May 23, 2008 Volume 22, Number 05
The children nobody wants
"If we, who are called and commissioned, don't do it who's going to?
By Josiah Neufeld | ChristianWeek Staff
Every day in Canada tens of thousands of children wake up to the awful knowledge that they are not wanted.
They have no parents, or their homes aren't safe for them. They are "in care," meaning they are in the custody of child welfare agencies. They live in foster homes or, when none are available, in hotels or emergency shelters. When one of them goes on a school field trip, a social worker must sign the permission slip.
The Niles family knows. A United Church minister in Markham, Ontario, John Niles and his wife Liane have been temporary parents to more than 1,000 children since they opened their home for emergency foster care 20 years ago.
"We've had kids with broken bones and cracked skulls," says Niles. He's cradled children literally starving, with scabies and feces crusting their skin. "We've had children coming from a murder scene where one was murdered and the other came to us," he says.
About 76,000 children in Canada are in the child welfare system-more than double what there were 10 years ago. About 22,000 have no homes and no access to their family. Most have emotional and behavioural problems. In Alberta, experts estimate half the children in care in 1999 suffered from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
Things are getting worse. "Society is coming apart. People are broken and alienated because they're lost and alone," says Niles. "Family is disintegrating. All these things get taken out on children."
He's seen addictions and mental health problems increase over the years.
Although thousands of families in Canada have opened their homes to the monumental task of caring for or adopting these children, more are flooding into care while fewer homes are open to fostering.
"This is a real and growing kind of problem," says Peter Dudding, executive director of the Child Welfare League of Canada. Young couples aren't as interested in fostering or adopting as they used to be, and many older couples are retiring, he points out. And it's common for both parents to be in the workforce-looking for someone to care for their children rather than welcoming more.
If the gap between children in care and available homes keeps gaping, more children will end up living in rented hotel rooms, group homes or shelters, Dudding predicts.
An American study found a 58 per cent increase in children in going into group or institutional care since 1990.
Overloaded systems also lead to poor fostering matches, says Dudding. When a placement turns sour the child loses trust and becomes harder to manage. "It's a snowball effect."
A 2000 report by the Saskatchewan Children's Advocate identified a shortage of foster homes as one of the main reasons given for "breaching the policy on the maximum number of children in a home."
Provinces across Canada are struggling to attract more foster parents. A recent recruitment campaign in B.C. targeted professionals who might already have skills to deal with special needs: doctors, teachers, nurses and psychologists.
"Children coming into care have a lot bigger needs than in the past," says Sheila Durnford, president of the Canadian Foster Families Association. "We hear foster parents say there's a lack of support."
New foster parents often aren't prepared to deal with the complexities of FASD, developmental delays, disabilities and youth who are young offenders.
"They get thrown into [the bureaucracy] because they have to," says Durnford. "You have to work with ministry workers, doctors, counsellors and teachers."
Foster parents need more help to do "a very difficult job," says Dudding. "I hear that in spades."
Deficit worse on reserves
On First Nations reserves those needs are magnified spectacularly--a frightening reality given that between 30 and 40 per cent of Canadian children in care are Aboriginal-80 per cent in Western provinces.
Poverty is the issue, says Cindy Blackstock, a vocal researcher and advocate for the welfare of First Nations children.
"Aboriginal children come to the attention of care for different reasons than non-aboriginal children," she says. The Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (CIS) shows that far more aboriginal children come into care because of neglect than abuse.
On reserves poverty, poor housing and care-giver substance abuse are the chief causes, says Blackstock.
That's because each province manages its own child welfare service, but the basic support services that surround the system often don't exist on reserves.
"The voluntary sector thinks the federal government is providing it," says Blackstock.
The same dearth plagued a reserve in the centre of downtown Vancouver where she used to do child protection work.
In 2005 a team of researchers headed up by economist John Loxley calculated it would take $109 million per year to put child welfare services on reserves on par with the rest of the country.
B.C. is the first province to support Jordan's Principle. It's named after a boy born in Norway House, Manitoba in 1999. His family put him into foster care because they didn't have access to the services they needed to take care of him. While the federal and provincial government bickered over who would pay for his care, Jordan died in the hospital.
One thousand six hundred organizations have endorsed Jordan's Principle, which would require the first government or jurisdiction contacted by the family of a Status Indian child in need, to promptly pay for services which are available to other Canadian children. Wrangling over who would foot the bill would happen later.
Not wanted: child over age four
Meanwhile, more than 8,000 children over the age of four in Canada are available for adoption, but most of them will never be chosen for the simple reason that virtually nobody is interested in adopting an older child who might have FASD.
"Once you're four years old, no one wants you," says Niles. The author of How I Became Father to 1,000 Children and The Art of Sacred Parenting is on a drive to convince Christian families to adopt or foster.
"As believers we're all adopted in Christ. And we're called to welcome widows and orphans," says Niles. "If we as believers who are called and commissioned don't do it, who's going to?"
To Faith Goodman, a Toronto oil industry executive, the situation looked like a business problem: "Thousands of children are in need of good quality foster parents and adoptive families-there is clearly a need, and an entire faith-based community that doesn't know it exists," she says.
Working together with Children's Aid, Goodman launched a campaign in Ontario parishes with the slogan "Let a child have faith in you" to highlight the needs and address myths about fostering.
"If each parish adopts or fosters two children the need could be eliminated," she says.
But the going is tough. After handing out over 10,000 brochures, Goodman says the response has been slow.
A hard sell
Paul Carter is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Orillia and father to two biological children and one adopted girl. He and his wife have fostered 12 children-some saw their parents murdered, some had to be nursed to health or comforted through compulsive night terrors. Two brothers they cared for were rehabilitated and eventually adopted by another family. The Carters still visit them.
Many churches want to expand their ministries and the impulse to grow takes them in strange directions, he says: "'Let's build a media centre or a coffee shop, that would be cool!' We've tried to re-frame the debate from bigger to more significant. What if we pooled money as a church to adopt 20 children from the big book of kids nobody wants?
"That's a hard sell," says Carter. "Every church wants a wicked awesome media centre, but I'm not sure that's the Church God gives a rip about... The call of Christian ministry is a ridiculous call-that's why it's so often watered down to coffee in the lobby.