What happens to kids who authorities determine can’t live safely with their own parents or caregivers?

Thousands of Canadian children are in this situation right now. Many go into foster homes, while others go into other types of out-of-home care on behalf of child welfare agencies.  But we don’t know exactly how many, nor do we know how well they are doing.

Canada does not keep reliable national statistics on kids in care, instead relying on provincial reporting.  But each province has its own child welfare policy and its own definition of children in care, which may not include other types of out-of-home care, such as care from family relatives (kinship care) or group homes.

This matters, because it is difficult to create good policy if we are not keeping track of what is going on. Policy makers often decide what to fund based on statistical outcomes.  Also, reliable numbers can help provinces compare best practices for child welfare.

Instead, the story of Canadian children in care is a patchwork of data and news headlines reporting foster care crises where some children have died while receiving child services.

Some analysts say child welfare systems suffer from underfunding, staffing cuts and not enough foster families or resources to support them.  Other analysts question why Canada is placing so many children in care to begin with, pointing to other countries where rates are much lower.

Large numbers of kids in care make quality foster placements unsustainable.  Many are wondering if child welfare resources are better spent addressing risks that lead to child maltreatment—thereby helping children stay safe in their own homes.

Too Many Kids in Care

In 2011, the National Household Survey counted approximately 30,000 foster kids in Canada.  This figure is based on a single-day count that does not include children in other types of out-of-home care, such as group care.  Also, statisticians caution that this survey is voluntary, which often results in less accurate data from low-responding groups such as Indigenous groups, new immigrants and low-income families.

In 2007, the Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal reviewed provincial annual reports and counted over 65,000 Canadian children in care on a single day.

In 2001, 1.1 percent of Canadian children were in care.  Compare that to 0.07 percent in Germany (in 2004), 0.17 percent in Japan (in 2005), 0.55 percent in England (in 2005), 0.66 percent in the United States (in 2005), and 1.2 percent in France (in 2003).1

A 2012 study in the medical journal, The Lancet observed that Manitoba’s rate of kids in care is among the highest in the world.

The Lancet study relies heavily on data from Manitoba.  Some of these figures have since been updated, but not improved:

When compared to other countries, the figures become even more startling:

While Manitoba is on the upper end of Canadian children in care rates, it is not alone.  However, it is difficult to compare provinces because statistics are limited outside of Manitoba:

Too Many Indigenous Kids in Care

Not all Canadian children are equally likely to be placed in care.

The National Household Survey 2011 data approximates that nearly half of the foster children under age 14 in Canada are Indigenous.  The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada estimates that Indigenous children comprise 30-40 percent of kids in care.

The over-representation of Indigenous children occurs at every phase of child welfare intervention from reports, investigation, substantiation, entry into care and placement in permanent child welfare care.4

Manitoba’s numbers also show disproportionate representation of Indigenous children in out-of-home care.  Indigenous children make up about 26 percent of the provincial child population, yet in 2014, Manitoba Family Services reported that nearly 90 percent of 10,000 kids in care were either First Nation, Metis or Inuit.  And a new report from MCHP demonstrates that over one out of every five First Nations children in Manitoba spends some time in care before their 15th birthday.

Some Indigenous communities have higher risk factors for child maltreatment.  These factors include:

  • poverty
  • lone parenthood
  • parental addictions
  • domestic violence
  • poor housing
  • parental mental health problems

These factors can make it difficult for parents to give their children the attention they need.5  The higher incidence of these factors is attributed to the legacy of residential schools and the historical context of colonization and cultural devaluation.

This sad legacy is fuelling calls to carefully examine whether Canada’s child welfare policies are treating Indigenous families at risk differently from non-Indigenous families at risk.6

Some experts point out that with lower funding for child welfare on reserves, there is less money available for services that could support families and prevent the need to take children into care.7

Child welfare services are almost all under provincial and territorial jurisdiction except on reserves, where the federal department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) is responsible.  The Auditor General of Canada has twice reviewed INAC’s child and family service funding (in 2008 and 2011) and found inequities in both cases.

Other experts identify neglect due to chronic poverty as the primary reason why First Nations children are coming into care at disproportionate rates.  Neglect is distinct from abuse because it includes not having enough money for groceries.8

For example, consider a mother of three children who only has enough money to pay for rent or food, but not both. If the mother chooses to pay rent to keep a roof over her family’s heads, her children could be removed for reasons of neglect for not having enough nutritious food for her children. She also risks losing her children if she chooses to buy food, and she and her family end up losing their home for not paying rent.

Unexamined Policy

Canada and the U.S. favour a child safety approach to children’s welfare.  This means that if a welfare agency identifies a child at risk, he or she is removed from the home.  Child welfare agencies rely on foster homes and other types of placements to provide temporary, day-to-day care for children until the risks of abuse or neglect are resolved.

