Foster care operates in the background. And that’s unfortunate, according to one Western researcher, who says the system’s value becomes evident only when issues arise.
“We assume, in the community, every time there’s a child in need, there’s a place for that child to go,” said Western Education professor Alan Leschied, one of Canada’s leading experts on foster care.
“But some communities have hit the wall – they no longer have that resource. Think about how vulnerable some of those children are. For some, it (the absence of care) has meant death,” he continued.
Leschied recently published a new study – the largest of its kind – revealing a crisis in the foster care system in Canada. The study, Rescuing a Critical Resource: A Review of the Foster Care Retention and Recruitment Literature and its Relevance in the Canadian Child Welfare Context, shows that while the number of children needing foster care is growing exponentially, the number of care providers is dwindling. The Child Welfare League of Canada funded this research as part of its Every Child Matters initiative.
Along with colleagues, Leschied wanted to get a “snapshot of foster care in Canada,” including datasets from every province and territory. The team forged connections with foster care providers across the country – almost 1,000 families – and created a revised inventory, looking at why people become foster parents, what engaged foster families and what made them abandon the system.
Through this work, Leschied found more and more children dealing with complex issues as a result of violence, negligence or other traumas, are coming into the system for support and care. On the flipside, the number of care providers is dropping, he explained. This is the crisis.
“The old issues that engaged families, like for some, it was a faith-driven, and faith-based communities are diminishing, and more families have two parents working, no one at home to provide care – some of those things we used to draw on in the past (for foster families), are no longer there,” Leschied explained.
“Also, the most likely reason a family came forward to be a foster family is they were fostered themselves, or they were part of a foster family, or they knew somebody who fostered. It’s not brain science: If you have fewer foster parents, you have fewer foster parents to advance (the system). So, you can see how things are going south.”
Out of the study, Leschied analyzed data and designed an online support and education resource for foster families. This resource includes information on mental health issues and how to address them if they arise when providing foster care. This gives families across the country, including those in rural areas, support and information they may need to care for children facing complex issues.
Another piece of the puzzle is offering financial support to foster families, Leschied added.
“Most foster families spend more than they are given around caring for kids. The best way we can retain foster parents is increase their capacity to care for troubled kids so they don’t leave as a result of feeling overwhelmed,” he said.
Another issue that came out as a result of the study was a lack of diversity in Canadian foster care providers. Take Manitoba – with 90 per cent of children needing care being Aboriginal, there are very few Aboriginal foster parents. Leschied plans to move forward with targeted recruitment across Canada in order to diversify foster families.
“We need to begin to ask those cultures to come forward and care for children. We know children need to be cared for in their own communities. Eighty-five per cent of foster parents in our study are Caucasian, and that’s not necessarily who comes into care,” he explained.
“We need targeted recruitment. We need to say to these parents, ‘This is what we have, this is the need, this is how we will support you.’ We need to connect people back to the fact they need to be part of a caring community for children.”
Results of the study are available online at https://www.cwlc.ca/en/projects both as a national report, as well as by individual province and territory.
“We need to reconnect people to their communities to know there are vulnerable children, they are in need and we need to step forward. If people come forward, they will be supported,” Leschied said.