During 2005 the Ministry of Health and Social Services of Quebec appointed a group of clinical experts to consult with the various communities in Quebec (including Crees), and to review the Youth Protection Act in its 25th year and recommend any changes that were seen as necessary.
Among the more significant findings of this group was the fact that children who were removed from their natural homes under the current law were, in far too many cases, bounced around from foster home to foster home when the family situation did not improve enough with the primary care givers for the children to return home.
The implications of these findings were confirmed in research studies which indicated that children need stability and continuity of care in their lives if they are to grow up to be emotionally healthy and well-balanced individuals.
Consequently, Bill 125, an Act to Amend the Youth Protection Act and Other Legislative Provisions, was passed by the National Assembly and came into force last July 9.
Although the new law would still maintain the general principle that parents have the primary responsibility for the care, maintenance, and education of their children, the most significant of the changes is the idea of permanency planning based on the age of the child.
Children under the age of 2 years would only be able to be in foster placement for a maximum of 12 months. Children between the ages of 2-5 years could only remain in placement for a maximum period of 18 months. And children 6 years and older would be in placement for a maximum of 24 months.
If the parents have not made the necessary changes to ensure that their children are safe and healthy at the end of these time periods, the permanent plan would include either adoption or tutorship. For the first time also, the grounds for protection would include psychological abuse and notions of potential risk.
Emphasizing the idea of shared responsibility, parents and children would have the right to receive help from the service providers and to actively participate in the decision making and the measures to ensure the safety of children. The idea here is to reduce as much as possible the need to refer the matter to the courts.
As with the old law, culturally based solutions are entirely appropriate in helping to resolve the problem situations that bring children to the attention of youth protection. The changes also allow for children to be placed with individuals who are significant to them, such as grandparents.
Bill 125 also allows the Director of Youth Protection (DYP) greater access to confidential records such as medical files in order to protect children. The idea here is that the safety of children would supercede the usual rights of confidentiality. The DYP would also be able to share information with child welfare agencies outside of Quebec.
Finally, the detention of children under the Youth Protection Act who are considered to be a danger to themselves or to others would be strictly monitored and can only be based on the decision of the Executive Director of the organization or someone delegated by him or her. There would be specific guidelines and conditions to determine when a child could be detained in a closed unit and parents would be able to access the courts if they disagree with the decision.
The Human Rights Commission would also have to be informed each time a young person is detained and this report must include the reasons for the detention and the length of time that the child spends in detention.
It is clear that these changes would have a significant impact on Cree communities. What is also clear is that the law is primarily designed to protect the rights of children and to ensure that they can grow up to be healthy individuals.
Consequently, parents have to make sure that there is no cause for their children to be removed from their homes by youth protection authorities. About 80 per cent of the Cree children who are removed from their homes are taken into care because of drinking, drug use or neglect.
Even if children have to be removed from their natural homes because their security and development is compromised, the parents must be willing to do the work that is necessary to ensure that the home is safe once again for the child to return in the shortest delay.