During the time I practised as a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital in Winnipeg, I was shocked to meet people who were very fearful of contact with Manitoba's Child and Family Services system. They were concerned their child might be taken away and their family broken up. In most cases, these families struggled with poverty.
We can all agree children at risk of being harmed need to be protected, which can mean apprehension. But, I ask, do so many children need to be apprehended -- sometimes on the basis of 'neglect' by the parent(s), where neglect can mean poor housing, poor nutrition or a parental addiction?
The assessment of neglect can, in many cases, be subjective. Wouldn't it make sense to focus on efforts to keep families intact by addressing issues such as housing, poverty and addictions -- and preventing as many as possible of the thousands of traumatic, expensive child apprehensions ripping Manitoba families apart?
Since the NDP came to power in 1999, the number of child apprehensions by Child and Family Services has grown dramatically. The number of children in care has risen by more than 80 per cent -- to 9,730 from 5,358. According to a recent Manitoba Centre for Health Policy report, How are Manitoba's Children Doing? there are four times as many children in care in Manitoba (40 per 1,000) as the national average (9.2 per 1,000).
This report shows that in urban areas of our province, a child living in a low-income area is 47 times more likely to be taken into care than one living in a high-income area. Alarmingly, one in seven children in Manitoba's low-income areas has been in the care of CFS.
Children in CFS care have poorer health, education and economic outcomes, as shown in research by Manitoba experts. As Ruth Gilbert, Marni Brownell and others demonstrate in The Lancet (Vol. 379, 2012), there is no evidence the NDP's policies have achieved better results for children in our province.
Keeping children in government care has been associated with harm to children, as Laura Eggerston has pointed out in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dec. 8, 2009. The recent findings of Manitoba's auditor general underscore this reality, as the NDP government has been very slow to implement her safety recommendations made in 2006 -- including regular criminal record checks for foster parents and expedient child-abuse registry reporting.
The NDP's legislative policies and the practices of the CFS and justice systems also contribute to the increase in days children are in care. Children often remain stuck in the legal system for months; time and again temporary orders are extended, leaving families separated and in limbo. Children are unnecessarily traumatized and their lives put in turmoil. It is imperative the government enforces more timely actions.
How can we address issues like poverty, housing and addictions to strengthen families' chances of staying together to prevent the epidemic of child apprehensions and court extensions by Manitoba's CFS?
First, the NDP must finally raise the shelter allowance for people receiving income assistance. These rates have barely increased in their 13 years in power as rents and inflation have soared. When families must use most of their food money to find shelter, inadequate nutrition puts children at risk of apprehension. The 500 per cent increase in Manitoba children using food banks in the past 11 years -- now at more than 30,000 a month -- shows the desperate need for change.
Second, children can be taken into care because of substandard housing, a stricture that focuses specifically on Manitoba's poor families. Instead of using increased taxpayer funds to put children in care, why not direct funds to help bring the home up to standard? I am sure most Manitobans would favour the latter; not only would it be more effective for healthier family outcomes, it's cost-efficient.
Third, children are taken into care because of addictions, yet treatment waiting lists can be up to a year. Ensuring immediate access to family-focused addictions treatment centres such as the St. Norbert Behavioural Health Foundation would go a long way to help keep families together. An increase of treatment beds for women is urgently needed.
Additionally, using alternative, vigorous family-enhancement supports can be effective. Such an approach has been proven in Nelson House Cree Nation. They sometimes temporarily remove parents from the home and put a worker in the home, while a careful look is taken of the situation to determine supports the family needs before deciding to place a child in care.
We must recognize there are families who don't ask for help because they are afraid of looking inadequate and being penalized by having their children apprehended into government care. Surely, families who call for help should know everything possible will be done to support the family first and foremost.
The Manitoba government must change the CFS system so families see it is there to help families stay together rather than to break them up.
If we can do this, it will make a profound difference to thousands of children and families in our province with an abundance of more happy outcomes.
Dr. Jon Gerrard is the leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party.