Proven ‘quick fix’ for CAS can’t keep up with demand

Posted on January 12, 2016 in Child & Family Delivery System – News/GTA – “Family group conferencing” has been shown to keep indigenous and black kids out of children’s aid.
Jan 12 2016.   By: Laurie Monsebraaten, Social justice reporter

Provincial funding for “family group conferencing,” a program that has been shown to keep indigenous and racialized children with their extended families and out of children’s aid, is not keeping up with demand, according to local officials.

At a time when Ontario’s Chief Human Rights Commissioner and others are calling for provincial action on the overrepresentation of First Nations and black children in foster care and group homes, Queen’s Park is ignoring a proven “quick fix,” said Nyron Sookraj.

“The government is fully aware of the problem of overrepresentation and how this program can help, but at this point they are not prepared to put (more) funds into supporting it,” said Sookraj, one of two co-ordinators for family group conferencing at the George Hull Centre.

The centre, which oversees Toronto’s $200,000 program, ran out of funds last fall to pay about 12 fee-for-service co-ordinators. It has left Sookraj and one other staff co-ordinator inundated with requests.
“The whole issue of overrepresentation is huge and it will take time for the province to put in the strategies and prevention,” Sookraj said. “But I think family group conferencing would be a real quick fix, a place to start that has been proven to make a difference.”

The program, which encourages extended family and community members to come together to plan for their children outside the children’s aid system, has been part of the provincial Child and Family Services Act since 2006. The George Hull Centre completed about 120 family group conferences last year, up from an average of about 75. Children’s Aid Society of Toronto cases make up about 80 per cent of the program’s caseload with Toronto Catholic Children’s Aid, Jewish Child and Family Services and Native Child and Family Services making up the rest.

Toronto mother Patrina Lemorsley, who was reunited with her two teenage daughters last March after a family group conference, credits the program for putting both her immediate and extended families back together after a long involvement with Toronto CAS due to a previous drug addiction.

Family group conferencing is a culturally sensitive alternative approach to child protection. It works by empowering marginalized families to draw on their strengths to craft a plan of care for their kids that addresses concerns raised by children’s aid and mental health professionals. By requiring all participants to sign an agreement to uphold the plan, it makes family members equal parties to decision-making around their children and broadens support for children in a way that is non-obtrusive, but effective, practitioners say.

Toronto CAS, which has been promoting the program for several years, has seen their numbers jump from 12 referrals in 2011 to 116 last year. But with the provincial funding crunch causing wait lists, the agency decided in December to use its own money for the conferences, said chief executive officer Nancy Dale.

“Our enthusiasm has outstripped the resources and that has been disappointing, to say the very least,” she said. “We don’t want to lose the momentum.”

The conferences, which cost between $3,000 and $5,000, are relatively inexpensive, Dale noted. But for the cash-strapped agency, where needs always outstrip resources, every penny counts. “My hope in the long run is that there is a better strategy to fund this,” she said.

With about 20 families currently on the wait list for conferences, Toronto CAS could be on the hook for between $60,000 and $100,000.

A spokeswoman for Children and Youth Services Minister Tracy MacCharles said the government has increased the provincial budget for alternative dispute resolution services, which includes the conferences, as well as family mediation and aboriginal approaches. Funding has grown from $1.1 million in 2006 to $6.2 million this year, including $658,500 in Toronto for the three programs, said Aly Vitunski.

“Despite these significant increases in funding, we understand that there is a growing demand for (these) services across Ontario,” she said in an email. “We will continue to work with CASs and (community) partners to find opportunities to better support the . . . system moving forward.”

International research shows family group conferencing reduces court costs and has played a significant role in addressing overrepresentation of aboriginal and black families in the child welfare system. First developed in New Zealand about 25 years ago, the program is credited with drastically reducing the proportion of indigenous Maori families and kids involved with children’s aid in that country.

Texas also relies heavily on family group conferencing as part of its anti-racism framework to address overrepresentation of African-Americans in that U.S. state.

Family Group Conferencing: By the Numbers
88% Proportion of Toronto children who remain or are returned to their families after participating in the program.
120 Number of family group conferences completed in Toronto in 2014-15.
12 Number of family group conferences referred by the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto in 2011-12.
116 Number of family group conferences referred by the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto in 2014-15.
20 Number of Family group conferences currently on hold in Toronto due to lack of provincial funding.
42% The proportion of children in the care of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto in 2013 who were black or have one black parent.
8% The proportion of people under 18 in Toronto who are black.
23% The proportion of Ontario children in care who are First Nations.
2.5% The proportion of people under 18 in Ontario who are First Nations.
Sources: George Hull Centre, Children’s Aid Society of Toronto and OnLAC annual survey

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