Estimate Debate: Children and Family Development Ministry

MLA Sonia Furstenau

Transcript 322A:1520-1550

S. Furstenau: Thanks for the opportunity, both to the opposition critic and the minister, for asking some questions here.

I wanted to start with the federal act, Bill C-92, if I could. Last year the federal government tabled Bill C-92, An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families, in the House of Commons. It received royal assent in June.

It states in the preamble: “This enactment affirms the rights and jurisdiction of Indigenous peoples in relation to child and family services and sets out principles applicable, on a national level, to the provision of child and family services in relation to Indigenous children, such as the best interests of the child, cultural continuity and substantive equality.”

Could the minister please update the House on the status of this act and clarify what work has been done and how it intersects with B.C.’s CFCSA?

Hon. K. Conroy: Thank you to the member for the question. Welcome to estimates.

The federal act actually came into force on January 1, 2020. We are committed to working with the federal government and First Nations, Inuit and Métis people to improve the lives of Indigenous children, youth and families.

The federal act affirms the inherent right of Indigenous peoples to exercise jurisdiction over child and family services. It establishes three new national child and family service principles that must be used in administration and interpretation of the act and sets new national standards for service delivery that every province and territory must meet.

The ministry has implemented new policies and practices to meet the national principles and standards. MCFD and Delegated Aboriginal Agencies staff received orientation on the new policies and changes to the practice last fall. The federal act actually reinforces the work that’s already underway — the work that the ministry has been doing in the province which keeps Indigenous children closer to their families and communities and reduces the number of Indigenous children in care.

We have a number of examples that shows how this is actually working. After a death in their family, a sibling group was moved to their home community to be with family. This changed their lives, allowed them to connect with cultures, be with family, attend school and settle. On the day of the new legislation being brought into force, rather than a removal, the staff slowed everything down and worked with the family to do a take-charge, which means the mother of the children was working out of the province and the children remained in their home with the social worker until an adult member of their Indigenous community could come and take care of the children.

Placement priority was considered. Another adult member of their community and the children remained together in their home, in their familiar surroundings. The relationship between the social worker and the Indigenous community was key here. As such, they have changed the trajectory of this family’s future and impacted the generations to come.

In one other one I was looking at, the social worker was working for a significant and sustained period to support a mom to resume guardianship of her two children. The social worker needed to apply to the court to rescind the CCO for two young Indigenous girls. This was done both legally and through a special Indigenous ceremony with prayer, song and the blanketing of the family. For the staff and family at court, this was a really quite powerful and emotional ceremony which was involved, and it honoured the family and the community.

There are a number of examples. These are a very few. I could go on for a while, but I know the member has more questions. It just shows the work the ministry and social workers, the staff, have already been doing within our own act and how this complements it. We can move forward in even greater ways to ensure not only the jurisdiction of child welfare to Indigenous communities in the province but also working with families to ensure that they’re kept together with their communities.

S. Furstenau: Thanks to the minister for that answer. Sticking with the federal act just a little bit longer, I appreciate the examples of the shifts that have happened. Again, it’d be really focused on preventative care, which I hear the minister is speaking about — this need to shift from apprehension to prevention, the priority given to services that promote preventative care to support families, as well as, in the preamble to the federal bill, services like prenatal care and support to parents.

The federal act clearly indicates that no Indigenous child should be apprehended solely on the basis of or as a result of his or her socioeconomic conditions, including poverty, lack of housing or related infrastructure or state of health of the child’s parent or caregiver. Given the strong message from the federal government and the minister’s stated commitment on this as well, I’m wondering: what specific increases to MCFD’s budget last year and this year were dedicated to prevention services for families in B.C.?

Hon. K. Conroy: I thank the member.

The ministry has had $160 million that goes towards dealing with caseload. The priority of caseload is helping to provide services, and the key is always prevention. First opportunity is always to ensure that families are kept together when there are issues around prevention. And to that point, where there has been a reported concern around prevention, 91 percent of the time, families have been kept together with supports. So I think it’s important to acknowledge that.

I also want to acknowledge — the member wasn’t in the room earlier when I talked about it — how for the first time in 20 years, we have the lowest number of Indigenous kids in care in the province. I think part of that is because of the prevention that’s happening, things like removing birth alerts. We’re the only province in the country that is not allowing birth alerts anymore. So they’re actually putting prevention services and supports to families prior to a child being born to ensure that the families can stay together, that they get the supports they need.

