Quebec’s child welfare system is badly in need of repair
Shortages in resources for foster families lead to frequent relocations of foster children
July 6, 2021, 3:42 pm ADTLast Updated: July 6, 2021, 3:47 pm
Editor's Note: This story was written and reported by Marianne Lassonde as her professional project in the King's MJ program.
By the time he was 12, Jonatan Carette had lived in 23 different foster homes in three major Quebec cities. He spent between three months and two years in each one.
“You start getting attached to people, you get along really well, they have a positive influence on you, they help turn your life around and suddenly, poof, you’re relocated,” he said.
“It’s incredibly frustrating.”
In 2003, during Carette’s first year in foster care and at only three years old, he was one of 2,976 children in Quebec’s child welfare system, and that number is considered by some to grossly underestimate the true count.
“When I was younger, I always hoped I would go back home to my mom; I thought maybe it would work out,” Carette said. “But, one day, the social workers pulled me aside and told me I was not going back.”
Placed because of his alcoholic mother and an absent father, he was considered a “life project” and stayed in foster care until he was 18. He believes his hyperactivity and anger-management problems played an important role in his inability to find stability in foster care.
“I was placed because my mom had an alcohol problem, but I was transferred because I had violent outbursts,” Carette said. “I was not really helping my cause”
Carette was far from alone. A 2015 paper by Tonino Esposito, a researcher at the Université de Montréal, found that one in three children between 10 and 17 experienced multiple relocations after their initial placement in foster care.
Children who have been removed from abusive or traumatic family situations are vulnerable and in need of stability. An investigation by The Signal has found an underfunded child protection program, and one of the consequences is multiple relocations of those in care.
Without adequate funds and resources for child welfare services, regional youth centres are unable to provide consistent training for new and existing foster families, leaving many to their own devices. The centres are responsible for placement of foster children and helping the families with whom they live.
Without trauma-informed care intervention in their toolkit–a method that helps children process thoughts and feelings related to traumatic events–foster families must rely on trained professionals to accompany them throughout the placement of the child.
But child protection workers quit frequently. In an interview with Radio-Canada, Nicole Cliche, the president of the healthcare and social workers’ union in the Quebec City area, said more than 100 left the field in 2020. Workers are criticized often, and are at high risk of burnout, and this has left youth centres without the ability to help children and families. The crisis exploded into public view when a seven-year-old girl died in disturbing circumstances in Granby in April 2019. The girl’s father and stepmother were charged and the case is still before the courts.
The girl’s death was met with a provincial outcry to hold youth centres and the Ministry of Health and Social Services accountable. A provincial commission was appointed to investigate.
Child protection workers: overworked and overlooked
In early February of this year, two employees of a Montreal youth centre died by suicide only a few days apart. The incident communicated to many that social workers are overworked.
One reason is “compassion fatigue,” meaning emotional and physical exhaustion affecting social workers’ ability to empathize with others. A 2014 study by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast, in Northern Ireland, said that child protection workers expressed “distress levels greater than those reported by typical outpatient mental health clients.” They were also vulnerable to burnout due to “poor working conditions, excessive paperwork, long working hours, little opportunity for advancement and ineffective bureaucratic structures.”
According to Régine Laurent, who heads the commission created after the Granby tragedy, part of the existing ineffectiveness stems from a lack of funding from the Ministry of Health and Social Services.
The provincial government has already put some new money into the system.
Sixty-five million dollars was distributed among the 16 regional youth agencies across Quebec. According to a press release, $47 million went towards eliminating wait times and $18 million was for clinical training for new and veteran child protection workers.
The money also allowed for a hiring blitz of social workers. In the Eastern Townships, a region southeast of Montreal, there were 52 new job openings created to analyze the 896 reports of mistreatment still unopened, said Lionel Carmant, the junior minister of health and social services, in an interview with Radio-Canada.
While the money was welcome, according to Julie Lemaire, a former child protection worker in Ontario and and current planning agent and researcher for out-of-home care in Quebec, the new workers ended up shortening waiting lists by closing files.
“On paper, it looks good when there are no waiting lists, but what did we do to make them disappear?”
Files can be closed for various reasons, including not enough evidence being provided by complainants or found during investigations, a lack of physical evidence of abuse when it might be psychological in nature or workers simply not having the tools or training to gather evidence.
