Editorial: Lawsuits highlight need to evaluate foster-care system

Two former foster children, Bre-Anne Buhler and Kael Svendsen, are suing the B.C. government, alleging their time as wards of the state led to lives of crime.

Svendsen claims he was placed with an alcoholic foster parent who gave him alcohol on numerous occasions. Although he was later removed from the home by the RCMP, Svendsen himself became an alcoholic, developed a drug addiction, and engaged in criminal activities. He is in jail, awaiting trial on several counts, including break and enter, and assault.

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Buhler alleges she did not receive trauma counselling after an episode she endured in care.

She also claims there was no plan in place to assist her when she turned 19, the point at which wards of the state become independent adults. She is also serving a prison sentence, for twice fleeing police in stolen vehicles while high on drugs. Both are suing the Ministry of Children and Family Development, as well as its director of child welfare, for unspecified damages plus compensation for loss of earnings.

While we cannot comment on the validity of these specific allegations, they raise fundamental questions about the obligations owed by government to children in care. Yet these questions have no simple answers.

Many children grow up in dysfunctional families and go on to successful lives. Equally, some kids are raised by loving parents and still lose their way.

Evidently no ministry of government can promise perfect outcomes, any more than caring parents can.

However, there is ample evidence that children from troubled families are more likely to encounter difficulties in adult life. They are less likely to complete their education, hold a permanent job, or find supportive spouses.

And kids who are taken into care tend to have such backgrounds. Many face formidable challenges.

All of which is to say that while the children’s ministry cannot guarantee success in every case, it must have policies to maximize that chance. And more than that, there must be robust compliance monitoring to ensure these policies are actually being followed.

So are appropriate policies and monitoring in place? The answers, respectively, are yes and yes, but with a qualification we’ll come to in a moment.

It is ministry policy that a social worker must meet and talk with each child in foster care every three months. The purpose is to ensure that the placement is working and the needs of the child are being met.

It is also ministry policy that plans for the future are developed while the child is in care, and these are revised every six months as the child approaches 19.

At that point, a transition plan must be in place to ensure a youth is aware of, and can access, the various supports that exist.

So yes, there are policies in place to routinely check up on foster homes, and help children in care prepare for independent living. But are these procedures being followed?

The ministry has an internal audit and compliance branch that examines performance in each region of the province. The results are published online.

What these audits show is that across the most important functions — gathering full information and determining whether additional protection measures are required — most regions have percentage compliance rates in the mid to high 90s.

In addition, the ministry’s activities are also monitored by B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth. This officer of the legislature is empowered to publish assessments of performance. There have been several such reports over the years.

However, here is the qualification. An in-house audit system, while necessary, can never escape the appearance that the ministry is auditing itself.

At the other end of the scale, relations with the children’s representative have been chequered at best. Inevitably, officers holding this role tend to become critical as their attention is drawn mainly to failures.

What’s really required is an external body that can offer evaluations based on nation-wide standards. In the health-care system, each hospital in the country is scrutinized every three years by Accreditation Canada. The process is non-confrontational and strictly fact-based.

We are not aware of any such agency in the child-care field, but it’s urgently needed.

The history of child services in B.C. is littered with allegations of inadequate performance. The only effective way of dealing with these complaints is by reference to an external body that has either given the ministry a satisfactory rating, or identified the need for improvements.

Failing some such mechanism, the lawsuits will continue.

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