Why are 11,000 kids in foster care in Manitoba?

Everybody, it seems, loves to criticize CFS and blame the system for pretty much everything that goes wrong when it comes to kids in foster care. I used to be one of those people.

Former child welfare employee gives a view from inside Manitoba’s child welfare system

A group called "CFS You're Fired" protest on the front lawn of the law courts in downtown Winnipeg in May 2014.

Last month, I resigned from my communications position in the child welfare field.

The child welfare system is complex, challenging, historically painful and continues to be excruciatingly hard. On everyone.

Who hasn't seen the news stories? Children and families struggle. Workers have to navigate all kinds of bureaucratic political stuff. 

Everybody, it seems, loves to criticize CFS and blame the system for pretty much everything that goes wrong when it comes to kids in foster care. I used to be one of those people, until I worked in the system and got a much better view of the monstrous complexities.

So why do we have almost 11,000 children in foster care in Manitoba? I may not have the answers to that question but I know for a fact it's not because CFS workers have nothing better to do with their time than come swooping into unsuspecting people's homes to take children for no particular reason.

There are so many issues contributing to the quickly growing number of kids in foster care in this province. And it seems to me that sitting down and having a big talk could really help.

I mean a real talk, a let's-be-honest-about-what's-really-happening-here kind of talk to address the issues. Until they're figured out.

A talk with front line workers, a talk with community leaders, a talk with aboriginal elders and chiefs, a talk with all stakeholders -- every single one of them -- a talk with the families, a talk with the kids; kids who languish in group homes, emergency shelters and (until recently) hotels and get moved from place to place to place, leading to nowhere.

The system is far from perfect, but for now, at least, it's necessary.

As one worker told me, "The reality is that some people can't parent. It's hard to bond with people who can't keep you safe."

There are so many multi-problem families -- alcohol, drugs, intellectual deficits. The list of contributing factors is a long one with so many areas that need attention.

Early intervention can be truly effective even with high risk families.

The key is trust; families and communities must have confidence to ask for help before situations deteriorate and workers have no choice but to take kids into care.

The media fuels distrust, people buy into the misrepresentations of the system and problems increase.

Kids need healthy, safe, forever families to support them throughout their childhood years and beyond.

The sad reality is that all too often what they get are paid caregivers because that's the only available option.

What's needed are committed and safe birth or extended family members, adoptive families, guardianship applicants or someone who is willing and able to make a permanent, lifetime commitment to the support and well-being of a child even after they leave foster care.

Growing up in foster care is unacceptable. Manitoba needs to modernize its legislation and programs to provide incentives and supports for safe, loving, forever families willing to take kids into their homes.

Every child deserves a forever family.

I've had the privilege of meeting many kids in care and hearing what they think about it all.

Almost every one of them mentioned their worries and fears about being on their own after they turn 18.

Though technically and legally adults, they seem very much like children to me, and I can't imagine them being completely let go to figure things out on their own. No more foster family. Nobody. No more care. Ever. None.

I've learned that it's not uncommon for some of those kids to land at the doorstep of local missions because there's no other place for them to go.

How many of us would push our 18-year-olds out the door, wish them well and say, "Have a good life," never to see them again?

One young man, when asked who in his life had ever been a mentor to him, after thinking long and hard about it, came back with, "Honestly, nobody." These kids deserve a whole lot better.

I left my job largely because the child welfare system has become a bureaucracy moving from one crisis to another, overwhelming and downright depressing and because it's not exactly a place that fosters good communication and open dialogue with the public.

There are some good reasons for that. Some.

We are failing these children. The collective "we." Because we're all in this together.  And these kids are our future.

So rather than criticize and blame and shame and insult and yell and scream and argue and write another policy or guideline or hold another inquiry, what do you say we talk? I mean really talk. For the sake of the children. For the possibility of new beginnings with happier endings.

About the Author

Janine LeGal is a freelance writer and a grassroots activist who believes passionately in the power of each one of us to make the world a better place.