The member mentioned housing. I think it’s important to acknowledge that Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has, for the first time ever — and actually, the only province in the entire country — actually funded housing on reserves, which is huge in helping families to stay together and to have a house to live in. But I would encourage the member to also raise that issue with the minister in her estimates.

We have funded and continue to fund $5 million towards individual nations, towards cultural connections, and we continue to fund $6 million for prevention. It’s up to the nations to decide how they want to utilize those funds for prevention.

I do have some examples — for instance, Halfway River First Nation. They’re using the money for monthly prenatal classes that involve both moms and dads, to support groups. There are weekly support groups and traditional parenting workshops offered in the community at the local health clinic. It includes traditional knowledge-keepers and elders to share stories of traditions, practices and procedures with families and young parents. The goal is to provide education to families and parents in the communities to strengthen parenting skills and to create support groups within the communities.

There are examples of that in every nation. Of the 203 nations, the majority have accessed those funds and are implementing. Some have got together with other nations and done programs through their Delegated Aboriginal Agencies. Some have done programs on their own. But that funding is carrying on so they can keep on providing those supports and services to the children and families within their nations.

S. Furstenau: I’m just going to try to break this down a little bit more for my understanding. When the minister says $160 million on caseload, is that the total amount that’s spent on…? What I’m trying to get to is the total amount that’s spent on child protection in the province, in the budget, and how much of that is…. If there is that figure…. Child protection — that would include foster care and care for children outside of their homes and how much exactly is spent on the prevention side. The $160 million — is that specifically prevention funds? Or is that the total bucket of funds that goes into the child protection piece of the budget?

If I could just try to understand how to break down those numbers, that would be very helpful.

Hon. K. Conroy: In response to the member’s question, we actually don’t break the numbers apart in that way. We ensure that the services and supports that we provide are…. The ultimate goal is keeping families together. That’s why we pay so much attention to the outcomes. As I said, when there’s a protection issue, 91 percent of those families actually stay together. The kids don’t come into care or into out-of-care. The families are able to stay together. That’s a huge part of ensuring that protection and supports to the family are maintained.

Of course, a trajectory is to not take kids into care and to look at out-of-care options for that small 9 percent that can’t stay with their family. Our numbers are going up in out-of-care. Actually, we have the greatest number of children in out-of-care options than we had in in-care options. In the month of December, for instance, we placed more children in out-of-care options than were taken into in-care options. That can only be done through preventative services and working together, because in out-of-care options, primarily the children are staying with their extended family — aunties, uncles, grandparents.

Part of that…. We know the increase in out-of-care options is because we harmonize the rates for out-of-care options so that they now get the same amount of funding that foster parents do, for instance. So another reason why there are fewer kids going into foster care is because they’re going into out-of-care options, which is really important.

I think the ministry staff have done an incredible job of working with families and working with the children and youth in care to not actually even have them come into care in the first place but to make sure they stay with their families. And if that’s not possible, then looking at the out-of-care options, which is working.

S. Furstenau: I’m just kind of a numbers person. So if it’s not budgeted as either preventative or care…. You’re saying that the funds go into…. You’re not breaking the numbers apart in your budgeting.

Is there tracking at the other end, then? How much is spent on care, either…? You could even break these two down — the family care versus foster care. How much is the ministry spending on those two boxes? I would hope that this would be tracked as part of ministry work.

Just so that we can have some understanding, how much is being spent in British Columbia each year, or year over year, on children being placed in government care? And now, currently, how much is being spent for children that are put in out-of-care options?

The minister points out not breaking the numbers down, but it would be very interesting to understand — maybe not as part of budgeting, but as part of looking over the numbers at the end of the year — how much is spent on prevention. That’s sort of trying to understand where the money goes, because I think that where money gets spent has an impact on outcomes.

Having the understanding for the public of exactly how much money is being spent on these different categories is very helpful to understand, particularly if there is a trend year over year. If those numbers are changing and outcomes are changing, then you start to track where money is going and how that impacts outcomes.

So if there is more money going into — as the minister points out — out-of-care options, where children are staying with families, and we’re seeing a decrease in the number of children going into government care, then that’s an example where that would be modelling some success. You could point to the funds and then point to the data and then start to make a correlation between these two things.

I think it’s very important that there be that kind of tracking of how money is spent and what outcomes are reached from that. So that’s why I’m trying to dig into this — that question around, in the previous fiscal year, exactly how much was spent on government care and, as the minister has pointed out, how much was spent on out-of-care options.

