U of S researchers track foster-care reforms

What does it take to turn talk into action to protect children? When sweeping changes are prescribed for a flawed foster care system, why do only minor tweaks occur? A U of S-led research team is tackling these tough questions. 

By Colleen MacPherson
The team's three year project, backed by $237,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), will focus on the progress of the reforms prescribed in the report, "For the Good of our Children and Youth."

"We're interested in ensuring that the best possible programs and services are available for Saskatchewan's children and families and that this report does not simply collect dust on the shelf like so many reports before it," says U of S researcher Caroline Tait, who leads the team.

The report was released in 2010 by the Saskatchewan Child Welfare Review Panel after extensive consultation with foster parents, front-line workers, Aboriginal leaders, parents, the Youth In Care and Custody Network, the Children's Advocate Office, youth who have "aged out" and other interested participants.

Recommendations in the report would bring sweeping changes to the way foster care and other child protection services are provided within the province. These reforms would focus resources on prevention services and family supports. Using this "wrap-around model," it would make removal of children from their families a last resort.

"Our interest in this report is based on ongoing research that demonstrates that its recommendations are nothing new," Tait says. "Rather, they are very similar to recommendations we've seen in earlier work. So the question is, if we already have the recommendations, if we already have possible solutions, why aren't we seeing concerted action to implement them?"

Tait's interest in in child welfare stems from 10 years of interviewing women and men who describe the devastating effects multiple foster placements and abuse within the child welfare system have had on their lives. In Tait's recent documentary Child Welfare: the State as Parent, one young woman describes being bounced from foster home to foster home and from group home to group home from the age of seven. She can't remember how many foster homes she experienced – only that there were "lots."

The links between multiple child welfare placements, involvement with gangs and addiction and criminal activity as youth and young adults is also apparent. In the documentary, a local Indigenous lawyer makes the argument that if the state is the parent then juvenile courts are the disciplinarian – and neither do a good job of producing productive citizens.

Both the Child Welfare Review Panel report and Tait's own research reveal a system badly in need of overhaul. Tait and her team hope to identify the roots of action or inaction by government in implementing much-needed changes.

The research team includes Tait, Jo-Ann Episkenew and Carrie Bourassa (University of Regina), Patricia Rodney and Victoria Smye (University of Victoria) and Yvonne Boyer (Indigenous Peoples' Health Research Centre). Community partners include the Saskatchewan Children's Advocate, White Buffalo Youth Lodge, Saskatchewan Métis Nation, Saskatoon Foster Family Association and the Native Mental Health Association of Canada.

For more information about research at the University of Saskatchewan, visit the research communications website.