'There isn't consistency': COVID-19 response varies for children in care

WINNIPEG — Phones have been ringing continuously at the office of the First Nations family advocate in Manitoba as parents, children and social workers look for answers about what will happen to some of society's most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic

"I always want to give the message to our families to stay strong," says advocate Cora Morgan.

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"I know it's really hard because they have to stay strong against circumstances very few mainstream people could appreciate."

Morgan describes the pleas for help. One call is from parents begging to see their children's faces since court-ordered, in-person visits have been delayed indefinitely. Another is from a mother who needs to take parenting classes as part of a plan to reunite with her family. The classes have been discontinued.

Another mother is looking for food so her children won't be taken into care. Funds are usually tight, but now any options for work have disappeared and prices at nearby corner stores have increased as supplies diminish.

There are about 10,000 children in care in Manitoba. About 90 per cent are Indigenous.

Morgan says there are also calls from social workers, agencies and parents worried about the potential spread of the novel coronavirus when workers are entering homes. Some have been told to continue as usual despite the world around them shutting down.

Child welfare is an essential service, Morgan says, but it is not being dealt with like others during this unprecedented time.

"There isn't consistency among agencies in the way that they are responding to COVID-19," Morgan says.

Plans for children in care in the face of longer-term restrictions due to COVID-19 vary across the country. Some regions have ended face-to-face meetings. Others have brought in screening tools for workers entering homes. Only a few have dedicated funds to support children in government care during the pandemic.

British Columbia has temporarily suspended in-person visits between children and youth in care and their families. There are a few exceptions such as one to ensure mothers can breastfeed their infants.

Ontario has announced $40 million for infection control and personal protective equipment in residential facilities, including those for youth and children in care. It's recommended that only essential visitors enter. An emailed statement says the province is encouraging the use of technology to keep kids and parents in contact.

The province has also brought in a moratorium on youth aging out of care so they won't lose financial support or housing during the pandemic. The Child Welfare League of Canada has recommended the same move for every region of the country.

Alberta is encouraging case workers to conduct family meetings by phone or video chat. It's part of the province's "evolving policies," Lauren Armstrong in the Children's Services Ministry office said in an email. In-person visits can still happen, but only for urgent situations.

"We know that vulnerable children may be more at-risk without the routine of going to school and attending social functions, so Children's Services remains ready to follow up on concerns and work with families," she wrote.

Saskatchewan is reviewing policies as public health recommendations change and is preparing to provide social workers with personal protective equipment. Janice Colquhoun, executive director of child and family programs, says it's vitally important there is still the ability to respond to reports of child abuse or neglect.

Manitoba is allowing workers to weigh what's in the best interest of a child against any potential public health risk. An email from the province's Family Services Department said social workers entering homes to make sure kids are safe and family visits are considered essential.

Daphne Penrose, Manitoba's advocate for children and youth, says provinces should allow flexibility because each family and situation is unique.

"To say no visits, period, may not be appropriate in every situation," she says. "Workers may be able to really provide visitations under the protocols that are required."

With a rapidly evolving situation there may be a need for more stringent measures, Penrose says, but each decision must respect a child's rights, including family visits, education and feeling safe.

Every province, agency and family needs to make plans for how to deal with any new public safety measures that could last for months, Penrose suggests. In Manitoba, she says those conversations are well underway.

"When we have severely addicted kids, children and youth, who are unable to make safe and healthy decisions for themselves just on the day to day, when you add this level of pandemic, they become even more vulnerable than they were before."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2020

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