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Foster parents threaten to leave family services centre

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on Wed, 06/05/2013 - 21:10
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OTTAWA — Foster parents are threatening to leave Family and Children’s Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville

Relationship with new administration, changes in compensation spark pushback

OTTAWA — Foster parents are threatening to leave Family and Children’s Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville because the agency is bringing in changes they say will make it impossible to give the children the care they need.

“People are talking about a mass exodus,” says Gena Morrow, a foster parent with the agency, which looks after about 120 foster children in Brockville, Kemptville and Gananoque.

Along with her husband, Tony, Morrow is spearheading a pushback against the changes to compensation which she says will affect parents’ ability to continue to work for the agency.

“They’ve made decisions based on dollars without looking at the impact on families,” says Morrow.

Parents say they were not consulted about the changes and were only told of them two days before their approval in February.

The primary concern is the elimination of designations for children with special needs, such as intellectual or physical disabilities or a history of abuse, and the extra money required for their care.

Parents say they took on such children with the expectation they would stay home to provide 24/7 care. The changes mean they will receive half the money they used to receive and will have to get outside work, leaving them less time to look after the children in their care.

“A lot of people talk about dollars and cents, but it’s about recognition for the work that you do,” says Allison Asselstine, president of the Foster Family Association, which represents the foster parents’ interests.

The problems began when the Children’s Aid Society of the County of Lanark and the Town of Smiths Falls, and Family and Children’s Services of Leeds and Grenville, amalgamated in 2011 to form the current agency. The administration changed at the same time.

“The amalgamation transition has been challenging times,” said the agency’s executive director, Allan Hogan, who wouldn’t comment on the changes, other than to say the family association signed off on them.

Hogan said that once parents notified the administration of their concerns, changes to compensation were pushed back to October from the original April start date.

Last week, about 60 people — parents and social workers employed by the agency — dressed in black funeral attire as a sign of protest while the Morrows outlined their concerns to the board at a meeting in Perth.

The meeting represented one of the few times the parents have been able to directly communicate with the board since the amalgamation. The family association had good relations with the previous administration, says Morrow, and more communication with the board.

Following the amalgamation, the foster parent representative on the board, Deborah O’Connor, was redesignated as a general board member.

“I do not get to speak to the board any more on behalf of the foster parents, and my loyalties are supposed to be with the board, not the foster parents now,” said O’Connor.

She said she understands the decision as a means of eliminating conflict of interest but thinks foster parents should still have a voice on the board.

Relations between the administration and the social workers it employs has been strained, too. Drawn out negotiations between their union, CUPE, and the agency followed the amalgamation. The workers ultimately accepted lower wages.

About a dozen workers have not had their contracts renewed since the merger.

The social workers have rallied behind the foster parents, adding their concerns of overwhelming caseloads and transfers of children to the private system to the debate. They were supposed to pick up the extra slack when it comes to care but are being stretched thin by cuts at the agency, said union local president Mike Burt.

“We’re certainly supporting our foster parents’ struggles to keep their support in place,” says Burt.

The family association is looking to the government for support, too.

Foster parent Doug Martin contacted the Ministry of Child and Youth Services, which oversees the province’s foster care system, for help in dealing with the agency.

“We’ve lost the trust and transparency, and we feel we have to fight for the children in our care,” he said.

The ministry’s South East Regional office has since been in regular contact with the agency and the family association to try to help the parties solve their disagreements, a ministry spokeswoman said in an email. Parents are also in contact with MPPs and the Provincial Child Advocate’s Office.

The association, board of directors and agency administration met Monday to discuss the rates and other service changes.

Morrow, Asselstine and fellow foster parents presented a plan they have devised to compensate parents for their experience, especially with regards to high-needs children.

Morrow said afterwards that there was some progress, but that there was much more work to do before parents will want to take on new placements.

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Families just outside Ottawa say they've lost trust in the local group

Foster parents in communities just outside of Ottawa warn they may no longer take children into their homes, saying they have lost trust in their local Children's Aid Society.

