Nfld. & Labrador

Child protection laws to get first update since 2011

The Newfoundland and Labrador government today provided details of Bill 14, An Act Respecting Children, Youth and Families.

Bill 14, announced today, focuses on Indigenous families and needs of older youth

Lisa Dempster (second from left) announced Bill 14, in St. John's on May 15, 2018. The bill will reform Newfoundland and Labrador's child protection act. (Meghan McCabe)

The Newfoundland and Labrador government provided details of Bill 14, An Act Respecting Children, Youth and Families in St. John's today.

The Act would replace the current Children and Youth Care and Protection Act, which came into effect in 2011, and places an increased emphasis on addressing the needs of Indigenous children and youth, as well as older youth.

"As the Minister of Children, Seniors and Social Development, I am very proud of this legislation and I believe it will support children and youth, and families, like never before," said Dempster, who became emotional at the end of her prepared statements.

Dempster said her emotion came from the fact that she had heard about so many sad situations across the province in her role as minister.

She also spoke about her pride as an Indigenous person, in the ways the bill addresses Indigenous needs.

"I believe this is a tremendous step forward," said Dempster.

"In this province we have never seen before this much of an acknowledgement of Indigenous cultures in child protection legislation."

Significant changes from existing legislation

The bill, which is expected to come into effect about a year after receiving royal assent, makes what Dempster called "significant changes" to current child protection policies.

There are six main areas where changes are being put into place, government said:

  • Improving information sharing, including to Indigenous governments and organizations.
  • Enhancing the focus on keeping families intact.
  • Expanding permanent options for children and youth in foster care, whether that's with their families or origin or elsewhere.
  • Strengthening service delivery for Indigenous youth and children, and their families.
  • Identifying and supporting youth needing protection.
  • Developing a licensing regime for out-of-home care placements.

Some of the changes that Bill 14 would bring in include removing restrictions so all youth under a youth services agreement can receive services until they turn 21, and removing the option for youth in the continuous custody of a manager to leave care before they turn 18.

The expanded services for older youth should include a harm reduction approach, said Sheldon Pollett, executive director of Choices for Youth, which works with at-need young people — especially considering the youth who most need those services are often the same ones most likely to reject them.

"In the absence of perfect choices, which we rarely have when it comes with working with vulnerable young people, go with the one that causes the least harm so you can try again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day," Pollett said of a harm reduction approach.

"Removing barriers that have nothing to do with the needs of young people is massive for this province."

Sheldon Pollett of Choices for Youth attended Tuesday's announcement. (CBC)

Focus on Indigenous needs

Indigenous children are over-represented in Newfoundland and Labrador's child protection system. Last year, the CBC News series Uprooted looked at how putting those children in foster care far from home, without education related to their culture, religion or language, could be a rights violation.

There are several changes included aimed at Indigenous children, including who is defined as Indigenous, relative to the Act.

I believe this is a tremendous step forward.- Minister Lisa Dempster

Those changes include requiring a cultural connection plan to be filed with the courts when an Indigenous child is put into care, allowing Indigenous representatives to be heard in court, requiring specific placements for Indigenous children in the care or custody of a manager, and requiring that notice be served to Indigenous representatives when a hearing is upcoming for an Indigenous child.

"What this act is going to do is allow much more consultation with the people that are most affected," Dempster said.

The Act also aims to improve information sharing with Indigenous governments and organizations, with the goal of having children cared for at home with their families, and in their own community and culture where possible.

The previous legislation had no specific provisions for Indigenous children and youth, and their families.

Overall, the Act places a major focus on keeping families together and offering support to families early on, in order to prevent a child from ultimately being removed from the home.

It also includes an enabling clause that would allow Indigenous governments to provide care themselves, if they decide to do so.

"Ultimately, it will be up to the Indigenous groups to come forward when they feel they are ready."

MHA Tracey Perry is the Opposition critic for Child, Youth and Family Services. (CBC)

Questions remain

Dempster acknowledged that the bill will require additional resources, and said that the extended prediction for when it would come into place allows for the training and hiring that may be required.

She confirmed that the bill's provisions would come at a cost for the government, and that they would require the hiring of more social workers, but declined to provide specifics.

MHA Tracey Perry, Opposition critic for Child, Youth and Family Services, said the legislation is very good and addresses some of the gaps in the existing system. But Perry said she does want to know more about how the use of agencies to assess foster care placements will work.

Meanwhile, Sheldon Pollett said there are pieces in the bill that will provide earlier assistance to families.

"If we don't start supporting vulnerable families in a completely different way, we're just going to see a growing number of vulnerable youth, children ending in parts of the system that, quite frankly, we don't want them in," Pollett said.

With files from Meghan McCabe