Australia and several European countries take more of a family welfare approach.  This means that when a child is at risk, the whole family is given intensive home support to try and remove risks while the child stays with the family.  For example, Sweden’s child and family well-being policy has made remarkable progress in reducing child poverty and family violence, which are two major risk factors for child welfare.

There is not a lot of research directly comparing these different policies and, therefore, it is difficult to say whether the child safety or family welfare approach is better.

No one knows whether removing at risk infants and children from homes will improve their future prospects or if that separation from family leads to subsequent problems for the child.  This means thousands of Canadian children are part of a policy that may or may not be effective.

Foster Children and School

One way to compare outcomes for children in care versus the general child population is through school outcomes.  The Manitoba Centre for Health Policy (MCHP) is the first Canadian organization to examine educational outcomes of kids in care at a population level.

Before the school bell even rings, children in care are more likely facing challenges which are associated with lower rates of school readiness, poorer performance in key subject areas and lower graduation rates.  These include:

MCHP’s findings in Manitoba show that problems at school begin early for children in care.  By kindergarten, twice as many children in care are considered “not ready” or vulnerable in one or more areas of child development compared with the general population.

Directly comparing education outcomes between children-in-care versus children in the general population can be misleading.  This is because children are often coming into care as a result of factors that make them more likely to have poor educational outcomes including poverty, chronic neglect, exposure to violence and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

As children get older, the gap in education outcomes between those in care and the general population widens.  For example, over 66 percent of kids who spend time in care do not graduate from high school within six or more years of entering.

Winnipeg University waives tuition for students who have gone through the care system.  As well, the Manitoba government offers funds for textbooks, room and board.  But with so few kids in care graduating from high school, analysts argue that children in care would benefit more from supports much earlier, even before they enter school.

Moving Forward in Manitoba

The Manitoba Centre for Health Policy’s (MCHP) new report includes recommendations that, according to media, have already prompted some new action from leaders in the province.

In June 2015, the Manitoba government launched a provincial task force in direct response to recommendations by the MCHP.  The task force will consult with education experts, teachers, social service providers and other interested parties to develop an action plan for both immediate and long-term steps to improve outcomes for children in care.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs recently created the Office of the First Nations Family Advocate to provide a stronger voice at the provincial level for Indigenous children in care.  This new position was filled in June 2015.

Further Reading

1 Thoburn J. Globalisation and child welfare: Some lessons from a cross-national study of children in out-of-home care. Vol. 228. School of Social Work and Psychosocial Studies, University of East Anglia, 2007.

2 Brownell MD, Jutte DP. “Administrative data linkage as a tool for child maltreatment research.” Child abuse & neglect 2013;37(2): 120-124.

3Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal. Manitoba statistics. 2011. http://www.cecw-cepb.ca/provinces-territories/manitoba?quicktabs_7=0#quicktabs-7. Accessed October 24, 2012.

4 Blackstock C. Residential schools: did they really close or just morph into child welfare? Indigenous Law Journal. 2007;6(1):71-78.; Trocmé N, MacLaurin B, Fallon B, Knoke D, Pitman, L., & McCormack, M. Mesnnmimk Wasatek: Catching a drop of light: Understanding the over-representation of First Nations children in Canada’s child welfare system: An analysis of the Canadian incidence study of reported child abuse and neglect (CIS-2003). Ottawa: First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, 2006.

5 Trocmé N, Knoke D, Blackstock C. “Pathways to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in Canada’s child welfare system.” Social Service Review 2004;78(4): 577-600.; Trocmé N, MacLaurin B, Fallon B, Knoke D, et al. “Differentiating between substantiated, suspected, and unsubstantiated maltreatment in Canada.” Child Maltreatment, 2009;14(1):4-16.

6 Blackstock C. After the apology: why are so many First Nations children still in foster care? Children Australia, 2009;34(1):22-31.

7 Blackstock C. “First Nations child and family services: Restoring peace and harmony in First Nations communities.” Child welfare: Connecting research policy and practice 2003;331-343; Blackstock C, et al. “Wen: de: We are coming to the light of day.” Ottawa: First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, 2005; Blackstock C,  Trocmé N. “Community-based child welfare for Aboriginal children: Supporting resilience through structural change.” Social Policy Journal of New Zealand 2005;24(12): 12-33; McDonald R, Ladd P. “Joint national policy review of First Nations child and family services joint national policy review.” Ottawa: Assembly of First Nations, 2000; McKenzie B. Block funding child maintenance in First Nations child and family services: A policy review, unpublished paper prepared for Montreal: Kahnawake Shakotiia*takenhas Community Services, 2002.

8 Trocmé N, MacLaurin B, Fallon B, et al. Understanding the overrepresentation of First Nations children in Canada’s child welfare system: An analysis of the Canadian incidence study of reported child abuse and neglect (CIS-2003), Toronto: Centre of Excellence for Child Welfare, 2005.