Foster parent pay boost not enough: critics

Yukon's foster parents are receiving a big pay raise. Starting in October, the territory is boosting the rate paid to foster parents by 17 per cent. It's the first increase in 12 years.

Yukon’s foster parents are receiving a big pay raise.

Starting in October, the territory is boosting the rate paid to foster parents by 17 per cent. It’s the first increase in 12 years.

Rates will also grow with inflation, beginning in 2010.

“It’s a long time overdue,” said Tiana Zakus, president of the Yukon Foster Parents Association, which has called for such reforms for many years.

“It’s nice that we’ve been recognized.”

Rates vary depending on the circumstances of foster parents, but the basic rate paid to Whitehorse foster parents is $31.55 per day.

Challenges remain. One is that there simply aren’t enough foster parents, said Zakus.

As a result, Zakus has seen some foster parents take on more children than they can manage and burn themselves out.

And it’s difficult for foster parents to take time off, known as respite. Few foster parents currently offer respite services. Zakus is one of them.

The Department of Social Services was unable to provide the number of foster parents in the territory before press time. But Zakus estimates there’s about 40 foster parents in Whitehorse.

The pay raise is a start, but it’s not enough to cover the increase in the cost of food, clothing and electricity over 12 years, said NDP Leader Todd Hardy.

“Without foster parents, the government would be paying four times as much,” said Hardy. “The government’s getting a phenomenal deal.”

The pay raise equals an annual increase of just 1.4 per cent, said Arthur Mitchell, leader of the Liberals.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s unfortunate it took them seven years to do it,” he said, referring to how long the Yukon Party has been in power.

And bigger reforms are needed to help the many Yukoners who informally adopt relatives and currently receive little or no government assistance, say critics such as Eleanor Millard with the Grandparents’ Rights Association of the Yukon.

“It’s kind of an insult,” she said. “Foster parents do a good job and they deserve a raise. But it’s an insult to the extended family and grandparents who are working. A lot of them are on pensions and having to borrow money, and teenagers cost a lot.”

Informal adoption is common among First Nation families. Extended family traditionally played a big part in parenting children.

So when a First Nation family becomes destabilized by alcohol and drug abuse, it’s usually extended family members who step in to raise children.

They often have good reasons to not wish to become legally recognized foster parents.

The cost of obtaining legal custody can exceed $10,000. The emotional turmoil of a custody battle carries a high price as well.

“Nobody wants to take their own children to court,” said Millard.

Yukon’s new Child and Family Services Act, passed in April of 2008, was supposed to introduce more support for informal kinship adoptions.

The Act calls for the extended family of First Nation children to be given priority during adoptions, and it allows Social Services officials to strike deals that permit extended family to take custody of children for six-month terms.

But, more than one year later, the new law has not yet been brought into force. 

And its extra measures, aimed at helping kinship foster parents, leave too much at the discretion of government, said Millard.

So, as it stands, the system favours having children raised by strangers, rather than by relatives, she said.

“It was just hopeless; they certainly don’t recognize anything grandparents or extended family are doing,” said Millard.

Millard surveyed 59 kinship-care families with 130 children to produce a report, released in September of 2008, which found that many of the Yukon’s kinship foster parents have unmet needs.

Fewer than half of the interviewed families received any financial or material assistance for care of children.

Thirty-seven per cent of respondents reported having troubles with money and housing.

There are approximately 160 informal foster-care arrangements in the territory, the report estimates.

Millard suspects the ideological blinders of territorial leaders has prevented her group’s demands from being taken seriously.

“It’s the conservative philosophy: they’re your family, you should look after them, so why should you want to be paid? It’s your duty,” she said.

What this view ignores is that grandparents are often not young and energetic – or wealthy, said Millard. They adopt children out of love, but at a cost to themselves.

“There’s a woman here in Carcross who would get up every morning at 5:30 to drive her 15-year-old grandson to play hockey, because she wanted him to keep busy. That’s incredible,” she said.

“One woman in Watson Lake looked after her own children, her grandchildren, and now she’s looking after her great-grandchildren.

“They should be retired and enjoying life, not worrying about school and drugs and hockey.”

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