A Quebec commission of inquiry is calling for a sweeping overhaul of the provincial youth protection system, including legislative amendments, to deal with children slipping under the cracks, burnt-out staff leaving in hordes, and underfinancing, all of which should be overseen by a newly appointed provincial director.
In a preliminary report, the Special Commission on the Rights of the Child and Youth Protection found that children’s rights are not always respected, observed regional disparities of youth protection cases before the courts, deplored the overrepresentation of Indigenous and black children in the system, and noted that the interpretation of confidentiality provisions served as a “brake” on collaboration.
The commission called on the Quebec government to immediately appoint a youth protection director to oversee the entire provincial system, introduce legislative amendments that would clarify the Youth Protection Act, encourage judges hearing youth protection cases to act “as much as possible” as facilitators rather than deciders, bolster the use of mediation in all interventions, and pour more monies into the system. The Quebec government announced last year that it would inject $47 million in child protection services to hire new social workers and curb waiting times.
“I have a hope and a fear,” said André Lebon, the vice-president of the Commission. “I hope, even if staff are fleeing the system, that if the reforms are properly implemented to save our system and we give back to people a work environment that puts care and needs at the heart of our concerns, we will keep our people and rekindle the flame because the flame still exists. But if we don’t, we will waste 30 years of social innovation and we will eventually hit a wall and it will be extremely painful, perhaps even perilous, to reorganize the system. It’s now or never.”
The commission, launched after the 2019 tragic death of a seven-year old girl in Granby, Quebec, following lapses in the youth protection system, was given carte blanche to undertake a comprehensive examination of youth protection services, the law that governs it, the role of the courts, social services and other stakeholders. The 12-member panel, headed by Régine Laurent, the former president of Quebec’s largest nurses union, is composed of six experts and a member of the National Assembly of each of the four political parties. The so-called Laurent Commission heard testimony by more than 335 witnesses in public hearings and 2,000 citizens and stakeholders in 42 regional forums across the province. It was supposed to issue a final report in November but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will now publish it in April 2021.
“This is a report that puts the finger on a number of findings that are not surprising,” said Dominique Goubau, a law professor at the Université Laval with an expertise in family and youth protection law. “The most tragic finding is that the rights and interests of children are not at the heart of actions. That is really depressing.”
The commission asserts that 2015 healthcare reforms undertaken by former Quebec health minister Gaétan Barrette under the Liberal government “weakened” the youth protection system’s management and leadership by abolishing “important” structures that provided psychosocial care. “The management models are ill-suited to the reality of youth services,” said the report, adding there is now a leadership and accountability vacuum that plagues the system. And that has led to other problems, from the dismantling of support to workers in the system to a lack of training and supervision, said Lebon. Workers, he added, are under siege, overwhelmed by caseloads, and distressed that they are unable to provide quality services to those under their care. Further, the youth protection system has degenerated into a system that cares more about numbers, with workers’s performance measured over the number of cases they have and closed rather than the type of care they provide, said Lebon.
“The youth protection system is facing the same situation that the healthcare system faced and faces,” observed Michel Tétrault, a family lawyer who up until last spring worked at a legal aid clinic in Sherbrooke. “There has been over the past four-to-five years a huge number of experienced workers who decided to take their retirement, and the people who have replaced them are young, around 23 years, who literally just came out of university. Dealing with family issues, especially in youth protection matters, requires experienced and competent workers.”
Under-financing has not helped nor has the fact that the youth protection system has become an entry point to obtain services because the health system is overburdened, added the report – a conclusion that Goubau, who testified before the commission, is in complete agreement with.
“The problem is that we have too many children who end up under the Youth Protection Act for the simple reason that other (healthcare) services cannot provide service or cannot offer service rapidly enough,” said Goubau. “The delays are so long that it’s easier to obtain access to services by going through the youth protection system, and that is an abuse of the law. The Act was not intended for that. It’s become a gateway for too many cases, with the result that there are massive cases that should not fall within the scope of the Act.”
The repercussions have been grave. The rights of children are not always respected, and children are not made aware of their rights so that they can exercise them, said the report. Or, adds Lebon, their voices not always heard. “There are many adults who speak about children’s issues but few adults who speak to children – and that’s the case for the social and legal aspects of the Act,” noted Lebon. “They are told this is what we should say before the courts. This is what we are going to ask for you. This is how we are going to defend you. But rarely are children, and by extension their families, are heard.”
Youth care services offered to cultural and linguistic minorities too have paid the price. They are “insufficiently” adapted to meet their needs. Moreover, young black children are overrepresented in the system as are Indigenous children – a situation that must be remedied promptly, recommends the report.
The Act is also applied unevenly across the province, found the report. The proportion of youth protection cases varies wildly form one Quebec region to the next, ranging from 30 per cent to 70 per cent, which seems to indicate that there is an absence of homogenous services across the province, points out the report.
Just as problematic is that youth protection workers tend to work in silos due to the strict interpretation given to confidentiality rules. It is so restrictive that information is not shared between frontline workers, daycare centers, community organizations or schools. Lebon said the commission wants the government to introduce amendments to make the Act clearer over confidentiality provisions. “We want confidentiality to be re-defined so that the interests of the child are taken into account, and at present that is not the case,” said Lebon.
The immediate appointment of a provincial director overseeing the Quebec youth protection system would be a first, but important, step to meet head-on the daunting challenges, said Lebon. But Tétrault believes that a director with powers akin to a deputy minister does not go far enough. “They have to go further and ensure that the person has powers to change things, to sanction and to hold people accountable,” remarked Tétrault, author of a four-volume tome on Quebec family law.
But Lebon, while cautiously optimistic, has no illusions. He has worked in the youth protection system for 50 years, and has penned three reports, the latest a 2016 report on youth runaways and sexual exploitation, a report he acknowledges has been for all intents and purposes shelved. On top of that there is the COVID-19 pandemic, which is surely going to strain Quebec’s financial resources, said Lebon. ‘We are in the midst of mortgaging ourselves financially in a big way,” said Lebon. “Will there be money, resources and energy left? We don’t know but it doesn’t change what we have said or what we have to do. It makes it more complex.”
This story was originally published in The Lawyer’s Daily.