With the release of a report detailing the experiences of over 200 youth or former youth in care, child and youth advocate Kelly Lamrock is renewing calls to ensure that a proposed piece of child welfare legislation is improved in several areas.
Through Their Eyes is a 250-page report on the child welfare system, focused on the experiences of those within it. The report makes over 20 recommendations, many of which are reflected in a landmark child protection bill currently before the legislature.
But according to Lamrock the Child and Youth Welfare Act fails to define a child’s rights under the act — a glaring omission in his opinion, prompting a direct appeal to legislators.
“Do not pass this bill and leave it for another five years without these rights,” Lamrock said.
“If we are going to take children into care and say we are going to act as your parent there are some things we just have to do.”
The new legislation will replace the 40-year-old Family Services Act and according to government, will prioritize the rights of children over parents.
It also gives the department of social development sweeping powers to intervene if they believe a child to be at risk, clarifying what factors should be weighed when it comes to a child’s safety.
Other important updates stress the importance of cultural and spiritual ties when placing children, and a mandatory review of the law every five years to ensure it remains up to date.
Similar legislation in both Ontario and Prince Edward Island include lengthy passages defining a child’s rights, taking much inspiration from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child.
The declaration sets out a child’s right to education, protection, security and the necessities of life, among other things. Lamrock would like that to form the basis of the definition of children’s rights included in the Child and Youth Welfare Act.
While the act says that a child must be informed of their rights under the act, Lamrock says the act fails to set those out — something he calls a “significant drafting error.”
But Social Development Minister Bruce Fitch says the province believes that the act includes many rights already and says more can be added through regulation once the bill is passed.
“I feel strongly that the rights of the children are protected in the bill as it is,” Fitch said.
“It may not be a bill of rights like some people would like to see but within it is the right to privacy, the right to be heard, the right to be protected. The list is extensive.”
While defending the bill before the committee on economic policy, Fitch listed several sections of the bill that he says outline various rights for children. But many of those sections include the words “may” or “make substantial effort,” which fall short of the standard Lamrock wants to see in the final law.
“A lot of the language in this act is permissive. ‘Oh well you can do that.’ Then it becomes if the social worker has time resources and energy. It shouldn’t be that, someone should be accountable on the rights, on the musts,” he said.
Lamrock has been complimentary of the legislation, which he says is “better than the status quo,” but has maintained that it needs a significant amount of work in order to live up to its lofty goals.
Along with the omission of rights, Lamrock wants to see it easier for youth in care to attend post-secondary school. He has also suggested annual reporting on the outcomes of youth in care, noting that the department does not currently track educational achievement, post-secondary attendance or involvement with the criminal justice system.
“We need to say here are the things children deserve when we act as their parent and we need to measure to make damn sure they have them,” Lamrock said.
During a meeting of the economic policy committee Wednesday night, Liberal Leader Roger Melanson proposed several amendments to the bill that would accomplish much of what Lamrock has advocated for.
The amendments would define a child’s rights under that act as those laid out in the UN declaration and require that a child be consulted when they are being placed. A vote on the amendments will happen Thursday.
The bill is the final piece of legislation that has yet to clear the committee stage and government is intent to get it passed before the house rises for the summer on Friday.
All three parties of the legislature have cooperated in order to call witnesses to speak on the bill on Thursday. Lamrock appeared before the committee on Wednesday to give his thoughts on the bill.
It’s expected the bill will clear committee Thursday night, before receiving third reading and royal assent on Friday.