Out of Care Options is an alternative to children coming into care by supporting families to place the child in the care of their extended family or Indigenous community. The process begins with Family Group Conference meetings which are guided by the family and the community; the intention is always to assess and reunite the child with the parents.
The subject of the most recent investigative report by the office of the Representative for Children and Youth (RCY), was the story of Skye. Skye’s experience in foster care is a heart wrenching representation of what too many Indigenous children, youth and families experience in the child welfare system. Skye passed away on her 17th birthday. The investigative report found several practice breakdowns and missed opportunities. Potential placements with her extended family were not fully explored, and a relationship with her birth mom was not supported. There were also multiple failed adoption plans, and a severed placement with a nurturing Indigenous foster home. The cumulative effects on Skye were much to bear, and she was left without feelings of safety, love, and strength. A key recommendation that came out of this report is an emphasis on the importance of belonging and kinship ties, in the context of case planning and decision-making for a child or youth in care.
The Out of Care Options Program is of utmost significance in prioritizing belonging.
Prioritizing belonging for children in care is a commitment of VACFSS’ restorative practice and one of its core values. Belonging is operationalized in policies such as Inclusive Foster Care, Keeping our Children Safe, and Raising our Children Together, where each child is supported to remain connected to family and to visit their home communities while in care. The Out of Care Options Program (OOCO, or kinship placement) is of utmost significance in prioritizing belonging. OOCO is an alternative to children coming into care by supporting families to place the child in the care of their extended family or Indigenous community. The process begins with Family Group Conference meetings which are guided by the family and the community; the intention is always to assess and reunite the child with the parents.
VACFSS’ kinship placements far exceeded that of other child welfare agencies in the province.
Kinship placements was incorporated in 1996 when the CFCSA was amended. In 2008, when VACFSS became a fully Delegated Aboriginal Agency, it lead the way in British Columbia in formalizing the process for kinship placements with documentation and assessment tools. Consequently, VACFSS’ kinship placements far exceeded that of other child welfare agencies in the province. More recently, a transformative policy advanced by Grand Chief Ed John’s 2016 report, advocated for the equal payment for out of care options families that a levelled foster home provides. This was especially important for caregivers living in urban centres with limited affordable housing.
Currently, VACFSS supports 134 children in 91 out of care homes across the province (approximately 36% of the Child Protection Program caseload), and this number grows annually. The program is staffed by two social workers whose role is to support kinship caregivers and complete a suitability assessment. This assessment tool is thorough, child-specific, culturally relevant, and trauma informed. If a caregiver has a past with domestic violence or substance use, it would not preclude them from being considered. Katie McCallum, Out of Care Options Social Worker, describes her approach in conducting interviews with caregivers. “I always start by affirming that we approach this work with the lens that families have been through a lot. It’s not about discussing their past so that it can be used against them. It’s to work together towards recognizing their strengths.” One caregiver was very anxious, and Katie suggested she bring a support person. “I approached the process slowly with her. It started with having a cup of coffee together and building rapport. After the first meeting, the caregiver felt comfortable moving forward without the support person.”
It’s crucial to work within a framework that recognizes the intergenerational impacts of colonization, the residential school system, contemporary trauma, poverty, racism, stigma, and shame. What’s more significant here is the caregiver’s healing journey. VACFSS works with grandparents who were not in the best place when raising their own children but have since healed and want to care for their grandchildren. How have they come to this point where they are ready to take care of this child?
Alison Grundle, Child Protection Practice Manager, shares, “We see a lot of extended family coming forward voluntarily. Caring for relatives is a widely shared Indigenous worldview that is connected to the well-being of community.” Unlike foster care, the child may already have an attachment to the caregiver. There is also a stronger commitment to care for the child with kinship placements. To illustrate is the story of “Soyala” (name is changed for privacy). Soyala is a member of Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k:tles7et’h’ First Nations. She is a Knowledge Keeper, traditional language teacher and respected Elder in her community. After unexpectedly losing her daughter, Soyala stepped in to care for 4 of her grandchildren. Between the 4 grandchildren in Out of Care agreements, Soyala has had to work with VACFSS and 2 MCFD offices. This involved complex planning with the 2 other offices. In the meantime, VACFSS’ OOCO team continued to support the grandmother with all 4 grandchildren.
Ideally, the OOCO program will out-grow the fostering system as more and more families step in to care for their kin who are in need of alternate care.
Soyala has persevered through the child welfare system and countless obstacles with unwavering support from her Nation and her grandchildren’s Nations. She shares openly that it’s not always been easy, but the importance of her grandchildren being with family, their connection to culture and their communities, exceeds all challenges. She continues to advocate her frustrations when she feels social workers are over stepping, and with this open communication, it is ever more apparent the importance of relational practice. Her journey is a testament of resilience as another agency had previously deemed Soyala to be “too old” to care for her grandchildren. However, coming to VACFSS and being supported by staff and the new legislation, Soyala continued to self-advocate to care for her grandchildren full time.
Ideally, the OOCO program will out-grow the fostering system as more and more families step in to care for their kin who are in need of alternate care. Sometimes, there is no family available, or the complex needs of the child require specialized care. Even when foster care may be the only option left for a child, it is not inevitably the destination. VACFSS continually assesses permanency with family and community. It is not uncommon for a child to leave care and be placed with kith and kin in the Out of Care Options Program. In the Out of Care Options Program, s. 54.01 of the CFCSA allows permanent guardianship of the child to be transferred to the care provider. When this happens, the role of the child welfare agency shifts to being a support to the caregiver.
Despite progress in child welfare policy, the structure of the child welfare system in Canada is fundamentally fragmented ,. Funding formulas are broken, and standards of practice differ between Delegated Aboriginal Agencies (DAAs) and mainstream child welfare. For one, DAA’s service delivery standards are more culturally attuned, but not all Indigenous families are serviced by a DAA. VACFSS is optimistic that the Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families (bill C-92), will bring forth substantive changes in Indigenous child welfare where jurisdiction is shifted to Nations. With more communities enacting their right to self-government, placements with extended family and community will no longer be the exception rather, the norm.