N.B. child welfare bill changed to add children's rights, tracking outcomes of youth in care

·5 min read
Zo Bourgeois, project co-ordinator with the New Brunswick Youth in Care Network, says locked places of secure care could be re-traumatizing for vulnerable youth. (Submitted by Zoe Bourgeois  - image credit)
Zo Bourgeois, project co-ordinator with the New Brunswick Youth in Care Network, says locked places of secure care could be re-traumatizing for vulnerable youth. (Submitted by Zoe Bourgeois - image credit)

A committee of MLAs from all stripes has agreed to make several changes to New Brunswick's proposed child welfare legislation, including more recognition of children's rights and a commitment to move toward tracking more data to measure the outcomes of youth in care.

That came after two days where politicians heard from several expert witnesses, including the province's child and youth advocate and representatives of Indigenous child and family services agencies.

"The most vulnerable among us, who do not have a voice, most certainly need lawmakers to ensure that they have rights and their rights are protected under the law," Partners for Youth executive director John Sharpe told the committee on Thursday, after urging them them to recognize children's rights.

Social Development Minister Bruce Fitch initially said he felt the bill as it was adequately recognized children's rights, but changed his stance after several witnesses called for the change.

The bill now includes a child or youth's right to medical treatment and education "that corresponds to their aptitudes or abilities," among others.

Government of New Brunswick
Government of New Brunswick

"This makes it clear, makes it concise and again, addresses some of those concerns that we were hearing in the testimony," Fitch said.

The Child and Youth Well-Being Act was a key recommendation from a review of the child protection system in 2019, which found that child protection wasn't a priority in a big government department.

New Brunswick was the last province without a standalone child protection law, and it could pass third reading on Friday.

Child and youth advocate Kelly Lamrock has said the province is failing as a parent to youth in its care by not tracking how many graduate from high school and how many struggle with mental health issues, among other measurements.

The government introduced a change that would force it to keep a register of "outcomes," though it's not yet clear which outcomes the government will start to track.

'An absolutely utter slap in the face'

But the committee's changes didn't address all the issues raised by expert witnesses on Thursday.

Samantha Paul, executive director of Mi'gmaq Child and Family Services of New Brunswick Inc., which covers six Mi'gmaw communities, said they were consulted on the bill two years ago, but none of the suggestions from those communities were incorporated.

"I read it and it was an absolute utter slap in the face that they did not incorporate one thing that we had asked for," Paul said.

Paul said they don't plan to follow the legislation if it passes as it's written now.

"We will do what we need to do to serve children in First Nations communities that doesn't take them out of their community, that doesn't pull them away from their families, that doesn't continuously repeat the history of day schools, residential schools, all of the things that destroyed the parenting abilities within those First Nations communities," Paul said.

"We will do whatever is necessary to keep kids in their community and keep them connected to community and culture and family, but this document doesn't allow that."

Michelle Sacobie, the director of child and family at Kingsclear First Nation, said the bill doesn't have a voice or place for First Nations people.

"Our cultures are very different, our history is very different, what we've gone through as a nation, they're just different," Sacobie said.

"If the bill doesn't address our concerns and our issues, it's not going to work."

Concerns about places of secure care

The changes also don't address concerns with a section on places of secure care.

The bill says a child 12 years of age or older can be placed in those facilities by court order if they are "likely to self-harm or to harm another person" or have "been a victim of sexual exploitation or human trafficking."

Zo Bourgeois, the project co-ordinator with the New Brunswick Youth in Care Network, called for removal of that section from the bill because it will re-truamatize youth.

"Personally, coming as a person that lived in the system and who has intense trauma, that facility is not going to help them heal," said Bourgeois, who was in care from the time she was one and a half years old up to age 11.

"It's not going to better them. If anything it's going to create more [trauma]."

Sharpe questioned what research the government relied on to come up with the idea of a locked facility.

He described it as a dangerous approach to a valid mental health need and said he feared youth may try to hide their self-harming.

"We're putting in this bill that we are fine with locking up kids because there are no other options," Sharpe said. "That's very alarming."

Earlier this month, a department spokesperson said the concept of a place of secure care "is based on what is done in other jurisdictions in the country, such as Nova Scotia and Alberta, and feedback we received during a legislative review."

"The services provided at a 'place of secure care' under the new legislation will reflect the principles of trauma-informed care, which recognize the impacts trauma may have on health and behaviour," the emailed statement said, though it didn't explain how the process will be trauma-informed.

The proposed legislation also gives social workers expanded power to intervene in instances where children or youth could be at risk of harm.

Shane Fowler/CBC
Shane Fowler/CBC

Geraldine Poirier-Baiani, president of the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers, described that as the biggest change in the act for those who work on the front lines. Previously, she said, they had to wait for something bad to happen before being able to act.

But the changes could also require more staff, she said.

"We can't ask the social workers in the department who are already stretched thin to take on any more responsibilities without reducing some of their existing workload."