Manitoba won’t commit to stopping kids from ‘aging out’ of the system during the pandemic

The Manitoba government is examining potential solutions to assist youth who are aging out of care during the COVID-19 pandemic, but wouldn’t commit to stopping the process.

“Everything’s on the table. We’re looking at what we can do to maintain services at the highest possible level in the face of massive challenges,” Premier Brian Pallister said.

APTN News posed the question to the premier Friday morning during a press conference.

This followed Ontario’s decision to issue a moratorium on Thursday for youth aging out in the province, which means they will continue to receive financial support rather than being cut off on their birthday.

In Manitoba, once youth turn 18, they are cut off of supports from the provincial government. This can be extended to the age of 21 in certain situations including if the youth is attending school or living with a disability.

“We recognize that young adults in care can require additional support, which is why we already have a voluntary process – called agreements with young adults – to help them transition to greater independence, up until the age of 21,” a spokesperson for Manitoba families told APTN in a statement.

“COVID-19 creates additional challenges and we will be working with these young adults, their agencies and care providers to tailor supports to meet their needs.”

APTN asked for clarification on whether this means services and supports will be extended for all youth aging out of care. ​

The spokesperson confirmed it doesn’t.

“Our first and foremost concern is of course to protect vulnerable people… so we’re in discussion on dozens literally dozens of issues right now,” said Pallister.

He added more information will be released at a later date.

Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth Daphne Penrose told APTN her office is fielding calls from youth who are concerned about not being able to access resources at this time.

Penrose says if a youth needs extended care it should be an option.

“Every youth situation is different and unique, as each of them are, and I think that workers need to assess that based on their own needs but being able to keep kids in care without having and going through the process right now is definitely something that should be considered,” said Penrose.

 Visitation Guidelines

The Department of Families has implemented several new service guidelines for those involved in the child welfare system since cases of COVID-19 reached the province two weeks ago.

However, family advocates are worried the new protocols are working against families instead of with them.

The province considers family visits with children in care essential and should still be offered during the pandemic, but a spokesperson for Manitoba Families said it’s up to individual agencies and social workers to determine potential public health risks.

“Some families do have the agencies trying to work with them and get the visits happening even if it is by a video chat, phone call or FaceTime. They’re trying to utilize the social media as much as possible,” said Mary Burton, an advocate with the Winnipeg-based support group FearlessR2W.

Manitoba has four child and family services authorities, which oversee the agencies in the province.

APTN asked each authority whether their protocol was to cancel family visits going forward.

“Our agencies are following the practice guidelines on family visitations provided by the Province to all CFS Authorities.  We are also referring to the COVID-19 Planning-Guide circulated by the Province. Of importance for us is to do whatever is necessary to support families in any way possible while working toward the safety and well-being of children,” said Billie Schibler, chief executive officer of the Metis Child and Family Services Authority.

In a statement Kerri-Lynn Greeley, a program specialist with the General CFS Authority wrote, “the direction to our staff of our agencies is that visits are to continue and to take all steps necessary to ensure the visits can occur safely.

Agencies are encouraged to consider alternate ways for families to visit that does not include in person contact and that respect social distancing.”

A notice posted outside the offices of Southeast Child and Family Services, one of the agencies under the Southern First Nations Network of Care (SFNNC), advises the office is closed as of Mar. 16 due to COVID-19.

aging out

“All family visits have been cancelled and will be rescheduled,” it reads.

APTN was unable to confirm whether this was the case with the other five agencies under the SFNNC.

The First Nations of Northern Manitoba Child and Family Services Authority did not respond to APTN’s request.

Burton says when family visits are cancelled the impacts are detrimental to children and youth.

“It’s hard on their mental health. It’s hard on their emotions. They don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know what’s happening with their families,” she said.

“It’s basically making more trauma for the children to try and say, ‘no, you can’t visit your family at this time because of this pandemic.’”

FearlessR2W is in the process of drafting a letter to send out to agencies proposing the creation of a safe space for families to visit. Burton says they have spoken to a centre in Winnipeg’s North End about the possibility of hosting.

The group would maintain the space and take responsibility for ensuring it’s sanitized and physical distancing recommendations are followed.

Birth alerts continue

Manitoba has decided to hold off on the decision to end the practice of issuing birth alerts.

The controversial practice often sees newborns apprehended at birth when the mother is deemed at-risk.

“While we are committed to ending birth alerts, now is not the time to implement a broad system change that would put additional pressure on our health care system at a difficult time,” Families Minister Heather Stefanson said in a statement.

Stefanson previously said the use of birth alerts would end in April.

It’s estimated a newborn is apprehended everyday in the province.

Burton say this is devastating news for families and believes the move may create more stress for mothers about to give birth.

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