According to the 2020 summary report from the directors of youth protection, who are responsible for enforcing the Youth Protection Act across all regions of Quebec and run the reiognal youth centres, 63 per cent of reports filed province-wide did not have formal interventions, meaning the report did not move beyond the evaluation stage.
“I truly believed in the strength of the system 15 years ago, but I am starting to lose confidence,” said Lemaire.
The Ministry of Health and Social Services said in an email that institutions offering youth protection services will be given a further $14 million in funding up to 2022, above and beyond the $65 million previously announced.
Myriam Briand, director of youth protection in the Laurentian region, north of Montreal, sees an issue beyond funding, and that is the stigma child protection workers feel because of negative news coverage. She said recent coverage has meant more child protection workers leave the field because they feel underappreciated.
“Whenever people talk about us, it is to report on a bad situation, so the attractive side of social work loses its momentum,” she said.
Briand said the shortage in child protection workers has been a consistent issue in Quebec and, as a result, it takes longer to remove children from dangerous situations as well as provide adequate follow-up care for children in foster homes.
“Even if you give me a million dollars, I won’t be able to recruit professionals to respond to the demands.”
In 2019, the APTS, a union that represents 60,000 employees in the health and social services sector in Quebec, discussed working conditions, salaries and the workload of youth protection workers, with social services ministry officials. The union wanted a 12.4 per cent salary increase over three years, continuous clinical training for youth protection workers and increases in the number of full-time employees. If granted, the demands could help increase the appeal of social work and youth protection work, it said.
After two years and little progress, APTS took to the streets in protest. On May 10, members approved a strike mandate. Members of the union officially began striking on June 7 and will continue throughout the rest of the summer.
In the meantime, the shortage of child protection workers remains a huge problem for a system treating people in desperate need of stability. During his time as a foster child, Carette said he had about 13 social workers, a new social worker on average every eight months.
Without the necessary staff, child protection workers are limited to monthly home visits and check-ins with foster families, despite initial promises of accompanying new foster families throughout their journey.
Wanting to help is not enough
Briand said persuading potential foster parents to take off their rose-coloured glasses, and discouraging some well-intentioned applicants altogether, is necessary in recruiting foster families, especially following the provincial surge in interest after the death of the girl in Granby.
“These dramatic events make the general population very empathetic towards children,” said Briand. “We got more applications but not necessarily more qualified people.”
In Lanaudière, a region east of Montreal and north of the St. Lawrence River, the incident made for a 49 per cent increase in applications between 2018 and 2019, from 81 applicants to 121. Between 2019 and 2021, the Eastern Townships received 415 applications to foster.
“A lot of people want to help,” said Briand. “But when we start telling them what it is like to be a foster family, it tarnishes their vision.”
A key part of the multi-step process is information sessions, which outline the common problems and traumas of children, the type of resources available and where there exists a dire need for foster families.
In Laval, attendance doubled in 2019, but while 169 people attended the session, only 31 moved to the evaluation phase.
While these sessions do a good job in explaining the types of children in need of foster homes, Alfredo Armanta, who attended a session in the Eastern Townships in November 2020, said the information felt sparse.
“What is reassuring is that they communicated that they would accompany us throughout the whole process,” he said.
“I have experience being a dad, but there are situations where I don’t know how to react.”
Regardless of the promised help, a lot of people lose interest following the information sessions. According to Briand, more than half of participants in the Laurentian region do not proceed to filling out applications. Others, gradually lose interest over the course of the lengthy application process.
The Foster Family Reference Manual, says applicants are required to provide a criminal record check, proof of income, medical reports and a dozen non-familial references per parent.
In normal times, this phase can be relatively short and qualified applicants can find themselves fostering within months. With the first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020 and the backlog of applications, the process lengthened.
Armanta said he filed his application in December 2020 and, two months later, he had not received any news about moving forward.
“They are telling us that they need foster families but we received a message saying they were overwhelmed. It’s almost inconsistent.”
Instead of recruiting new foster families, regional youth centres chose to focus on solving retention problems among existing families. Most notably, some regions have had to temporarily remove foster families from their lists because they were considered immunocompromised.
“It could take three months or it could take six months. We just don’t know…” added Armanta. “It makes me worried because, while we wait, what is happening to the child being removed from their home?”
