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Perspectives from the field of Child and Youth Care

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Innovative program helps keep kids out of foster care

The success of an innovative child welfare program shows the system doesn’t have to be a constant battle, say local advocates.

It’s not parents against a “baby-snatching” government worker, said child and youth worker Brian LaBelle. “We’re not trying to ruin their family or take their kids away,” he said, and no one gets shuffled from office to office feeling helpless.

“We’re working with the family, and the family helps decide what they need to do.”

Two years ago, the provincial government downloaded responsibility for about 500 children a year in the north central region of Edmonton to the non-profit Family Centre.

Since then, Family Centre staff have been able to keep 65 per cent of the children in their own homes by providing support to make those homes safe, an average that is 25 per cent better than the province’s.

They’ve been able to do that without any serious incidents of harm to the child still staying their parent since they started.

They’ve also placed significantly more children with extended family. That means fewer children unnecessarily traumatized by moving in with strangers, which has been shown to increase emotional, behavioural and educational problems.

Laura counts herself fortunate to live in north-central Edmonton.

A year ago, she reported her daughter-in-law’s crystal meth addiction to social services. Her eight-year-old grand-daughter McKayla looked miserable, was missing school, and Laura suspected her mother Julianna was taking her to late night drinking parties.

But still, dialing the number, Laura said, “was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do.” She didn’t know if she could convince a social worker to let McKayla stay with her, and “when they’re upset and they’re scared, you want them to come to you, not to someone they don’t know.”

Her name and her family’s names have been changed in this article because provincial law prohibits identifying a child in contact with Child and Family Services.

Sitting on her old couch last week, her eyes tear up when she describes that day. But so much good has come out of it, she said. McKayla is now healthy and staying with her dad, Mark.

The family credits the Family Centre’s approach for the fact McKayla also gets to see her mom every day. Throughout the crisis, support worker LaBelle got the whole family together every month to discuss Julianna’s progress fighting addictions and what would be best for McKayla. Together, the family decided McKayla should stay with Mark and LaBelle organized a pizza party to celebrate their progress.

Now Julianna comes over to Laura’s house to help when Mark drops McKayla off before school, then often joins Mark at his house to help with bedtime.

McKayla’s provincial file closed in January, but she still gets free counselling through the Family Centre to work through lingering anger at both of her parents.

Under the old system, as soon as the province closed the case, families would have to find help on their own.

“We’re seeing some really positive changes,” said Russ Pickford, regional director for Child and Family Services, which is committed to downloading more of its files in what the province calls outcome-based service delivery.

Their case workers maintain legal responsibility for the child, but rather than that case worker sign contracts with multiple agencies for parenting classes, therapy, foster care and other support, the Family Centre takes all responsibility for care, and organizes it from one office.

“It gives us the capacity to act immediately,” says Pauline Smale, a vice-president at the Family Centre.

The provincial case worker still has the difficult job of taking a child from their parents when necessary, added LaBelle. But because the Family Centre is involved immediately for every family in their region, a support worker like LaBelle gets to the parent’s house within an hour to start talking about what the problem was and how it can be solved.

They’ve also been able to set up a new kind of group home where parents can visit daily, when feasible, to comfort and learn to properly care for their children. In a couple cases, parents have been able to visit their child, reassure them and tuck the child into bed the very same day they were apprehended, said LaBelle.

“It really lessens the trauma on the child and the parent.”

Elise Stolte
28 April 2012






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