience covering news in the city and across the province, working in print, radio, television and online.

With files from Kelly Malone