Currently, children are relocated to temporary urgent foster homes or placed in youth centres or regular foster families.
The next step, evaluation
Should the applicant’s files move forward and be approved, the evaluation period begins.
According to the reference manual, at this stage child protection workers conduct a home evaluation as well as a nine-hour psychological evaluation, both of which have been heavily criticized by three of the foster families that spoke to The Signal.
Most of this criticism is linked to the home evaluation, particularly the belief by some that less importance should be placed on the layout of the house. Some of the key characteristics of a safe home include at an least 80 square-foot room on the same floor as the parents, fences around the house and a window big enough for an emergency exit in case of a fire, according to the foster family reference manual.
While Briand argued these requirements should not be overlooked, Lise Bolduc, a foster parent for 30 years in Abitibi-Temiscamingue, a region located in northwestern Québec along the border with Ontario, argued the psychological evaluation should carry more weight.
“It’s scary when you think of the kids that are not being fed, the ones that are beaten… But because there is a window that is too small in their bedroom, (the applicants) are refused,” she said.
For her, the willingness to foster carries a lot more weight than the layout of a home.
According to recruitment manuals given during the information sessions there is also a preference of one child per room, though it is not mandatory. This stems from the idea that children in foster care are entitled to their privacy and to avoid victims of sexual abuse from themselves abusing another child. Studies have shown that children who were victims of sexual offences may repeat the behaviour later either because they believe that it is a legitimate way to show affection, or out of frustration.
That didn’t happen to Carette and, for him, sharing a room with another child was a source of comfort.
“When I was younger, I was scared of the dark; I did not want to sleep alone,” he said. “Being with another kid in the room made me feel safe. The monsters didn’t exist.”
The Signal asked regional youth centres across Quebec for figures on numbers of foster family applications and rejections. Ten provided information and, among those, there was an average of 123 applications and 22 rejections between 2019 and 2020. Most notably the Gaspé had 35 applications in 2019 and 106 and in 2020. However, Montérégie, on the outskirts of Montreal, had 344 applications in 2019 and 251 in 2020. Of the youth centres who provided their statistics to The Signal, Lanaudière had the largest number of of rejections in 2019 with 121 applications and 47 rejections.
Average number of applications and rejections between 2019 and 2021 by Marianne Lassonde
According to Carole Brissette, who is with child protection services in the Outaouais, across the Ottawa River from Ottawa, some applicants are accepted regardless of the layout of their homes and given time to correct deficiencies.
But these exceptions are rare and require an exemplary application, including a scuff-free psychological evaluation. This means people with a history of a mental illness, such as depression, have a lower chance of being approved. Such was the case with Luc Vigneault of Quebec City, whose application was denied because of a history with depression and back pain.
The psychological evaluation includes a three-hour interview between a child protection worker and each of the family members, including the biological children. This process includes questions regarding childhood trauma, and happy memories, as well as the sexual life of a couple.
Generally, interviews help with the pairing process as well as gauge whether a family is emotionally and mentally stable enough to handle the trauma of the children being placed.
For Bolduc, however, there is simply too much paperwork. To her, an application process should be a lot more hands-on with a gradual exposure to the life of a foster family.
“Until you have been (a foster family), you cannot know if you actually can do it,” said Bolduc. “Before you ask a family to (change a window), look at how the child would fit with the family.”
But, without a proper understanding of trauma and how it manifests itself, finding a family that “fits” with a child can be incredibly difficult, and a frustrating journey for the children who do not understand what is going on, said Delphine Collin-Vézina, associate professor at McGill University and director of the Centre for Research on Children.
An improvised toolkit
In children, frustration manifests itself in many ways, including self-blame.
In a 2011 paper published in the journal Child Welfare, Lisa Conradi, a clinical psychologist at the Chadwick Center for Children and Families at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, said feelings of blame and a sense of rejection can be linked to disrupted or frequent relocation in placements and can lead children to manifest their trauma externally. In brief: a child is explosive, they are removed from a family, they blame themselves and explode again. It is a vicious cycle.
For Carette that meant drug use, alcohol consumption, the tendency to run away from home and frequent violent outbursts.
One of these outbursts happened when Carette was eight years old.
Now laughing at how much of “a little shit” he was, Carette said the incident appears to him in distinct flashes. He remembers spitting in his foster parent’s face and throwing a yellow Tonka truck at a window, shattering the glass.
