The assistant director of Yukon’s family and children’s services says the territory doesn’t need more group homes, even though children as young as three are currently living in group care because there aren’t enough foster parents.
The territory is working to recruit more foster parents and keep young kids out of group homes, said Simone Fournel. For now, she said, the current system has enough room for everyone.
“It certainly puts a different pressure on. I think (group homes) are a little bit more full because of the lack of foster homes. But in general our (overall) number of children in care has been slowly going down at the same time,” she said.
The number of kids in government care — in foster homes, group homes or being cared for by extended family — fluctuates on almost a daily basis. As of this week Fournel said there were 39 children living in the government’s seven group homes.
According to the social services department, seven of those kids are younger than eight. The youngest is three.
In Yukon, the government tries to keep kids younger that eight out of group homes, though there’s no legal requirement to do that.
Over the last few years group homes have been used periodically to house younger kids but usually for a short period of time — a few days or a few weeks, Fournel said.
Now there are younger kids staying for “many months.”
“So that’s probably the difference. (Now) we’ve had a few younger kids where, for whatever reason, we just haven’t been able to make alternate plans. So they’ve stayed longer in the group care.”
Fournel didn’t pinpoint specifically when the longer stays started. The Yukon Employees Union says it’s been going on since at least September.
Younger kids are not pushing older ones out of group homes, Fournel said.
“For the most part we’ve had additional space already. Some programs we run as a three-bed program but it actually always had a fourth bedroom.”
The amount of staff in group homes is also being increased if sibling groups or younger kids need it, said Mike Healey, the manager of residential youth treatment services.
“We’re actually probably around 1:2.5, (that) is our average ratio.”
Group home staff who work with the younger kids have gotten additional training on top of what they already receive when they take the job, said Healey.
The Handle with Care program is run by Yukon’s Child Development Centre, and focuses on helping kids six and younger build trust and attachment.
Healey said most of the staff who work with the younger kids have taken the course with the exception of a few who just started in those positions.
“We do actually hire people that we expect to have a range of skill sets, (who are) already somewhat able to do that,” Fournel said. “People don’t come in off the street with no training and no skill set into the role to begin with.”
The department won’t say whether older children are living in group homes with toddlers.
Fournel insisted that even providing an age range of the kids living together in the individual group homes could be enough to identify them.
She said the department tries to keep younger kids grouped together but in some cases younger children might have older siblings they want to live with.
“We’ve actually tried to keep sibling groups together, which we feel is just as important or more important than an age separation per se.”
The department says fewer foster homes combined with difficulties placing sibling groups is to blame for the amount of younger children in group homes.
There are 60 approved foster homes in the entire territory.
“Two years ago we had 60 homes in Whitehorse alone,” said health spokesperson Pat Living.
Fournel said the decline has been slow.
In a population the size of the Yukon even losing four or five foster homes can mean the difference between kids being in a group home or not, she said.
It feels like there’s now a “generational difference” in people who are interested in becoming foster parents, she said.
“As our foster homes are retiring and moving on, we do not have younger people coming up and saying, ‘Hey, I’m ready to do that.’
“We’re not entirely sure what that’s about.”
The dwindling number of foster homes is a problem that has been documented across the country.
There are currently two Yukon social workers whose primary focus is on recruiting.
The department has started advertising campaigns to try and dispel some of the myths around foster care. Officials have reached out to First Nations and other cultural groups to make presentations and attend community meetings.
Fournel said she doesn’t think the answer is to give foster parents more money.
Yukon foster parents are paid $34.61 per child per day in Whitehorse and $37.04 per day in the communities. Every child has a needs assessment done to identify any disabilities or other needs that require additional money. There are also funds specifically for things like school supplies, new clothes or recreational activities, Fournel said.
“Whether it’s perfect, I don’t know. But I think it’s actually very reasonable and it’s our best effort at trying to provide the funds for the care of the child.”
Living said the money is meant to be enough to cover the basic needs of the child.
“If you take on a foster child it’s because you want to give a child what you can. I’ve talked to foster parents and yes, they probably all spend more than what they get, but they choose to do that.”
The Yukon’s base rate falls about midway between the other territories. In Nunavut, foster parents are paid a base rate of between $43 and $50 a day depending on where they live. In the Northwest Territories the base rate can range from $24 to $47 a day, again based on location.
In Alberta foster parents get an additional daily stipend depending on the level of education and training they have.
Fournel said Yukon is considering creating another tier of foster parents who are paid more because they have sought-after skills and training.
“We do know it’s a big time investment. Everybody has to earn a living so we’re trying to figure out how to be fair. It’s always been a program that’s not predominantly been (about) a paid opportunity.”
In some jurisdictions, dedicated non-profit organizations spend time recruiting and advocating for foster parents.
The Yukon doesn’t have any such organization anymore.
The Yukon Foster Parents Association is no longer active. According to the Department of Community Services, the last time the association filed paperwork under the Societies Act was in 2014.
The News was unable to reach any former representatives to find out what happened.
Fournel said she hopes the group might be resurrected.
“I certainly think it’s significant. I don’t think it’s the end of the world but I do think it’s disappointing because they have been such strong advocates for themselves and for the children.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org