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Changes made to New Brunswick child welfare bill after expert recommendations

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Changes made to New Brunswick child welfare bill
WATCH: Following the recommendations of several child welfare experts, New Brunswick MLAs made several changes to a major piece of child welfare legislation, passing eight amendments to make various improvements to the bill. Silas Brown reports. – Jun 10, 2022

Following the recommendations of several child welfare experts, New Brunswick MLAs made several changes to a major piece of child welfare legislation.

Over two days of hearings, child and youth advocate Kelly Lamrock, along with Fredericton based child welfare organization Partners for Youth and the head of the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers all advocated for the inclusion of a definition of child’s rights in the bill, among other improvements.

“This is a truly important piece of legislation that is a great improvement over the 40-year-old Family Services Act,” said Geraldine Baiani, president of the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers.

“Recognizing the improvement that it is, we truly hope that the legislation will be adopted either with a new preamble or amendments to add the rights.”

And legislators did just that, passing eight amendments to make various improvements to the bill recommended by experts.

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“I think the results of the last couple of days will be positive, will be positive in the field. We’re not naïve [and thinking] that the work is all done, the work is really just beginning,” said social development minister Bruce Fitch.

Read more: N.B. child and youth advocate urges MLAs to define child’s right in landmark welfare bill

The amendments added the right of children to access education, health care and to be consulted and heard when it comes to decisions being made about their placement. Other changes will require the tracking of educational achievement, post-secondary attendance and adverse events, such as involvement with the criminal justice system.

A passage similar to Jordan’s principle — the requirement that Indigenous youth get access to timely services — was also added.

The amended bill was passed by the committee on economic policy unanimously and will receive third reading and royal assent on Friday.

The Child and Youth Well-Being Act was initially tabled on May 18 and was hailed as a landmark overhaul of the province’s child welfare system. New powers are given to social workers through the legislation that allow them to act preventatively to intervene if they believe a child to be at risk. The government billed the new law as child-centred, and noted that a mandatory five-year review of the act would ensure it stayed up to date.

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Two weeks after the bill was introduced, child and youth advocate Kelly Lamrock raised some concerns with the bill, calling it a good first draft, but pointed out several issues. One of which: that it failed to define what rights a child will have under the act.

The Liberals pushed to have the bill sent to the committee on law amendments to receive public feedback, but the government, intent to get the bill passed before the house rises for the summer, refused to budge.

All three parties of the legislature were able to come to an agreement to scrap the traditional format of the committee on economic policy to allow for witnesses to appear, with the Liberals forgoing their weekly allotted time to do with opposition business in order to make time for the hearings.

One of the witnesses was John Sharpe, executive director of Partners for Youth. Sharpe was complimentary of the legislation but echoed many of Lamrock’s concerns, saying the bill lacked clarity on the rights of children.

“This is really encouraging legislation and we’re about three quarters of the way there, so I’m not sure why we wouldn’t go the last half mile and finish the job,” Sharpe said.

“The opportunity is present to really make this a bill that not only we can be proud of but most importantly has the best positive impact on kids.”

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Read more: Expert testimony allowed for new N.B. child welfare legislation but debate will be limited

Along with the lack of a rights definition, Sharpe worried a part of the bill dealing with secure placements lacked appropriate definitions and protections. The act allows court orders to be made to keep youth in secure placements for up to six months at a time. He recommended that the section be scrapped and that the department of health be tasked with preparing the relevant protocols.

Green leader David Coon moved to have the section struck from the bill, but the amendment was defeated with Fitch arguing that without the section, major gaps would exist in the legislation and therefore the system.

While speaking to the committee, Baiani outlined how the proposed act will help social workers perform their jobs better. But she cautioned that without filling vacancies and making changes to the scope of work being done by social workers, the lofty goals laid out in the new legislation would be difficult to accomplish. She said social workers are already being stretched thin and recruitment and retention remains an issue.

“Social workers need the freedom to do their work in order to meet the needs of children and youth,” she said.

“But without providing the resources necessary it won’t be possible to have a truly reformed and enhanced child welfare system.”

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According to Baiani those resources include administrative staff to help social workers deal with the mountain of paper work required to do their jobs as well as “para-professionals” like social work technicians.

Read more: N.B. child welfare legislation a good ‘first draft’ but changes needed, says advocate

On Thursday, the committee also heard from two Indigenous-focused social work experts, who said that while they were consulted as the bill was being drafted, none of their suggestions made it into the final piece of legislation. Samantha Paul with Mi’gmaq Child and Family Services of New Brunswick said the proposed legislation doesn’t reflect the differences in Indigenous-based child welfare work.

“We are forced to work in a system that doesn’t recognize culture and identity,” Paul said. “We are still seen as baby snatchers.”

Michelle Sacobie, the director of Kingsclear Child and Family Services, said the primary goal when dealing with Indigenous kids is to try and keep them within the community.

Paul says the changes to the act are a great upgrade for for social workers working for the department of social development, but that First Nations-based social workers will have to work around it in order to keep children in their communities.

“We will do what we need to do,” she said.

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Click to play video: 'Expert testimony expected in New Brunswick child welfare bill debate'
Expert testimony expected in New Brunswick child welfare bill debate

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