“It got so intense that the family had to bring everyone outside while I stayed inside,” he said. “I had time to break a couple of plates. I think I even broke the leg of a table.”
For families with little or no training in dealing with violent episodes, these situations can be incredibly frightening and can leave a lot of families feeling overwhelmed, especially with the shortage of social workers.
When asked about the support she received over the years, Bolduc laughed at the idea.
“My God, what help? It was mostly just me and my husband. All we have are classes and that is it,” she said.
These classes are based on the AIDES program, a U.K. model of care implemented in Ontario and Quebec. Offered over the course of five days and under a volunteer-based model, AIDES acts as a collaboration between child protection workers, foster parents and the children to determine the needs of a child and how they might communicate these needs.
Through this program came the development of the “scale of difficulty” of the child. It reduces physical manifestations of trauma, such as outbursts, trust issues and poor hygiene, to a number between one and six and is defined by the overall behavioural and developmental issues expressed by a child.
These rankings are highly dependent on the social worker’s perception of the child, which poses a problem when their visits are infrequent and there is a large turnover in social workers.
“(Child Protection workers) are not there at night when we are woken up to the children peeing in the living room from the mezzanine,” said Bolduc. “They don’t know (these behaviours); they’re not living them.”
In theory, a foster family with a level six child would receive more support than a level one but that is highly dependent on an open communication between the social worker and the foster parent.
Roxanne Leblanc-Savoie, head of service for intermediary and familial resources in Lanaudière, said that since the unionization of foster families, the services available to foster family have actually been reduced. She said this is because youth centres can no longer enforce training sessions or more frequent visits from child protection workers if the family does not want these services.
Today, child protection workers check in on foster families approximately once a month. During their visits, they look at behavioural issues as well as make sure the child is developing proper coping mechanisms – which can result in moving upwards or downwards on the scale of difficulty.
If a child’s ranking decreases once interventions prove successful, the family loses part of its monetary compensation. To Bolduc, it almost discourages improvement.
Over the years, the scale has come to mean an increase or decrease in available funds for foster families to compensate for their intervention and rehabilitation. According to the collective agreement for foster families, the lowest salary is $2,280 per month and the highest is $3,390.
According to Collin-Vézina, the sole purpose of the scale is to offer a better initial placement in foster families. A level six child would not be placed with a new foster family. However, the ranking offers little or no clinical lens to the difficulty of the child.
Parents only see a number and they change their parenting style to what they believe could help the child. This may include teaching the child basic hygiene.
But when they are presented with a child who is urinating in all four corners of the home, the parents’ first reaction is usually confrontational.
“Foster families, in a day-to-day context and without the help from practitioners, they just see the misbehaviours,” said Collin-Vézina. “After trying their parenting styles and to no avail, eventually it becomes too much and they disengage.”
Without a clinical understanding of these behaviours, families feel hopeless. So, they ask for a formal relocation of the child.
Turning over a new leaf
While there has not been a direct study of the impact of foster care and relocations on children, a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Political Ethics by Joseph Doyle, research associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggested children in foster care have “two to three times higher arrest, conviction, and imprisonment rates” during their adult life. These children go their entire childhoods without resolving their traumas, do not develop healthy coping mechanisms and are at risk of repeating violent behaviours.
But without clear transparency from child protection services, experts cannot know if these behaviours are caused by a lack of intervention in foster care or if the child already expressed these behaviours during their placement.
Carette believes his placement touched on both of these aspects.
When he was young, Carette was exposed to intoxication and a mother who self-identified as a “bad parent.” During one of his last conversations with his mother, she told him he had violent outbursts as a toddler and was incredibly difficult, especially for a mother with her own issues.
“My mother decided that, instead of being a bad mom or something, it would be better for the both of us if she put me in foster care.”
While in foster care, Carette was exposed to traumatized and confrontational children, who egged him on and encouraged him to drink and skip school.
“I was never a delinquent as a kid, but children are very impressionable and the more I hung out with troublemakers, the more I became one.”
He grew to resent many of his foster families, some of whom he said spent more time listing where he went wrong than figuring out why he had these explosive tendencies.
“You would often have people who are highly invested, but I also found that some people would be two-faced,” said Carette. “They would turn on the charm when the social workers were there but as soon as their backs were turned, they would yell at us.”
