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Overcrowding, lax screening and too few homes: foster care crisis deepens

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Some children are placed in foster care without full safety checks while others wind up in supervised apartments or overcrowded homes, say child advocates who warn of a deepening crisis across the country.

"There are problems when you hear people from the front line talking about the fact that we're placing kids in homes where the study hasn't been done," said Peter Dudding, executive director of the Child Welfare League of Canada. "We've got kids being placed in homes where the home is over the allowable number of children.

"This is just wrong. And it's dangerous."

British Columbia's children's advocate has reviewed the child welfare system extensively over the years, finding numerous instances of children being placed in homes that weren't adequately screened.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s representative for children and youth, said some caregivers had criminal records involving sexual offences, but were used because the welfare system was desperate for a placement.

In one case, a four-year-old girl was removed from the care of her aunt in 2006 after she was found to be neglected, malnourished and suffering from recurring physical abuse. An investigation found that the aunt had not been appropriately screened.

"My sense is that there have been some improvements, but I'm still seeing cases where people don't know how to do the screening or they're bypassing screening," she said of an overhaul of the provincial system in 2010 following one of her audits.

"In remote areas, we are still seeing social workers not getting access to criminal records."

Corinna Filion, a spokeswoman with the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development, said all foster parents in the province must complete a comprehensive screening and assessment process. Since 2010, she said the department has stepped up criminal record checks on foster parents to every three rather than five years, and an online system is expediting criminal record checks.

Bev Wiebe, a Winnipeg-based social services consultant and trainer specializing in foster care and child welfare, said complex procedures that are in place for criminal background and child abuse checks can take several weeks.

"When people get desperate ... sometimes kids get put into homes where those processes may not be complete," she said.

"If your name or birth date is the same or similar as someone who has a conviction, you now have to get fingerprinted and send that off to Ottawa for the full report. Well, that can take a long time."

Compounding the problem is the dwindling number of families willing to help increasingly troubled kids across Canada, Dudding says.

It has been the same story of a chronic crisis in foster care for most of his 42-year career in social work, he said from Ottawa, but "one that's getting worse, not better."

The league, a national agency that promotes the protection of vulnerable children, is in the midst of a three-year campaign called Every Child Matters. It includes efforts to recruit and keep foster families while improving training.

Dudding said repeated efforts to recruit more families have had limited success as policies fluctuate between a focus on family unification and what's best for the child.

Child advocates disagree on potential solutions. Some say the heightened demands of fostering should be recognized with post-secondary training requirements and salaries. Others say related costs would be prohibitive.

Observers of a stressed-out system agree on one thing: the cost of doing nothing. Children who spend time in foster care are less likely to finish high school and are over-represented in the criminal justice system.

Complicating any debate on reform is the lack of reliable national statistics for how many children are in care and how they're doing. Those numbers rely on reporting from provinces that have jurisdiction over child welfare but define foster care differently.

Dudding said the best estimate from two compilation studies is that between 76,000 and 85,000 kids are in foster care.

The lack of data means there's no way the provinces, which fund foster care and often stake decisions on statistics and outcomes, can compare themselves against each other for best practices, he said.

"It's impossible to create good policy without good numbers."

Pressure on foster parents continues to grow without adequate help from child welfare agencies or provincial governments, Wiebe said.

"There are thousands of people who do it just because they care, and can they do it adequately? Not always. Do they get the training they need? Not usually," she said.

"We need to find a way to support these people better, both financially and with training, education and daily support."

Foster care rates differ by province, but tend to range from $23 to just over $30 a day depending on the age of the child. Extra money is paid for specific requirements, recreation or other factors.

"Nobody raises a kid on $30 a day," said Wiebe.

Brian Williams, president of the New Brunswick Foster Families Association, says the number of families is dropping off as costs rise, compensation stalls and children's issues become more complex.

They range across Canada from fetal alcohol syndrome to gang involvement, addiction, attachment issues, autism and sexual abuse.

"We're now getting kids that are having mental health issues or substance abuse or were traumatized by violence," said Williams, who at age 60 is fostering two children under age two.

The demands are often too much for parents who both work outside the home, adds Wiebe, who says the increase in kids' needs is "mind-blowing."

The state of foster care in Manitoba made headlines in November 2006 when children being temporarily housed in hotel rooms were moved to make way for an influx of guests arriving for the Grey Cup football championship.

Since then, the province has increased placement options through a recruitment campaign, says a government statement.

But the province continues to use "places of safety" including "agency staff residences, rooms and apartments" for about 700 of the 6,200 children in care, it says.

Foster homes are licensed in Manitoba based on criminal records screening and other safeguards.

Newfoundland and Labrador in 2009 created a new Child, Youth and Family Services department to overhaul the child protection system within three to five years.

The ministry is backed by a new Children and Youth Care and Protection Act, described as a child-centred approach to improve care options, quality and continuity while increasing social work staff and improving training. The province also raised rates for foster parents.

Children have not been temporarily placed in hotels in the province since the fall of 2010, says a statement from the department.

Still, 43 children in mid-January were living in apartments or houses with paid and screened supervisory staff because no foster or group home was available, the province confirmed. On average, kids will wait about four months for a home placement unless they have extreme behavioural or other issues.

Diane Molloy, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Foster Families Association, is optimistic about provincial efforts so far, but said real change will take time. And there is still a shortage of at least 50 foster families, she said.

"There's no one who will tell you that's a good situation," Molloy said of children being housed in apartments with paid staff. "There's not a choice with the current climate.

"They have to go somewhere."

Saskatchewan has one of the country's highest numbers of children in care, with an estimated 500 of them in overcrowded foster homes at the end of 2010.

Bob Pringle, the children's advocate for the province, released a report last August listing some improvements in the system following an earlier study by his organization outlining major flaws.

Still, Pringle says the province has lost 100 foster homes in the last 18 months and far too many homes exceed the limit of four children per home before it's considered "overcrowded."

"It's a crisis everywhere, so consequently there's a rush to overcrowd," said the former provincial minister of social services.

In 1995 when Pringle was in government, there were 1,700 children in care in Saskatchewan. When he did his child welfare review in 2009, that number had jumped to 5,000.

His group is also concerned that social workers are so overburdened that once children are placed in homes, there is little follow-up to ensure their safety or the families' ongoing ability to care for them.

"So the ministry cannot guarantee in our view that those children are safe," he said, adding that he's on the verge of investigating several high-profile deaths of children in care.

Tom Waldock specializes in child welfare and family studies at Nipissing University in Ontario and has fostered more than 50 children over 25 years.

He describes a declining care system that can no longer be patched with "Band-Aid kinds of solutions."

Quality care is a right cemented in Canada's international commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Waldock said.

But the communal duty that is owed to the most vulnerable and troubled children gets lost in systemic inertia, bureaucracy and the fact that kids in care "don't have a lot of political clout," he added.

He said foster parents should receive training, increased recognition and more compensation — at least for those working with the most challenging children.

As for cost, Waldock cited the number of child welfare agencies that are now contracting out to private agencies to help supervise kids in apartments for lack of family placements.

"We're paying sometimes $200 and $300 a day to place kids in outside resources because we've failed to enhance the internal system," he said.

"You're talking about a hugely marginalized group of kids, so they fall through the cracks."

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