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 how many, nor do we know how well they are doing.

Why?  Canada does not keep reliable national statistics on kids 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 know what to do — how to improve outcomes for Canadian kids — if we are not keeping track of what is going on. Some analysts say child welfare systems suffer from underfunding, staffing cuts and not enough foster families or resources to support them.  But policy makers have a hard time deciding what to fund without statistics to measure possible outcomes.  Also, reliable numbers can help provinces compare best practices for child welfare.

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

Here’s what we do know:

Back 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 peoples, 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.

More recent provincial data tell us that Canada has one of the highest rates of kids in care in the world.

Let’s take Manitoba, which has reliable statistics on the issue. In 2014, Manitoba Family Services reported more than 10,000 children in care.  And here’s a fact that should alarm every Canadian: by the age of seven years, 7.5 percent of all Manitoba children have been placed in care at some point in their lives.

When compared to other countries, Manitoba’s data become even more startling:  Manitoba’s rate of out-of-home care for children under 11 years of age was 10 times higher than that of Western Australia.  Our rates of care for children during the first year of their lives are higher than Sweden, Western Australia, England, New Zealand, and the U.S.

Manitoba is not alone. Though we can’t do province to province direct comparisons because the data measure different things, the total numbers of children are still alarming.  In 2013, Association des Centres Jeunesse de Quebec reported 11,250 children in kinship care, foster care and group careIn 2012, the Saskatchewan government reported 6,738 children in out-of-home care.

We also know that not all Canadian children are equally likely to be placed in care.  The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada estimates that Indigenous children comprise 30-40 percent of kids in care even though aboriginal population is less than five percent of the total population of Canada.

So why does Canada have so many kids in care?

The answer largely lies in the approach.  Canada (as well as the U.S.) favours 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.  But with so many kids in care, securing quality out-of-home care is a challenge across Canada.

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.  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.

It’s time we took a dramatic new approach to kids in care and overhauled our system to focus on preventing rather than reacting to child maltreatment.

It’s time we had some federal leadership on a national strategy to make sure some of our most vulnerable citizens are not left by the wayside, but instead treated as valued and respected members of our communities.

There’s no greater folly as a nation than wasting the potential of our children.  Or worse, putting them at risk.

Marni Brownell
Marni Brownell an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, a Senior Research Scientist with the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy (MCHP) and Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba.

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