1950s-model foster care doesn't work
Reassurances from government of a well-run program ring hollow
The Edmonton Journal, Thursday, October 23, 2008
In September, a total of 52 foster kids, ranging in age from infants to teens, were lodged in hotels because there weren't proper places for them to stay. The average stay was between three and four days.
"We do need more foster homes and foster parents," says Rick Semel, the CEO of Child and Family Services for Region Six, the Edmonton area. "We could use more. We could use a lot more."
Right now, says Semel, the Edmonton region is short about 80 foster beds. The result is that children taken into care sometimes need to stay in motels or homeless hostels, such as the Youth Emergency Shelter, because there are no other beds available. On any given night, Semel's authority has 38 shelter and hostel beds on reserve, for teens with nowhere else to go.
In other circumstances, says Semel, children with mental-health problems are compelled to stay in hospital psychiatric wards longer than necessary, because there are no foster homes equipped to care for them. And on more rare occasion, he says, children who don't require medical or psychiatric treatment actually end up in treatment facilities with more-disturbed residents, because those are the only beds open.
As unpleasant as that might sound, says Semel, it's still safer for kids to be in a less-than-perfect placement than on the street or living in an abusive home.
Given such bleak facts, it's pretty hard to credit Janis Tarchuk's repeated claims that Alberta's child welfare system is working just fine, thank you. This week, the tiny New Democrat caucus embarrassed the minister for Children and Youth Services by releasing the previously confidential quarterly reports by front-line children's advocates, outlining the problems caused by the lack of foster bed and group home placements.
For two days now, Tarchuk has been grilled by the opposition in question period, over the inconsistencies between the detailed quarterly reports, and the vapid, and tardy annual reports, prepared by the official Child and Youth Advocate, John Mould. And for two days, Tarchuk's insisted that every problem identified in the quarterly reports has been resolved.
"Every single issue that has been identified for a child in this province though an advocate gets investigated and addressed," Tarchuk told the house on Tuesday.
But Tarchuk's blanket reassurances ring pretty hollow. Individual cases flagged by front-line advocates may well have been resolved. Yet month after month, year after year, foster children are stuck for days and weeks in cheap industrial-park motels, hospitals, and homeless shelters. That's the simple truth -- although you sure wouldn't know it from reading the so-called annual reports of the advocate assigned to protect the interests of Alberta's children in care.
Mould, the current child and youth advocate, says it's not his role to educate the public, but to work internally, with the ministry staff, to resolve complaints. Yet the advocate, by legislation, must file a public report each year. It's not an internal document. By law, the annual report must be tabled promptly in the Alberta legislature, so that every MLA can read it, and so that it can become part of the public record. Under the Child, Youth, and Family Enhancement Act, it's the advocate's obligation to report to the legislature and the people of Alberta, but the current advocate seems to have a chronic problem with that responsibility. Mould's 2002-03 report wasn't tabled until May 2005, and his report from 2003-04 didn't get tabled until May 2006, the same day he filed his 2004-05 report. (By contrast, the 2000-01 annual report by Mould's predecessor, Bob Rechner, was tabled most promptly, in November 2001.)
But the real scandal here isn't John Mould's failure to do a key part of his job. It's the government's inability to acknowledge and address the chronic, long-standing shortage of good foster homes, and qualified foster parents.
Our 1950s model of foster care just doesn't work in 2008. We can't continue to rely on volunteers, who are paid only a token honorarium, to care for our most damaged and vulnerable kids. There are many wonderful, dedicated foster parents out them. But if we want to recruit more top-rate caregivers, isn't it time to consider paying, training, and supporting them, recognizing and respecting them as the professionals they are?
Would it be expensive to compensate skilled foster parents for their work? To hire more case workers to support them? Sure. But it might be cheaper, in the long run, to have more good foster homes available, than to put up our most vulnerable and damaged kids in hotels, shelters, and inappropriate treatment facilities.
But if we're serious about keeping Alberta's children in care safe and well, we need both a minister and a child advocate who take their responsibilities seriously. It's time to stop the spin. There are real gaps in our child welfare system -- and real solutions we might try to address them. But we can't start fixing the problems while we're busy pretending they don't exist.