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Foster care changes recognize Indigenous experience in Newfoundland and Labrador

Children, Seniors and Social Development Minister Lisa Dempster speaks Tuesday about changes in legislation aimed at improving conditions for youth in government care.
Children, Seniors and Social Development Minister Lisa Dempster speaks Tuesday about changes in legislation aimed at improving conditions for youth in government care. - David Maher

Legislation aims for better conditions for youth removed from their homes

Children, Seniors and Social Development Minister Lisa Dempster grew emotional on Tuesday as she described sweeping changes to legislation governing the lives of children put in the care of the provincial government.

“I guess we all know of sad stories. But when you come to this department, there are so many unfortunate stories,” said Dempster, her voice wavering.

The legislation announced on Tuesday has a chance to correct those sad stories and aims to prevent more from happening in the future.

For the first time, “the uniqueness of Indigenous cultures” will be considered when a youth has to be removed from their family, allowing them to stay connected to their heritage while they’re away from home.

Dempster says more consultation with the youth, their family and their caretakers will help maintain that connection.

“I think historically you’ve seen people — you might call it the ivory tower — make decisions that affect those people far away, but they’ve not had input. Much of what’s incorporated on what’s in this bill has been based on feedback from Indigenous groups,” she said.

“If there’s going to be a court hearing regarding an Indigenous child, the Indigenous government or organization will be notified and will have the option to attend court or a hearing.”

The legislation will enable Indigenous governments to work with the province to help provide care to Indigenous youth and keep them closer to their homes.

Currently, a youth in care has the option to leave care at age 16. The new legislation removes that option, meaning youth will remain in care until their 18th birthday.

“Oftentimes the children who needed support and direction the most were those that chose to leave at 16. Now they will not be able to. When you think of a kid who’s 16, compared to 18, you’ve got a couple more years under your belt — maybe a better chance of getting on the right road,” Dempster said.

A total of 42 changes are included in the new act.

One of the goals of the act is to allow youth removed from their homes to stay in the same community — even the same neighbourhood — to ensure disruption is minimal for youth placed in the government’s care.

In order to achieve that, more foster homes are needed. The government will allow non-profit or for-profit agencies to establish foster homes throughout the province.

Each child in foster care has contact with one social worker, with each social worker carrying an average workload of 20 children at a time — though that number can be much higher.

Dempster says the additional foster homes will still be regulated by the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development to ensure accountability.

Sheldon Pollett, executive director of Choices for Youth, says he is optimistic about the legislation because it offers supports to families to prevent a child from being taken out of their home to begin with.

“We (need to) get to prevention, looking at how to stop the flow of young people into crisis situations. There is no bigger crisis than removing a child from home, to be really clear,” Pollett said.

“For too long in this province we’ve only had one tool in the toolbox, and that was to take children out of their homes.”

Pollett says in 2008 Choices for Youth recorded 454 individual youth over three years. Last year, the organization provided support for 1,235 youth in one year. He says he is hopeful Tuesday’s announcement will help their work.
“I’d like to see that number go down, quite frankly. The old saying about working ourselves out of a job, I don’t think any of us are in danger of that any time soon, but I do want to see that number go down.”

There were no estimates presented on Tuesday for how much the legislative changes will cost. The total cost is expected to be presented as part of the 2019-20 budget.

david.maher@thetelegram.com

Twitter: DavidMaherNL

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