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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The child welfare bargain

On any given day, children are brought into the care of child protection authorities. The basis of most such cases surrounds the inability of the parent to provide appropriate care for the chid. The reasons can be complex but the "state" determines that removal is necessary. In doing so, however, the "state" enters in a bargain with the child - we, "the state" can do better. This bargain is at the heart of every removal so why do we talk about it so infrequently.

We live up to the bargain many times but there are far too many times when we do not. So what goes into the bargain:

1. We will provide a safe place to live - this is true most of the time but we know there are exceptions -- cases where the children are abused in alternative care; where conditions are deficient or, on occasion, dangerous.

2. Your life will be more stable - we fail in cases where we cannot offer a child a stable place to live over time. The bargain isn't just stability this week but as long as the child will be in the care of the state.

3. You will be cared for - but how does an alternate caregiver who cannot be sure that the child will be with them over the long term provide the kind of care that is found in love and meaning? It is in the day to day rhythm of the family that a child finds these moments - the hug; the desire to take the child along to events; the holiday and special family days. Alternate caregiver try hard in these areas but if the child is not a permanent part of the family, these efforts, no matter how well meaning, lack depth.

4. We will give you a good education - this is more than just access to a school. If there is instability in placement, then there will often be instability in schooling. I recall one foster youth saying that she did not really bother making friends at school because she knew she wouldn't be there very long.

5. We will help you get on life - this means being able to finish high school but also the transition to adulthood. A child in care faces aging out when they are no longer part of the child welfare system. This means that placements come to an end. This is crucial in an era when more and more youth are taking longer and longer to leave home. Many who do leave find themselves coming back home for periods. It is taking longer to build firm roots in adulthood. Who does the foster child come back to?

6. We will look after your needs - a traumatized child coming into care requires long term mental health supports. Can the child count on that?

7. We will try to get you home to your family - But has the family changed in a way that the chid can count on being able to stay there? Or will the child become part of a revolving door where they will go in and out of care? In other words, will the family truly be offered the supports it needs to have the child back? Will those supports last long enough for change to become engrained in family life?

8. While in care, you will be allowed to be who you are - this would mean placing a child of colour or an Aboriginal child in a home where they will feel culturally connected and not the odd one out.

9. You will be allowed to disagree with the decision - and this will be done in a way that will not patronize you.

10. Your voice will matter enough that it will be heard often by social workers who will spend time with you on a regular basis.

There are no doubt more points but I think the essential message is there - if we truly intend to live up to the bargain then we must invest in creating a world for the child that is truly better while also trying to allow the child to be connected to family. It's a big deal!

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