Overhaul to N.S. foster care system long overdue, say some former foster parents
'I don't think it works for children the way we're doing things right now,' says social worker Debbie Reimer
The Nova Scotia government says it is redesigning the foster care system, but for Maureen Wickwire, it's too little, too late.
Wickwire was a foster parent for 15 years to more than 30 children, usually between two and four at a time.
When COVID-19 arrived in Nova Scotia, she said the stress of caring for children increased. With schools closed and respite options eliminated, it just became "too much." She and her husband stopped fostering.
But Wickwire said she started burning out long before 2020.
"[The pandemic] was a contributor, but 15 years is a long time to be a foster parent, and longer than most," Wickwire said in a telephone interview.
Wickwire has been calling for an overhaul of foster care in Nova Scotia for many years, and although she's left the system and has no plans to go back, she said she still hopes things change for the better.
The Department of Community Services announced the redesign last week, but gave no details. A spokesperson for the department says those are being finalized and will be shared at a later date.
In the same announcement, the department said it would be offering one-time payments of $5,000 to each of the 520 foster families in the province.
Foster families are given per diems ranging from $19 to $53, and they can submit some expenses for reimbursement, but Community Services Minister Kelly Regan said there are some expenses foster families don't claim.
"All of us who have raised children know that the expenses are many, and they're big and they're small, and this is really a recognition of the fact that [foster families] don't get fully compensated for the money they've put out," Regan told reporters last week.
The money is also an incentive to new foster families. Any family that goes through training and stays in the system for a full year will also receive the $5,000 payment, and the offer will stand until the roster doubles to 1,000 foster families, to match the number of children in care.
Wickwire said the $5,000 is "amazing," but she'd like to see a more drastic change to the way foster families are paid for their work. She said foster parents should be treated as professionals who are doing a job, and they should be paid up front, not reimbursed later.
"Society thinks if you're a foster parent, you shouldn't want money to do what you do, you should do it out of the kindness of your heart.
"That doesn't pay the bills. So if they don't get reimbursed in a better way … if that doesn't change somehow, how are you going to recruit foster parents?"
Since she stopped fostering last year, Wickwire has started working at a small options home.
"And just because I get paid to go there every day doesn't mean I can't love those people that I'm caring for."
Foster parents need better training, says social worker
Debbie Reimer, like Wickwire, says a revamp of foster care in Nova Scotia is overdue.
Her ideas for improving the system come from two different perspectives: as a former foster parent, and as a social worker whose work overlaps significantly with the child welfare system.
Reimer is executive director of the Kids Action Program, which provides education and support to families in the Annapolis Valley-East Hants area. Her clients include foster families and biological families who have been separated by the province.
When asked which parts of the foster care system need to change, she was blunt.
"All of them."
"I'd like to see the whole system redesigned because I don't think it works for children the way we're doing things right now. Kids coming out of the foster care system aren't doing well," Reimer said.
To address that, she said foster parents need more extensive training before they start taking children, and better ongoing support.
"When you're dealing with children who have been removed from their home, you're dealing with so much. And I sometimes wonder if we're doing kids any favours by taking them out of the home."
Reimer said training should address the trauma many children in care have experienced, and give foster parents the tools to manage its effects.