New child protection law puts onus on families, communities

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

ANNETTE BOURGEOIS
Nunatsiaq News
IQALUIT Family members of children in abusive situations now have more say over their relatives’ lives.

The Child and Family Services Act, the bill passed in the legislative assembly last week which replaces the old Child and Welfare Act, gives more power to extended families of children in crisis.

“The bill places a strong emphasis on keeping children within the family and extended family,” Michael Miltenberger, the chair of the standing committee on social programs, told MLAs during debate on the bill.

“The current foster care rules limit the ability of the families to provide foster placements. The minister has agreed to revise the guidelines in support of extended family members who can provide a placement for a child.”

Three of four bills are now law

The new bill is one of four that overhaul family law in the Northwest Territories.

Earlier this year, Health and Social Services Minister Kelvin Ng tabled the bills Family Law Act, Children’s Law Act, Adoption Act and Child and Family Services Act in the legislative assembly.

Public meetings were held throughout the summer to discuss this legislation. Last week NWT Commissioner Helen Maksagak gave assent to all but the Adoption Act in the House.

The Child and Family Services Act reforms family law with respect to protection of children in the NWT. It gives a larger responsibility to the community for child safety and welfare for children in abusive situations.

“We are proposing a community process for dealing with children,” Ng told MLAs. “The process is designed to be timely, to keep families and communities involved in finding solutions and to allow people to resolve problems as much as possible outside the formal court process.

“It provides a means whereby parents can access support services that address difficulties affecting their ability to provide a safe, healthy and happy home for their children.”

One of the key components of this bill is a “plan of care” for children who’ve been taken out of their homes or whose living situations have been investigated by the department of social services.

Committee of community residents

The legislation outlines guidelines for establishing a committee of residents in the child’s community to carry out this plan.

Among others, that committee would include a child protection worker, the person who has legal custody of the child and the child, if he or she is at least 12 years old.

The committee would develop a plan of care that details, in part, living arrangements for the child, counselling and support services for the child’s home.

The bill also includes a process to bypass this plan and proceed directly to court.

Miltenberger told MLAs the original legislation didn’t allow enough community involvement before the formal justice system became involved.

“After a child is taken into permanent custody, the family and community should be kept informed of the child’s progress,” he said. “We recognize there will be some cases where this would not be appropriate, but we believe that for most cases it should be done.

“There were problems with the original bill which would have forced a court hearing in some situations,” he said.

Several amendments were introduced and passed during the debate of the bill.

Meaning of abuse broadened

The definition of abuse was broadened to include emotional and psychological abuse, as well as physical.

A catch-all section of reasons for why a child would need protection was removed, and a section referring to alcohol and drug abuse was revised to clarify its application to a child’s abuse of these substances.

Miltenberger said the bill outlines the obligation of the department of social services to support youth between the ages of 16-18, but he wanted it clearly spelled out in the legislation that this wouldn’t be abused.

“There must be an assurance that this support will not be abused by youth who are looking for a way to leave home because they do not get along with their parents,” he said. “It must clearly be a case where it is emotionally and physically harmful for the young person to remain in the family home.”

Miltenberger’s committee also expressed concern that parents and children had limited access to their files.

“Many items raised during public hearings will be addressed by the department through policies, guidelines and regulations,” he said.

Despite the time that went into fine tuning the bill, Miltenberger said it will take a concerted effort by people within the system to make a difference.

“The clear responsibilities and time lines in the bill give the basis for an effective way of dealing with children in difficulty,” he said. “However, success will depend on how well the legislature and guidelines are followed. Regular monitoring and evaluation are essential to making this work for children.”

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