A chronically underfunded youth protection system is failing to provide vulnerable children in Quebec with the safe and healthy environments they need to grow up, said a landmark report tabled Monday.
The report was commissioned by the provincial government two years ago, after a seven-year-old girl died in Granby despite her troubled family situation having been flagged to Quebec's youth protection system, or Directeur de la protection de la jeunesse (DPJ).
On Monday, the commissioner who led the hearings, Régine Laurent, said it was time to turn "anger into action."
The commission's 550-page report details dozens of shortcomings within the youth protection system. They include the over-representation of Black and Indigenous children, the mistreatment of youth in group homes and rehabilitation centres and overworked social workers unable to meet growing demand for their services.
"We are talking about 1.9 million children in Quebec," Laurent, former president of Quebec's largest nurses' union, said at a news conference. "We need to take care of them."
Laurent issued a series of proposals aimed at making the system more culturally sensitive and more responsive to the needs of children.
One of her flagship proposals is updating Quebec's child protection laws and creating a charter of children's rights. "Every child has the right to grow up in a stable and permanent family for life," the report says.
Toward that end, there are proposals to encourage the adoption of children over the age of two, which is currently quite rare in Quebec.
The province is also called on to allow "simple adoptions," used elsewhere in Canada, and which don't require a definitive break with the child's biological parents. And there are calls, too, to address the shortage of foster parents in Quebec.
Indictment of political class
At Monday's news conference, Laurent described the system's shortcomings as a "collective failure."
But the commission's report offers a particularly damning indictment of how Quebec's political class has treated the youth protection system since it was created in 1979.
It was underfunded at its outset, the report says, and a succession of budget cuts only made matters worse. It adds: "Youth protection services have never been funded at the level needed to meet demand."
The health-care reforms of 2015, which emphasized hospital-based medical expertise, only further sidelined social services and made co-ordinating resources more difficult.
This "vicious cycle" of neglect has now reached a critical point, given that demand for youth protection services has steadily increased in recent years. Reports to the DPJ jumped 21 per cent between 2014 and 2019.
"To be clear, the situation of children and families is deteriorating because of the lack of appropriate funding," the report says.
It paints a grim portrait of some of the rehabilitation centres and group homes in the province, where children with the most severe difficulties are sent.
There has been a "worrying increase" in the willingness to medicate children in these centre. The use of isolation has also increased. At the same time, the educational and psychological support is often lacking.
"[These children] spoke to us about their loneliness, their rights being violated, the lack of support for their psychological issues, their failures at school and on the job market," the report says.
It noted a study that found that as many as 20 per cent of children experience some form of homelessness after leaving government care. Elsewhere, the report pegs at $4 billion the annual direct and indirect costs of the mistreatment of children.
Systemic racism in child protection
Premier François Legault's government has pledged to table reforms in the fall addressing some of the recommendations laid out in the Laurent Report.
The government responded to a preliminary version released last year by appointing an oversight authority for the youth protection system.
Other elements of the report, though, pose a more direct challenge to the Legault government's approach to social justice issues, particularly its ongoing refusal to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism.
The report cites evidence that Black children count for about 30 per cent of children in the youth protection system, even though they represent only 15 per cent of the population at large.
It suggests that this effect could be attributed, in part, to the "cultural biases" of social workers, and calls on the government to address issues of systemic racism within the youth protection system.
The Laurent Report is also likely to increase pressure on the Quebec government to give Indigenous communities control of child-care services.
Youth protection workers often don't understand Indigenous approaches to parenting, which contributes to discrimination and the over-representation of Indigenous children, the report says.
Legault's government, however, is appealing a federal law, C-92, which allows Indigenous communities to create their own child welfare systems.
"For a long time, Canada and Quebec have acted as if they knew better than us for what was good for our people. Clearly, they were wrong," Derek Montour, head of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission, said in a statement on Monday.
"Thanks to [C-92] we have the opportunity to regain control over our lives, and that's exactly what we intend to do."