Child Welfare in Canada: More Federal Assistance, Less Oversight Compared to U.S.

The United States and its northern neighbor are plagued by many of the same child welfare system challenges.

Recent reports have suggested there is a “foster-parent crisis” in Canada, citing a drastic lack of qualified foster parents relative to the number of children in need of foster homes.

The president of the Canadian Foster Family Association, Sheila Durnford, said the foster parent shortage has reached a crisis point nationally, with several jurisdictions routinely forced to house older children in hotels.

Although the U.S. child welfare system is vastly different from Canada’s, it is routinely criticized for the lack of resources provided to foster youth, ineffective policies, and frequent reports of neglect and abuse within state systems. The number of children in foster care nationwide is around 415,000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families’ data from 2014. In 2013, there were an estimated 62,428 children in foster care across Canada.

“The issues are very much the same … there are lingering problems in foster care, trauma-based experiences … and the countries have similar strategies for dealing with that,” said Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in the U.S. and Canada. The Dave Thomas Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding permanent homes for children in foster care.

The child welfare systems in Canada and the U.S., although different in many aspects, employ many similar policies.

“At first blush the main difference is the child welfare system in the U.S. has a federal overlay,” Soronen said. “In Canada there is no federal oversight of child welfare … it’s all at the provincial level.”

In the U.S., states are tasked with protecting children from abuse and neglect and ensuring that they have safe and stable living situations. These services are overseen by each state’s department of child protective services or human services.

Although each state has flexibility to design different funding methods and organizational structures, all states are guided and monitored by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The federal agency often reviews state practices through governmental assessments, including the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System and Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System Assessment Reviews.

“We have a lot of data about who is adopted, who adopted them, how old kids were when they came into care, what age they are when they exit, and how they exit,” said Josh Kroll, project coordinator for the Adoption Subsidy Resource Center at the Northern American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC). NACAC promotes and supports permanent families for children and youth in the U.S. and Canada, particularly youth who are or have been in foster care and those with special needs

This federal oversight allows for nationwide data-tracking of foster care placements and post-adoption data, something that is not available in Canada.

“There is no federal data system in Canada. Trending is much easier, and easier to access in the U.S. You can’t get the data in Canada,” Soronen said.

Nationwide tracking in Canada is challenging because each province and territory has its own child protection legislation and a government agency responsible for child welfare. Each province has different legislation relating to child protection services, making it difficult to compare foster care rates over time or across provinces.

“In Canada there really aren’t those sorts of statistics. The Adoption Council in Canada has tried to get that data,” Kroll said.

All provinces, however, have legislation about reporting child abuse and neglect, and other blanket policies to ensure that the best interests of a child are first priority.

The cultural differences between the nations also influence system structures, particularly with regards to financial support for child welfare agencies.

“Because there is federal funding in the U.S. for child welfare, there is a bit more consistency with adoption assistance and foster care maintenance payments. There’s still a lot of variation in funding between the states, though,” Kroll said.

Although the U.S. provides federal funding for child welfare services, these programs are continually strapped for cash.

“They are not looking at this in Canada,” Soronen said. “In the U.S., it’s ‘how do we use the dollars to create maximum impact?”

Canada has robust family benefits and social welfare assistance, making the limitations for child services funding less of a federal concern.

“In Canada there is little or no federal assistance; the provinces provide their own funding streams. It’s much more varied,” Kroll said.

Despite cultural and structural differences, the two nations share similar policy and practice platforms. Soronen explained that the two systems tend to mirror each other, and that Canada often looks at what’s happening on a policy level in the U.S.

Both systems have shifted focus toward better support for older foster youth and for families post-adoption. Use of evidence-based practices has also increased.

“There are definitely some things Canada could learn from the U. S,” Kroll said. “Overall the U.S. probably does a better job of getting kids in the foster care system into permanent homes.”

Forty-six percent of the 238,230 children who left foster care in the U.S. in 2014 were in care for less than one year. About half of the children who left foster care during this time were discharged to be reunited with their parents or primary guardians.

As policy continues to shift, many challenges lie ahead for the two nations’ foster care systems.

“How do we make sure that we are giving enough attention to the older kids and those with mental and physical disabilities?” Soronen said.

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