Our vulnerable children, youth, and families deserve better.

The Nova Scotia government’s budget (released March 20th) made it clear that they will continue to prioritize fiscal health over community health – a false dichotomy that will have a long-term impact.

The government’s decision, to not strengthen family life for vulnerable children and youth through core investments, will significantly impact our province’s child protective services.

Nova Scotia’s child protective services will continue to be comprised by a lack of adequate resources. Resources that are desperately needed to accommodate the demands of the amended Child and Family Services Act, the ever-increasing complexity of intersecting issues facing vulnerable families and a lack of community resources.

Nova Scotia’s Child, Youth and Family Supports program has undergone a transformation as the province made over 80 amendments to the Child and Family Services Act including an expanded definition of a child in need of protective services, the addition of youth 16-19 years of age and tightened court timelines.

The former Minister of Community Services Joanne Bernard stated that the transformation of the Child and Family Services Act was needed to keep Nova Scotian children in their homes and to provide support before a family is in crisis.

Social workers and community organizations repeatedly reported their concerns with the amendments prior to implementation. They were concerned with increased caseloads, the readiness of staff and community organizations to implement the changes and the ability of families to make necessary changes given the tighten court timelines.

These changes have undoubtedly impacted vulnerable families.  Social workers work in solidarity with vulnerable populations to address intrapersonal issues and to empathetically connect with clients on the impacts of structural issues affecting their lives. However, the consistent changes in society and family structures coupled with the erosion of available community supports have significantly impacted outcomes aimed to keep children safe in their homes.

Frontline social workers are going above and beyond their duties to try and hold the system together. They are regulated to engage with the most vulnerable people in our province and have the knowledge and skills to competently perform assessments, interventions, negotiations, mediations, advocacy, and evaluations. They are trained in inter-professional practice, community collaboration and teamwork. Currently, they do not have the resources and the tools needed to help keep children safe in their homes.

Our province is negating our responsibility to care for the most vulnerable children and youth. Without the necessary resources, we are bound to repeat the atrocities of Canada’s colonial and racist past, clearly articulated in testimonies of residential school survivors through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and through the Restorative Inquiry into the Home for Coloured Children.

The N.S. government’s March 20th budget was an opportunity to ensure that this system had the tools and resources to meet these responsibilities. What Nova Scotians experienced was a missed opportunity that will undoubtedly have negative impacts on the health and wellness of vulnerable children and youth and their families.

Rebecca Bromwich refers to this impact as the “cradle-to-incarceration continuum” – “a major problem precipitating a disproportion of vulnerable, poor, indigenous and racialized youths from state care into the criminal justice system, and finally into prison.” (From the National Magazine, April 2017).

The budget increased full-time Child, Youth and Family Support Division employees by 5.1. This is far cry from the 33 social workers that the NSCSW believes is needed to bring stability to the system.

It’s even more concerning that the government missed a crucial opportunity to protect the rights of children and youth through the creation of a Child and Youth Advocate Office.  Nova Scotia remains one of the only Canadian provinces without this crucial organization designed to protect the provision of services to vulnerable children and youth. At an estimated cost of 4 million dollars, this would have been a meaningful investment to ensure that children and youth rights are respected, valued and that their interest and voice regarding services delivered by the provincial government are heard.

The budget did move towards addressing the income of marginalized Nova Scotians. There will be 3.4 million invested to fully exempt parents from income assistance clawbacks from child support payments and 3 million tax-free poverty reduction payments. These are important first steps but are drops in the bucket compared to what is needed to bring Nova Scotians living below the poverty line to above the actual poverty line.

Christine Saulnier Director of the Candian Center for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia stated, at the launch of the 2018 Nova Scotia Alternative Budget, that meaningful income in the hands of families greatly improves, economic and social outcomes and we do not need any more research to prove that.

There is a clear relationship between family socioeconomic circumstances and child and youth welfare. Scholars and researchers have continued to describe this relationship in many ways, either through a direct effect through material hardship or lack of income to support themselves, or an indirect effect through parental stress and neighbourhood conditions.

Currently, both Employment Services and Income Assistance and current tax benefits do not provide enough income to support vulnerable families. The current income support system stigmatizes. The system robs recipients of their dignity, is mired in bureaucracy and is based on exclusion. Those in need only receive a minimal amount of support after they produce mounds of evidence. It forces families to rely on charities to help meet their basic needs. This needs to change.

The Nova Scotia government has kicked problems down the road for our future generations to deal with. The cost of inaction will be more expensive as vulnerable youth and families involved in the child welfare system will often find themselves in the justice system and emergency rooms, which are far more costly systems to maintain.

Our government’s inaction is socially unjust and will continue to increase economic, social and political inequality in this province. This leaves the concerns of the most vulnerable citizens to go unnoticed. This erodes trust, increases anxiety and illness for all which has a lasting impact on a range of social issues.

Our vulnerable children, youth, and families deserve better.

Alec Stratford
NSCSW Registrar/Executive Director