Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia child law amendments come into effect today

Critics have said changes to the Children and Family Services Act will make it easier for the government to take children away from their families, but Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard says the amendments will actually keep families together by letting people access services earlier.

Critics have said the changes leave families vulnerable, but province says they improve program access

Changes to the Children and Family Services Act came into effect March 1. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Changes to the Children and Family Services Act will allow Nova Scotia to help families before they need to have their children taken away, the minister of Community Services says.

Joanne Bernard told CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton that amendments going into effect today will allow for more intervention.

"We shouldn't wait until families are in crisis or a child is harmed before they can access services," she said.

The act, which was drafted in 1991, has undergone 89 amendments that were passed in December 2015 and proclaimed late last year.

Closing gap for older teens

The changes to the act outlined in a provincial news release include:

Some lawyers and at least one anti-poverty group have said the changes will make it easier for the province to seize kids, but Bernard insists the results will be exactly the opposite, keeping families together and reuniting ones that have been separated.

Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard says the amendments will mean fewer children ending up in the justice system. (CBC)

"There wasn't always the capacity within the act to serve to the best of our ability, to help families in reunification and to make sure that the best interests of the child were always paramount," she said.

She responded to a question about whether the province might be too interventionist by saying there are always checks and balances and, "We have to remember we have an obligation to protect children in this province."

'We were losing kids'

Among the changes Bernard is happiest about is the extension of services to those between 16 and 18 years old, if they want it. Previously, services such as counselling and educational supports stopped at 16. She said that meant more kids ending up in court, in mental-health facilities or with addictions.

"We were losing kids in that two years," she said. "And if you lose them in that two years chances are you're not going to get them back as adults."

Bernard, who before politics was the executive director of a housing organization that helped women and children fleeing domestic violence, noted the Liberal government invested about $2 million to create the family-preservation Families Plus program in 2015, and increased the number of Parenting Journey in-home family support programs from 12 to 27.

No training yet, foster parent says

Long-time children's advocate and foster parent Delores Feltmate, who has been following the legislative trail on this for years, said she supports the changes but hasn't seen any concrete action yet.

Staff at Child Welfare Services have not been given all the training yet to provide services, she said.

"The new legislation is still not being practically applied," said Feltmate, adding that she hopes that will happen "sooner rather than later." 

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton and Hal Higgins