Province seeks public input on creating new child protection act

The New Brunswick government has launched public consultations aimed at developing a stand-alone law to strengthen how the province helps children in need of protection.

Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard is asking stakeholders and members of the public to fill out a survey before Feb. 28. Public consultations will also be held in four locations.

Work on a new child protection act began following a report by consultant George Savoury into a shocking case of neglect in Saint John delivered last January.

Shepherd said her department has been "actually moving along very quickly" in the last 12 months, speaking to experts and having legal drafters work on the bill that would separate child protection from the existing Family Services Act.

"We cannot complete that until we have more input from the legal community, from our social workers, from all of our stakeholders that we work with in the community like the child and youth advocate and youth in care, to ensure we're on the right path," she said.

Shephard said new legislation could be ready a year from now though she wouldn't commit to it.

Child and Youth Advocate Norm Bossé, who also investigated the Saint John case, said he was not concerned about consultations beginning a year after Savoury's report.

"She is correct in approaching it this way. We need some public involvement."

In the Saint John case, five children were found living in squalor, prompting questions about whether officials should have acted sooner to remove the children from their parents' home. The parents received two-year prison sentences for failing to provide the necessities of life.

Savoury found that many child support workers were stressed by a high workload of complex and traumatic cases. Many lacked basic supplies, such as laptop computers and cellphones with data plans.

Ed Hunter/CBC

He also found that many resources had been siphoned away from child protection to other programs, including, in one case, those for seniors in long-term care.

Shephard could not say Wednesday how a new law would prevent that siphoning from happening in the future.

Instead she pointed to another law passed by the government last year — a kinship law designed to make it easier for relatives of a neglected child to take custody.

She said 26 per cent of the Savoury recommendations have been implemented and she'll provide more details on that in the coming weeks.

Bossé said resources and budgets are a concern but he said legislation will address other problems, such as a lack of confidence among some social workers that they have the legal authority to enter a home and remove children.

"They have the authority to do this," he said. "Well, let's spell it out. Let's just make it very clear when they can go in, when they suspect that either children are being abused or neglected."