The foster parents said their relationship with Family and Children's Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville has changed significantly under a new administrator.

"The supports just aren't there," said Tricia Booker, a sentiment echoed by many people at a gathering of foster parents Monday night in Smiths Falls.

In February, Family and Children's Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville presented foster families with a plan to change the designations it assigns to children based on their medical needs, behavioural problems and required supervision.

Traditionally, Children's Aid Societies in Ontario have used three categories for children in foster care: regular, specialized and treatment.

Each category comes with a daily rate to compensate foster parents for the costs and skills needed to look after children under the agency's protection.

The proposed change that most concerned the foster parents was a plan to end the "treatment" designation for the most troubled children.

They said they’re concerned this means the children could stop getting the psychological or school support that comes with that designation.

Demands mean some can't work full time

Foster parents were also told they would receive a lower "regular" rate of $30 a day, which is half of what they now receive.

"It's not sustainable," said Booker, who started fostering teenagers with high needs because she was inspired by a friend who had gone through foster care as a child.

Tricia Booker says foster parents can't keep jobs when caring for children who need constant supervision.

Booker said foster parents can't hold down jobs when they're looking after children who need constant supervision.

"Many of these children just can't be at home by themselves. It would just be a nightmare," adds Doug Martin, who’s been fostering children for 37 years.

"There are kids who set fires or kids who are incredibly sexually damaged. There are all kinds of things going on there and it just wouldn't be right to have them unsupervised."

Many foster parents say they don't foster kids for the money. Martin said he began because he felt it was his way, as a trained social worker, to give back to society.

"I think historically societies often are gauged by how they deal with their disenfranchised and impoverished and in this particular case, what better than the children?" he said.

And yet they say they still need to receive a certain amount from Children's Aid to be able to raise children in their care.

"I mean, we're not here to subsidize the province and yet we do. Many of us do," said Martin.

"Many of us take our kids on trips and do lots of things for which we don't get any remuneration."

Aimed to de-stigmatize

The idea to no longer use the "treatment" designation was rooted in an attempt not to stigmatize children, said Allan Hogan, executive director of Family and Children's Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville.

"What the agency wants to do, and what other Children's Aid societies in the province have done already, is move away from the labelling of children," said Hogan, adding that rather than assessing a child's behaviour to determine compensation, the agency could look instead at the foster parent's skill or experience.

Hogan adds that the 2011 merger of two smaller children's aid societies based in Brockville and Perth presented an opportunity to change the approach.

And while Ontario's child welfare system is dealing with tighter budgets, Hogan said his agency isn't looking for savings in foster care.

"We are not decreasing any of the overall funding that goes into the foster care system," said Hogan. "We recognize that that needs to be there and we need to invest in that."

Many foster parents say recent changes at the amalgamated agency have been eroding their trust in the leadership to help them when they run into challenges with the children in their care.

Doug Martin said he's a foster parent to give back to society, not for the money.

“These kids - because of their damagedness - will often strike out at you if you don't give them a raise in their allowance, or something like that. They'll make an allegation, and it's very difficult to have to deal with," said Doug Martin.

CUPE says it too has trust issues

Foster parents aren’t the only ones who have struggled with the administration of the new Family and Children's Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville.

"We have had issues with trust, we still do," said Mike Burt, president of CUPE Local 2577, which represents 135 of the employees at Family and Children's Services of Lanark, Leeds and Grenville.

Burt said after the merger, the administration tried to start negotiations from scratch, rather than honouring the agreements made in the past, and nearly led employees to strike.

As far as the foster parents are concerned, the Children's Aid society said it needs to rebuild their trust.

"We take responsibility for how the initial process unfolded and we recognize that it has caused a great deal of emotion, uncertainty, lack of trust, " said Hogan.

He says the new daily rates for foster parents are not yet settled, and says managers and foster parents are now holding productive meetings on the issue.

While Martin agrees headway is now being made, he and other foster parents are still wary that the outcome will match the talk.

"I think it comes down to having the trust in our leadership and knowing that they really are on board for us," said Martin.