Proposed law would be 'historic' for children's rights on P.E.I., advocate says
'Looking at children as individuals with rights to be respected, voices to be heard'
The P.E.I. government says a new piece of legislation it has drafted makes it clear for the courts and anyone else involved in child protection cases that the best interests of the child must take precedence over any other consideration.
Debate has begun on a government bill to create the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, which would replace the current Child Protection Act that came into effect more than 20 years ago.
Minister of Social Development and Seniors Barb Ramsay says the act is the culmination of years of work and provides needed changes or updates on several issues.
- Clarity on the legal status of children in the care of grandparents or other alternate care providers;
- A change to let the department provide services to youth in care until they're 25 years old, instead of 21;
- New "alternative pathways" for courts to address child safety concerns;
- Limits on the length of time a child can be in the temporary care of the province's director of child protection.
Ramsay said her department's staff frequently relied on the input of P.E.I.'s child and youth advocate, Marvin Bernstein, in drafting the legislation.
Bernstein told CBC News the proposed legislation is "historic" in setting out the rights of children and youth on Prince Edward Island.
"We deal, on an individual advocacy basis, with many children and youth, some of whom are in care. Some of them are receiving different government services and sometimes there's some slippage. Sometimes rights are deemed by adults to be privileges," Bernstein said.
"You may recall the old adage that 'Children should be seen and not heard.' We've really progressed in terms of saying, 'Children need to be active participants when decisions are being made about them.'"
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Bernstein said this legislation doesn't make children the final decision-makers on their situations, but it makes sure that the voices of young people are heard when their fate is being decided.
"It's really important to respect the views and preferences of children and youth, to really understand their lived experience," he said. "That will inform the decision-makers to make better decisions in the best interest of those children."
Children's voices 'paramount' throughout legislation
Director of child and family services Mike Henthorn was present in the legislature Tuesday as debate began.
He said the new legislation makes it clear that in child protection cases, the best interests of the children will prevail over the rights of parents and other caregivers in complex situations.
"In every piece of this legislation, the paramount point to consider is the best interest of the child," he said.
Bernstein said if the bill becomes law, as is likely given that Premier Dennis King heads a majority government, children of all ages will be able to have their own legal representation, let designates have access to information about them, and more.
Under the current law, only people aged 12 or older can have legal representation or access information about themselves through the Office of the Director of Family Services.
"Looking at children as individuals with rights to be respected, voices to be heard, and looking at considerations of agency and capacity and maturity rather than just locking onto a firm age threshold — that's a significant development, a step forward within the legislation," Bernstein said.
With files from Kerry Campbell and Island Morning