On the last day of the legislative sitting last week, Opposition Leader Liz Hanson put forward a motion to improve rights and support for extended families caring for children.
It’s called informal kinship care, and it means any circumstance where a child is being raised by a grandparent or other extended family member in the absence of a birth parent.
The caregiver can be, but is usually not, the legal guardian or official foster parent of the child.
Most of the time the family member does not want to go through formal channels, said Eleanor Millard, a grandparents’ rights advocate who lives in Carcross.
“Mostly it’s because then they have to confront their own children about the situation, and that’s really hard to do,” said Millard. “They want to be reconciled with their kids, they don’t want to be fighting them in court.”
The number of children being cared for by grandparents in the Yukon is three times the national rate, according to the 2006 census.
Millard has worked for 15 years to support the rights of grandparents to raise their grandchildren in the Yukon.
The Grandparents’ Rights Association of the Yukon is a loose, volunteer-based organization run in large part by Millard.
She operates a help-line for grandparents and other kin who need help navigating the legal system, or other support.
There have been successes. The group lobbied to have the Children’s Act amended to include grandparents’ access to custody as a consideration in determining what is in the best interest of the child.
But more needs to be done, said Millard.
The motion put forward in the legislature calls for a special category of foster care in the Yukon that recognizes and gives financial support to informal caregivers without demanding that they jump through all the hoops of the regular foster care system.
Millard co-wrote a research paper about informal kinship care in the Yukon in 2008.
Researchers interviewed 59 families accounting for 130 children being cared for by extended family.
They estimated that there might be twice that number of informal kinship care relationships in the territory.
A lot of people think this as a First Nation issue, but Millard’s research showed that it’s happening across society, she said.
Two-thirds of the families in the study were First Nation.
And in two-thirds of all cases, the caregiver was a grandparent.
Over half had no formal custody arrangement.
And in 80 per cent of the cases, the birth parent’s addiction or social problems were mentioned as the reason for taking care of the child.
The families mentioned an unwillingness to cause conflict in the family, as well as a mistrust of the foster care system, as reasons why they did not seek custody of the kids.
“Most of the stories from the extended family looking after children, they’re kind of awkward situations, you know? Where their own children aren’t capable parents so they’re looking after the kids and that sort of thing.”
When grandparents or other relatives take care of children, they are performing an “unsupported volunteer service” in many cases, according to the report.
It would cost the territorial government nearly $2 million a year to put the 130 children from the study into foster homes, at a rate of about $1,200 per child per month.
The report researched informal kinship care in Alberta, B.C. and Ontario.
In all three jurisdictions, extended families are given preference when looking at placement options for children in care.
British Columbia has a special category of care called “child in the home of a relative.” The label applies for short-term care where there is no risk to the child and they are not a ward of a state.
Informal family caregivers are eligible to receive up to $520 per month under the program.
British Columbia also recently announced an information hotline for grandparents raising grandchildren.
Millard hopes that the department of Health and Social Services could arrange for the Yukon to hook into that help-line, just like they did with the Yukon HealthLine 811 service.
“That would be good because there are times when I’m travelling and I don’t answer the phone and I forget to check my messages and stuff like that,” said Millard, who runs the Yukon’s current help line by herself as a volunteer.
“And people are usually in crisis. They want to know soon, you know? They want to know, ‘What should I do about my grandchild who’s being neglected?’”
A little help would be nice.
“The people that are involved in this are so busy,” said Millard. “They’re looking after kids and a lot of them are working. A lot of them are older, so they don’t have the energy.”
Millard has a meeting planned with Health Minister Doug Graham.
The NDP’s motion on supports for kinship care could be called for debate during the spring legislative sitting.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at