Hon. K. Conroy: When we look at the numbers that we do have, again, it’s hard to break them down. So what we want to do is take it away, try to look at it, and break them down looking at what the member is requesting. Then we’ll get back to the member to try to break down those numbers in a way that looks the way it should look. But it’s really hard with the way we have the numbers broken down, because prevention is interspersed in all of the categories. It’s not as easy to just pull it out as the member has requested.

S. Furstenau: Thank you to the minister. I look forward to what can be derived. As I said, I really do think that tracking data and tracking funds is incredibly important in terms of how to make good decisions to get outcomes that are, hopefully, wanting to be achieved.

As my colleague from the official opposition is keen to get back going, and I appreciate his flexibility, I’ll maybe leave this with the minister as well, and the numbers can be brought back.

In terms of the number of social workers in B.C. this year…. We got the numbers last year. I’m wondering if we could get a breakdown, please, of the number of social workers and, within that, the number of child protection social workers, child and family services workers, resource social workers, adoption social workers and special needs social workers. If we could get the breakdown of those numbers. I’m happy…. If we could get those from the ministry at a future time, that would be very helpful.

L. Throness: Thank you to my colleague from Cowichan Valley.

I want to continue on talking about foster homes a little bit. I found some information that I know the minister will be interested in.

The retention of foster parents is low. Many quit early. I received a freedom-of-information request that said this upon a foster parent resigning. “The foster parent cited the reason for resignation is a breakdown in the relationship and trust between the ministry and the caregiver following a quality-of-care review. The caregiver also noted feeling disrespected by the resource worker during the quality-of-care review process.”

I’ve heard about disrespect for foster parents. One parent, for instance, came out from Surrey to talk to me about this topic. They don’t dare complain, lest their foster child be taken away, or they don’t get a new foster child.

This is echoed in a briefing note for the minister that I got under freedom of information. I quote from it as well. This is from last year. “The B.C. Foster Parent Association has advised the ministry that they are continuing to receive reports of disrespectful treatment of foster parents from social workers in communities across the province. In some communities where caregivers aren’t treated well, they feel bullied by one or two individuals in positions of power. This has been an ongoing issue for at least nine years.”

Social workers sometimes do not give direct care to the child, yet they ignore the opinions of foster parents who are making decisions and giving direct care to the child. What is the minister doing to ensure that social workers respect those who are giving actual care to our children in care?

Hon. K. Conroy: I just want to say that we, as a ministry, have a very good relationship with the Foster Parent Association. I have been working closely with them since…. Well, within weeks of becoming minister, I met with them, went to their conference.

I understand there will be times in the ministry that there could be issues between foster parents and social workers, and we take that very seriously. The ministry is working on developing a clearer protocol, in collaboration with the Foster Parent Association, to ensure that if there are issues, we can make sure that they’re dealt with.

I think, to that end, we funded a program called a solutions program. It funds a person that’s like a mediator. If there are issues, that person can go in and work with the social worker or the foster parents or the families — if that’s what the issue is — and work to arrive at some kind of a solution that’s going to work for everyone.

I think it’s really important to point out that the foster parents I’ve talked to are finally feeling that they’re respected by government.

When we gave them an increase — the first time in ten years — we heard from many foster parents that it wasn’t the amount of the money; it was just the fact that they felt that they were being respected, that the ministry was working with them, that government was working with them, that government respected them. The Premier announced the increase. The fact that he announced that showed the respect for foster parents in this province and the incredible work they do.

I’ve talked about one of the first foster parents I met. I’ve talked about Russell and his partner, Darrell, who fostered over 60 children in their lifetime of fostering. They adopted eight of them. Russell has two of his own children, and together they raised ten children as well as these 60 foster kids.

The reason I’m mentioning it is because they’ve decided to retire after many, many years of fostering. I, unfortunately, couldn’t make their retirement party, but I just want to acknowledge the incredible work they’re doing.

Not only did Darrell and Russell take care of over 60 foster kids over the years; they also reached out to other foster parents in the province. They were outspoken advocates for foster parents. They helped foster parents who had issues with children or social workers or whatever foster parents might have had an issue with. They were incredible advocates for foster parents and for children in foster care. It’s just amazing when you think of the amount of work that they have done together. They definitely should enjoy their retirement, because they still are raising ten children, which is incredible in itself.

I’d like to acknowledge the work that they’ve done for so many foster parents across the province. I think it just shows the incredible commitment to foster parents and families when you have people like Russell and Darrell. They are finally retiring, but their heart is still with it. So congratulations to them.