A new report from New Brunswick's child and youth advocate suggests the child protection system isn't set up to protect children from potentially dangerous situations, despite years of reports and recommendations calling for change.
The advocate's report calls for a new Children's Act to replace parts of the current law governing the child protection system, with the goal of moving cases through the system faster and placing more focus on protecting children's rights.
The call for legal reform is the first of two reports about New Brunswick's child welfare system from new child and youth advocate Kelly Lamrock.
The second report, to be released in the next "two or three weeks," will highlight the stories of frontline child protection staff and more than 200 children and youth who have been through the system.
"The clear message here is there's got to be a sense of urgency," Lamrock told reporters on Friday. "There's got to be a sense of collaboration, and it has to start with leadership of government on this very important file."
Multiple reviews and reports about the child welfare system over the years have revealed an under-resourced system staffed by social workers juggling a high number of complex, and often traumatic, cases.
Those same reports have also questioned whether the system is set up to adequately protect children from harm by favouring family reunification over removing children from potentially risky situations.
In the latest report, the advocate expresses concern with the number of frontline social workers who say "rule number one" in child protection is to keep families together, when it should be to have children's best interests in mind.
"We see many cases where children are left in situations of harm and where we have been unable to convince the department that they should do more to protect a child, or an entire sibling group," the report says.
"Most often the answer that we are given, is that the department is adamant that the courts would not endorse a decision to remove in cases which, to our eyes, are clear cases of endangerment."
Sometimes, the standard to go to court to remove a child from a situation is so high that officials with the Department of Social Development can't be convinced to even try to go to court, the report found.
"In our view these are instances of a systemic failure of the child protection system in our province."
While family reunification is a good first option and staff often want to help children, Lamrock said there is sometimes an "overinvestment in the parents' journey" without considering the impact on the children, describing the decision to remove children from a home as a "heartbreaking call to make."
Difficulty finding placements
Shawna Morton, a frontline child-in-care worker who is also president of CUPE Local 1418, said children often want to be reunited with their families and staff have to take that into account when weighing a child's best interests.
Other times, she said, a lack of resources creates problems when trying to find a placement for a child.
"I do believe, though, that the courts are very rigid in terms of what we present to them when we're talking about removal of a child from a family," Morton said in an interview.
"I think that sometimes there is a pendulum swing in terms of it is more about the rights of the parent as opposed to the best interest of the child."
The Department of Social Development declined an interview request from CBC.
In an emailed statement, spokesperson Rebecca Howland said the department would review the advocate's report.
"New Brunswick has a very rigorous child protection system that is governed by legislation, and regulations," Howland wrote. "The department follows evidence-based best practices, which are reflected in its standards and policies."
She said the department is working to enact new child welfare legislation.
The idea of standalone legislation gives Morton some hope.
"I think all of us are feeling hopeful that by putting more onus on best interest and removing some of those archaic timelines that we were working with before … hopefully it will expedite the whole court process as well."
'The need to do better'
Lamrock's report includes the story of two siblings who fled their home in "a religious community in New Brunswick," seeking protection from the RCMP "from their parents' strict religious upbringing."
The children were placed in foster care, where they were able to experience life "as average teenagers, with many freedoms that they had never known."
But the children were returned to live with their parents after they promised to change their parenting practices, with the department agreeing it was in the children's best interest.
The teenagers didn't want to return home, but neither they nor their relatives could afford a lawyer. The advocate's office tried to halt the process until a lawyer for the children could be appointed, but their efforts failed, the report says.
It also calls on the province to give the advocate's office more power to enforce the recommendations it makes, including the ability to go to court to seek enforcement of recommendations "where a child's rights have been violated and response to recommendations has been delayed or denied."
"Too often we are aware of a situation needing urgent intervention to require the minister to take protective action or to withhold a potentially harmful decision, but have no means through which to initiate any court review to have the child's voice and best interests considered and judicially determined," the report says.
Workers given phones, but still under-resourced
In 2019, former child and youth advocate Norm Bossé found the province's child protection system failed to protect five siblings in Saint John from "damaging chronic neglect." There were more than two dozen complaints about the children's safety, Bossé found, but the children continued to live in squalor until a sheriff came to evict their family and happened upon the children.
Just a few days before Bossé's report was released, a consultant hired by the provincial government warned New Brunswick children are at risk because of an under-resourced child protection system that wasn't a priority in a big provincial department. He called for it to be made an essential service.
Since then, frontline workers have been given cellphones, a basic tool the consultant found they were lacking.
But the resource problems persist, Friday's report says, with some regions being asked to limit the hours of support worker interventions designed to help parents develop parental capacity, among other cutbacks.
"Front line workers would rather keep paying for their phones and have the tools they need to support families," Lamrock's report says.
"They don't understand why it is that with child protection supports what the one hand gives, the other hand takes away."
Morton said staffing is at a "critical" level. In the Saint John area alone, she said, there are 17 vacancies, with challenges recruiting social workers and child protection staff.
"It's hard because to be a new worker in child protection is so overwhelming," she said.
On top of that, Morton said, many of the private companies contracted to provide services in group homes or working with children and families are struggling to recruit and retain staff as well. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problems.
"The need is huge," she said.
Many of the problems in Lamrock's report aren't new.
In the late 1990s, the death of toddler Jackie Brewer, alone in her crib in Saint John, sparked calls for more social workers and more emphasis on removing children from dangerous situations, after numerous complaints about the young girl's neglect went unheeded.
But history repeated itself only a few years later, when Juli-Anna St. Peter died, despite numerous warnings the girl could be at risk. She was two years old.
In November 2020, even after Bossé and Savoury called for sweeping changes, the death of an unnamed six-month-old boy prompted New Brunswick's child death review committee to warn that social workers were again juggling too many cases. The report didn't say what, if any, role the high caseloads may have played in the boy's death.