'Worrying gaps' tracking youth in care must be closed, says advocate
Kelly Lamrock wants the province to amend its new proposed child welfare legislation
New Brunswick's child and youth advocate is calling for the government to be legally required to track and report on the outcomes of vulnerable children in the province's care.
Kelly Lamrock is asking for the government to amend its proposed child welfare legislation to add a requirement that it track and regularly report on children's educational attainment and graduation rates, participation in post-secondary education, adverse events in their mental or physical health requiring significant intervention and criminal charges.
"In the course of our reviews of the child protection system, the advocate discovered worrying gaps in what the Department of Social Development knows about children in its care," Lamrock wrote in his analysis of the child welfare bill, which was released on Tuesday.
"There was no tracking of how these children are doing in school, how many children pursue post-secondary education, how many have trouble with the law, how many have mental or physical health issues and a host of other indicators. We should expect a competent parent to know this."
Last year, Social Development Minister Bruce Fitch admitted the department isn't tracking the outcomes of youth in care after CBC reported on the stories of three boys under the minister's guardianship, who also faced criminal charges and detention.
On Tuesday, Fitch said he would review Lamrock's suggestions, though some may be addressed by regulations the government will introduce at some point.
John Sharpe, executive director of Partners for Youth, sees value in having more data to hold government accountable. He said it can be used to make sure government is providing the best services and supports to give youth a chance to succeed.
"Right now, a lot of that information doesn't exist," Sharpe said. "If it exists, it's not readily available."
New law would give department expanded powers
The province introduced the Child and Youth Well-Being Act earlier this month. It was one of the key recommendations from a review of the province's child welfare system, which revealed an overburdened system staffed by passionate social workers often juggling high numbers of complex and traumatic cases. The province was the last one in Canada to introduce standalone child protection legislation.
Should it become law, it will replace parts of the 40-year-old Family Services Act and will be reviewed regularly to make sure it remains modern.
The proposed legislation gives the Department of Social Development expanded powers to intervene in cases where a child could be at risk and more clearly spells out what factors to consider, including "the impact of multiple incidents of harm or patterns of behaviour resulting in harm."
That comes after several high-profile cases of child abuse and neglect over the years, which highlighted gaps in the child protection system and prompted calls for change.
Earlier this month, the advocate's office released a report suggesting the child protection system isn't set up to protect children from potentially dangerous situations, sometimes because the department felt it didn't have the power to intervene.
"We see many cases where children are left in situations of harm and where we have been unable to convince the department that they should do more to protect a child, or an entire sibling group," that report says.
Fitch told reporters earlier this month that the proposed legislation was trying to be "child-centred, rather than parent-centred."
While some parts of the proposed law favour the child over the parent, Lamrock found it doesn't "explicitly recognize any children's rights in the receipt of social services."
"I don't know why other provinces explicitly recognize children's rights and this act doesn't," Lamrock said. "That is a very significant omission and it's one that – so far, has not been explained by government."
When asked about why such recognition was left out of the bill, Fitch said the department couldn't just "cut and paste" language from the United Nations because some parts fall out of the province's mandate.
"But we believe that the intention and the ideology is contained throughout the bill to satisfy the issues that we are responsible for here as a provincial government," the minister said.
Consulted, but not engaged
While Lamrock said the proposed legislation is an improvement over the "status quo," he suggested 12 areas for improvement. He said the advocate's office was consulted, but not engaged, on the legislation.
He urged the government to open up debate on the bill to experts, but Fitch doesn't support that idea. He suggested it could slow the bill down and said there has already been "extensive consultation."
While Partners For Youth was consulted prior to the drafting of the bill, Sharpe said the organization hasn't had a chance to give feedback since the bill was introduced.
"This shouldn't be an adversarial opportunity, and it shouldn't be something that really the government doesn't welcome with open arms," Sharpe said.
"Because the idea around these consultations and presentations at committee in these stages [is] to make this bill the best we can for kids."
With files from Shift New Brunswick and Jacques Poitras
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