Others would recruit the help of youth centres to help deal with outbursts, some of which offer temporary placement for children between 6 and 17. In 2019, 250 children visited the Eastern Townships’ l’Alcalmie-Halte, a crisis intervention centre in Val-Du-Lac. It functions like a rehabilitation centre and mental health facility for the children and a social worker works with the children to understand the source of their outbursts.
This approach is one of many examples of trauma-based intervention, a model of care that needs to be developed inside foster homes, said Collin-Vézina.
After the Granby tragedy, the Quebec government established the Special Commission on the Rights of the Child and Youth Protection, popularly known as Laurent Commission. It published its first findings in 2019, outlining problems within the provincial system. It provided the Ministry of Health and Social Services with five immediate recommendations to oversee sweeping provincial changes. On May 3, 2021, commissioner Régine Laurent presented the final 550 page report, further outlining the shortcomings of youth protection in Quebec.
Among the issues identified were overworked social workers unable to meet growing demands and the rarity of long-term foster placement. The Youth Protection Act says that if a child is removed from their biological home, youth centres must ensure they are placed in permanent homes. However, the Laurent Commission said the wording does not define permanency, one reason, it said, why a child jumps from one home to the next. As well, it is hard to place a child for the long term if families don’t have the tools to understand the child’s needs. This is why the report suggests youth centres need to establish a better relationship with their foster families. Part of the suggested changes include Collin-Vézina’s Attachment, Self-Regulation and Competency model, a trauma informed intervention training program for foster families.
Developed in 2014 alongside a team of social workers, the program is offered in Lanaudière, Montreal and Mauricie-et-du-Centre-du-Québec, and provides a systemic approach to infuse trauma-informed principles into child welfare work. In a 12-week program, families are provided with the necessary tools to recognize trauma-informed behaviours, recognize triggers and to react appropriately.
“The main objective is to really support foster parents so that they can re-engage with the child so that they feel more equipped and less overwhelmed,” said Collin-Vézina.
Families who took the program said they experienced fewer difficulties when engaging with a foster child and in turn were less likely to end a placement, leading to fewer relocations.
Without these relocations, children can develop a stronger bond with their foster families leading to less distress in later years, particularly related to abandonment and attachment issues.
“(Not having long-lasting relationships) was one of the hardest things about relocating. I didn’t really have any long-term friendships,” said Carette.
Currently, the new training program is interest-based and the cost is covered by the youth centres but Collin-Vézina hopes the Laurent Commission’s fight for increased funding will allow for the development of more foster-care resources.
Another recommendation from the Laurent Commission was for a yearly investment of $200,000 per non-profit community organization to help accompany families in need. This would help prevent neglect at the core and would reduce the number of reports and children removed from their homes. The commission also recommended general increases in funding to make trauma-based models, such as the ARC model, accessible throughout Quebec.
In the meantime, foster parents must show a willingness to attend the available training sessions, child care workers say.
“We offer continuous training sessions for foster families. It could be relating to attachment problems or sexual education,” said Simon Boisvert, resource coordinator for foster families in the Appalachian region, south of Quebec City.
Not only would this training help alleviate the pressures of overwhelmed foster families, but it could also mean more long-term placements of children, allowing them to form positive relationships with the other children.
In an email the Ministry of Health and Social Service said training is organized by each region’s child protection service and highly dependent on existing interest from foster families.
For Carette, his best experience in foster care happened between the ages of 12 to 15, with his last foster family. With them, Carette learned to control his anger by refocusing his energy into something he loved.
During supper, his foster family would take the time to point out Carette’s successes and encourage him to list one positive thing about his day. The older children would encourage him to pick up hobbies such as playing hockey, playing guitar or window shopping in music stores to empty his mind.
“They saw I was throwing my life away and they helped me turn it around,” he said.
These seemingly small things meant the world to someone who has never experienced them, even if they came to a halt in 2015, when he was relocated to the youth centre in Val-du-Lac.
Today, Carette has applied these lessons to his daily life. Whenever he feels like he is about to blow up, he hops on his motorcycle.
Taking the highway and back roads, he drives, sometimes a little too fast, until his head is clear and he feels himself let go of the anger and the sadness.
“I know I have huge abandonment issues and attachment issues,” admitted Carette. “I had to learn to expect less from people.”